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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Thinking about the oral sex/intercourse tradeoff 


Glenn Reynolds, who probably drives more traffic with links that hint at sex than by any other means, put up a must-click post this afternoon:

"CATHY YOUNG isn't scared of fellatio."

Or, more accurately, she isn't afraid that there are lots of teenagers getting and giving fellatio. It is not entirely clear from her essay whether her calm derives from her belief that rumors of a teen oral sex craze1 are unsubstantiated by fact, that the pleasuring isn't as asymmetrical as claimed, or that if there is such a craze it isn't all that harmful, but calm she seems to be.

If you are a parent of children betwen 10 and 25 years old, you have heard all sorts of stories about oral sex among teenagers, often in groups in public places. My wife has passed along several such stories that have circulated among Princeton area parents in the last few years, and there are probably others I haven't heard because I failed to keep a sufficiently straight face when I heard the first ones. It is probably gender treason for me to observe that many, if not most, fathers have a hard time not chortling about this particular suburban legend.

Young does not, however, tackle the really interesting questions: If there is more oral sex among teenagers, is it substituting for intercourse? If it is, how should we feel about that?

If we stipulate that there really has been an increase in oral sex among American teenagers in the past fifteen years (the claim that Young pokes holes in), what have been the consequences? We don't know, but we do know that rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion, and childbirth have declined dramatically during essentially the same period of the alleged head epidemic. We also know that a significant portion of this decline is attributable to a somewhat smaller proportion of teenagers who have had intercourse at all, and to a lower frequency of intercourse among teenagers who are sexually experienced. The balance of the decline is attributable to more frequent use of contraceptives.

What if oral sex is substituting for intercourse, and thereby reducing the rate of teen pregnancy, abortion and childbirth? The idea isn't farfetched -- perhaps giving and receiving oral sex makes it is easier for teenagers to manage both their own impulses and the pressure from the boyfriend or girlfriend that they imagine they love. There are even data from the United Kingdom that suggest that oral sex does in fact substitute for intercourse.

Now, if teenagers are engaging in oral sex instead of going all the way, wouldn't that be a good thing? I find that if I ask that question at cocktail parties (and that is the sort of thing I would do) I am met with crashing silence, but before you leap to the comments link in outrage be prepared to answer this question: If by divine intervention we could replace every act of sexual intercourse among teenagers -- and the consequences thereof -- with an act of oral sex and the consequences thereof, would you score that as an improvement? If so, then what is wrong with partial substitution? If not, then aren't you saying that you prefer teen pregnancy, abortion and childbirth to oral gratification? That seems like a difficult position to defend.

Now leap to the comments link.
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1. If I've ever seen Google-bait, that's it, right there.

28 Comments:

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Tue May 23, 09:49:00 PM:

The alternative to bad is not automatically good. I suspect this is something of a false dichotomy.

However, even granting the point arguendo, acknowledging that something has fewer negative consequences does not make it good. If it is the only alternative to teen pregnancy and abortion, then that may be the lesser of two evils. That hardly seems exciting.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Tue May 23, 10:00:00 PM:

I suppose, AVI, that it depends on your general outlook. Can we be perfected, or should we simply struggle for lots of small improvements? I fall in the "small victories" camp. If you think we can do better with some other approach, I'm all for it, but pending that breakthrough I'll take reductions in teenage intercourse even if the price is more oral sex.  

By Blogger Technogypsy, at Tue May 23, 10:25:00 PM:

Pregnancy and that may go down. But STDs may rise or stay the same. At one time, the residents at Parkland in Dallas saw a similar trade-off with anal sex among certain ethic groups. I hearing that from a resident working there but wasn't interested enough to chase it down. I know the clinic my wife works at is seeing a lot more oral STDs...

I agree with AVI thro. Not bad is not necessarily good. It may be better than what was, but still be bad. Things can be sorted on a analog rather than digital scale. For example I think a life in pain is better than death but neither are good.  

By Blogger Shawn L., at Tue May 23, 11:47:00 PM:

Side issue: What if there is no increase in oral sex, and its just a bunch of rumors and bragging going on amongst teens.

There's nothing new in teens bragging about things they actually haven't done, or spreading lies about fellow students promiscuity.

What would be new is the news media taking this gossip and slandering the youth of America with it.

Please note that this is "sweeps month" on TV. Titillating and provocative stories are par for the course in this month.

Never mind the fear and hysteria that parents are made to suffer due to this alarmism... Oprah's gotta make the Neilson needle move.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue May 23, 11:50:00 PM:

"alleged head epidemic" -- and, lo, you have named my new band.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed May 24, 12:13:00 AM:

Did you actually say "going all the way"?

