Last week, the CDC released a report on the oral sex rates among teenagers and young adults, and in its capacity as a public health organization, it focused strictly on the health dangers of performing oral in the way pretty much everyone does: without a latex barrier.
Research suggests that adolescents perceive fewer health-related risks for oral sex compared with vaginal intercourse. However, young people, particularly those who have oral sex before their first vaginal intercourse, may still be placing themselves at risk of STIs or HIV before they are ever at risk of pregnancy.
While technically accurate, this passage caused my eyebrows to lift, because the average reader is likely to walk away from this thinking that the health risks of oral sex are comparable to the health risks of vaginal intercourse, and that therefore teenagers are fooling themselves if they think oral is safer. But that's not at all the right conclusion to draw from this information. Oral sex is safer than vaginal intercourse. Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon digs into the issue and finds out that while STI transmission through oral sex is more common than people realize, the risks of transmission are lower than they are for intercourse. The easiest STIs to catch from oral sex are bacterial ones, such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, or syphilis. You can also transmit herpes simplex 1 through oral sex, but it's worth noting that herpes simplex 1 also transmits through kissing and sharing forks, which means that even the most sex-phobic hysteric should probably let that one go.
The practical issue at stake here is whether or not it's okay for teenagers to use oral sex as a low-risk way to experiment sexually. The CDC doesn't weigh in on that question, nor should it: Its job is simply to outline the risks and leave the decisions to individual judgment. Unfortunately, in a sex-negative culture, there's a tendency to believe that the only acceptable risk level for sex is "none." And so information like the new CDC report can be used to scare people, especially teenagers, away from any kind of sexual play. But by rolling all sexual activity into one big ball of Do Not, we could be leading teenagers who would have been happy to experiment with lower risk behaviors like oral to go straight to vaginal intercourse. After all, if it's all the same anyway, why not?
We should teach our teenagers that things like mutual masturbation and oral sex are options that, while risky, still present lower risks than vaginal intercourse. Being a teenager, after all, is largely about learning to balance risk and reward. Driving a car is a dangerous proposition for the average teenager, but that has to be balanced against their growing need for autonomy. We're not going to get rid of teenagers' interest in the rewards of sex (and I don't really see why we should want to), so instead we should be teaching them a variety of strategies, including oral sex, to get laid without taking on overly high levels of risk.