The normalization of oral sex.

Science, technology, and life.
May 28 2008 7:45 AM

Oral Is Normal

The normalization of oral sex.

Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

Every day, thousands of parents sit down with their children to talk about the facts of life. They want their kids to know how babies are made, how serious sex is, and how they can protect themselves. For most of us, the topic is awkward enough without getting into advanced stuff. That's why the coverage of President Clinton's blow jobs felt like such a cultural assault. We just want to stick to the basics.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Well, you can kiss that era of innocence goodbye. I'm not talking about your kids' innocence. I'm talking about yours. For your information, Mom and Dad, oral sex is now more basic than vaginal sex. That may not be part of God's or nature's plan. But according to survey data, it's a fact of life.

The latest evidence comes from "Noncoital Sexual Activities Among Adolescents," a study published in the July issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. The study analyzed the U.S. government's first survey of such practices, conducted in 2002 and released three years later. When the data first came out, I chided the media for ignoring the findings of widespread anal sex. Don't worry: I'll spare you that topic today. What's interesting in the new analysis is the correlation between oral and vaginal sex. If your kid is doing one, he or she is almost certainly doing the other.

The raw numbers indicate that 50 percent of teenagers aged 15 to 19 have had vaginal sex. Fifty-five percent have had heterosexual oral sex. Are kids substituting oral for vaginal? Nope. Among technical virgins—teens who have never had vaginal sex—23 percent have had oral sex. That number sounds high until you notice that among nonvirgins, the oral-sex figure is 87 percent. If your teenager has had "basic" sex without somebody's mouth being involved, congratulations. You're probably the only such household on your block.

The data on timing underscore this connection. Among teens whose first vaginal sex happened less than six months before the survey, 82 percent admit to oral sex. That figure barely increases for teens who began vaginal sex three years before the survey. In other words, teens lost their oral virginity at around the same time they lost their vaginal virginity. If you think your daughter is going to learn the basics now and the advanced stuff later, you've got another thing coming.

Look at the data for older adults, and you'll see similar patterns. At ages 20 to 24, the percentage who admit to oral sex trails the percentage who admit to vaginal sex by around five points. (A study of Georgia college students, published last year, produced similar numbers: 96 percent of those who had lost their vaginal virginity had also lost their oral virginity.) At ages 25 to 44, the gap is around eight points. If anything, these numbers understate the prevalence of oral sex, since they're based on self-reporting. The discomfort most of us feel around this topic surely affects some survey responses, even with guaranteed anonymity.

The near-disappearance of lifetime oral virginity makes sodomy laws fairly ridiculous. The percentage of Americans aged 25 to 44 who deny ever having had oral sex now barely exceeds the percentage who admit to same-sex activity. By empirical standards, if gay sex is deviant, so is chastity of the mouth. Indeed, there's some evidence that what's vanishing isn't oral abstinence—which perhaps never really existed—but stigma. That's the implication of a decadelong Australian college study, published three years ago, which showed a significant increase in female, but not male, admission of oral activity.

So cheer up, Mom and Dad. You don't have to be embarrassed any more about discussing the facts of life with your child. She'll be happy to explain them to you.