You Boomers amuse me all day long.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed May 24, 12:26:00 AM:

First, I see when you have two alternatives, picking the less bad one is something of your obligation. Ergo, oral sex replacing intercourse surely seems to be something with an improvement. The increase in oral STDs is something of a downside, but certainly the less or two not really so evils.

And this massive increase has A. not affected me as a teen, but this might be due to other factors. B. Is based on teens self reporting this data. And that the hysteria based around rainbow parties and the like(which exclusively exist in the imaginations of every teenage boy and hysterical adults who just need something to whine about) is based on things "coming up through the social grapevine to adults". Hmm, things i've heard through that very grapevine, a girl was raped and then stabbed the man 40 times in the back with a knife killing him, and this is just an example of the BS teens tend to tell eachother, not to mention errant tales of oral sex that occupy a good part of my passing periods.

It all comes down to one point, the only oral sex crisis among teens is me not getting any.  

By Blogger Zoe Brain, at Wed May 24, 03:35:00 AM:

As we say in Australia, we'll have to suck it and see.**

** - # Suck it and see = Give it a try, it might lead to trouble, it might not, take a chance  

By Blogger John B. Chilton, at Wed May 24, 06:33:00 AM:

Assume away pregnancy. Protected intercourse seems preferred to unprotected oral sex. Is there such a thing as protected oral sex?

Speaking of which, does the incidence of oral STDs allow us to infer anything about how widespread oral sex is among teens, and whether it is gender balanced?

I'm old fashioned, but my concern about uncommitted physical intimacy is that it is dehumanizing to those who practice it. That leaves me in a quandry b/c otherwise I'd be advocating policy that makes it more likely that unprotected sex (oral or intercourse) go down even if protected intercourse went up.  

By Blogger Peg C., at Wed May 24, 06:58:00 AM:

For me, the issue would not be what type of sex the kids are having but the promiscuousness of the behavior. Oral sex between 2 teens "going steady" (there's a boomerism if there ever was one) is one thing; teen orgies (oral sex parties without intercourse is every bit as much an orgy as the traditional kind), promiscuity by definition, is another. Call me an old morality nut but promiscuity is ALWAYS bad, as well as dangerous. That's the issue here; plus the implication in many stories and rumors that it's mainly girls servicing guys. Believe me, no guy is servicing a girl on a bus.

It's the implied inequality of the equation coupled (bad word) with yet another type of female subjugation to male sex drives that is making adults crazy. Speaking of which, it's only parents of daughters having a conniption, I suspect. As well they should. If cervical cancer is a very common result of promiscuous intercourse, can't oral cancer become a common result of promiscuous oral sex?

Also, realistic or not, the whole notion of oral sex parties is way too close to the concept of bordellos and prostitution for some of us. Call us old-fashioned, but I'm far from alone in this.

Back to the original question, if the kids are in a relationship, anything is preferable to pregnancy. Otherwise, practice self-control. We're not cats or dolphins, for cripes' sake.  

By Blogger Peg C., at Wed May 24, 07:00:00 AM:

Wow, John said it better and with a lot more brevity than I did. He nailed it.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed May 24, 08:05:00 AM:

If cervical cancer is a very common result of promiscuous intercourse, can't oral cancer become a common result of promiscuous oral sex?

Interesting question, but I doubt it. Cervical cancer almost always appears in the presence of one of several types of human papillomavirus, which is transmitted by sex, among other means. That is why nuns don't get cervical cancer. Thing is, the vast majority of HPV infections don't result in cervical cancer -- it is a tiny fraction of 1%, in all likelihood. Moreover, other tissues are exposed to HPV, and do not seem to develop cancer. I have not heard the vaginal cancer, which is rare to begin with, has ever been caused by HPV.

Point is, the environment has a lot to do with it, and the mouth is a different place than the cervix. There are risks with oral STD transmission, but I'm guessing that oral cancer is not on the list, or if it is the risks are miniscule.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed May 24, 09:35:00 AM:

The male *can* wear a condom - many prostitutes insist on them - but show me a teen who will.

Oral cancer may not be a risk, but herpes is real high on the list of STDs that are transmissible via oral sex. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving!  

By Anonymous Tolston's ghost, at Wed May 24, 10:28:00 AM:

God bless today's teens. If only they had "rainbow parties" when I was kid.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Wed May 24, 10:34:00 AM:

Practice makes perfect. Maybe a generation of perfect blow-jobers will have fewer divorces.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed May 24, 07:36:00 PM:

I'm always amused by the elder generation and their musings on the sexual practices of the younger ones, like it's something new and wicked. Not only has "it all been done before," but it's always exaggerated or simply false. People have been harping about "teenage oral sex parties" (which, sadly, I never saw, attended, or even heard of, excepting isolated incidents of one particular girl, bless her heart) and such since I was about 15 and I remember thinking then that that was a stupid generalization and media sensationalism. I remember some radio pundits blaming it on the Lewenski scandal, when that happened. (like kids had to learn how to give head from the President... please, do you elders really believe such garbage?)

I blame the fall in teen pregnancies on things like, oh, condoms, birth control pills, shots, (I forget the acronym) and early term abortions. You know, the stuff that we used used when I was in High School.

I think part of the fascination with this topic is just a cheap thrill. Let it die.  

By Anonymous Duskfire69, at Wed May 24, 07:59:00 PM:

Cheap thrills? Bring it on! Actually, as someone with a baby face who is constantly being approached by teenage girls 15 years younger than myself, I do worry about anything that might make young teens more aggressive or confident in their seduction skills. That twenty years in the slam doesn't sound like much fun.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Wed May 24, 10:29:00 PM:

Tigerhawk, I don't fully disagree but divide the issue differently. I think there are different moral obligations that adults have whether they are responding to individuals or large faceless groups.

If you are an authority charged with reducing teenage pregnancy, abortion, or some other result of sexual behavior, I think your obligation is to do whatever brings the numbers down, unless that is immoral in itself. If technique A results in 100 kids moving to riskier behavior but 200 kids moving to less risky behavior, then thechnique A is a success. (Condoms, oral sex, or values-neutral sex education might all plausibly fit into this category. I don't have data and merely suggest.) Teenagers have an unfortunate tendency to think of themselves as bulletproof.

But the equation changes when the kids are individuals - your own children, say. You may be pretty sure that your child is one of the 100 who would move from a high degree of sexual safety to a moderate degree of safety if technique A were stressed. It would then be irresponsible for you to advocate technique A.

Schools have conflict because they are in a neither fish-nor-fowl category in this. They have neither the individual interest in a child that a parent has, nor the complete dispassion that a state agency or advocacy group has. They have the child as both an individual and a statistic.

It is possible to teach chastity on an individual basis, even in a sex-saturated society. I have four sons, 18-26. The oldest is now married, but was a virgin at his wedding, despite a 7-year courtship. (I expressed my admiration, being doubtful I could have done the same). The other three remain virgins as well. (Note: given that I would not give 100% certainty for my own name, I will say that my certainty on all three is over 90%. The future remains unknown.)

I don't pretend to any knowledge of what's best for groups. I thin  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu May 25, 12:02:00 AM:

Didn't President Clinton establish the legal precedent that BJs don't count (long accepted south of the Mason-Dixon line)?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu May 25, 12:11:00 AM:

What happened to the handjob and a bit of fumbling?

You can't tell me that these aren't still the preferred items for most in the early to middle stages of a physical romance among the middle classes.

JC  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu May 25, 08:21:00 PM:

I think if you wore a condom, the "rainbow" effect would be lost (or perhaps it would make a good Monica-esque blue dress souvenir?). And let's not forget the highly arousing "dental dam" that was always packed into those college safe-sex kits.

I still think that if you read the "source" story, the most annoying part is that the girls don't seem interested in getting their own (which is the whole point of oral sex, isn't it?).

Frankly, I am totally skeptical of the self-reporting bias that this entire discussion is predicated upon.

Didn't Mikey die from eating Pop Rocks? or was it spider eggs in Bubble Yum?

Has anyone consulted Snopes to see what they say about this whole thing? I smell snakes in the ball pit . . . .

And, TH, I'm still disappointed by what you term the "really interesting questions." Of course some oral sex substitutes for intercourse in some cases (and hats off to the Brits who acknowledge that this is an alternative form of intimacy -- not a placebo for "going all the way" with someone you "imagine" you love [weren't you young once? wasn't it "real" to you?]). In some cases that's good (possibly -- for the reasons you mention) and in other cases, it's neither here nor there.

Generally speaking, adolescents engaging in adult activities with potentially life (and health) altering consequences is probably not good -- especially given the age at which most Americans acquire the skills, means and maturity to provide for themselves and make responsible decisions. Biologically, of course, Americans reach sexual maturity at earlier ages than in the past (there are several theories for why this occurs -- possibly because we are so well nourished), so there is a mismatch.

But let's not conflate Rainbow Parties with normal first romances (and the possible ways of expressing desire and love within that context). This is not intimacy. This is hazing.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Thu May 25, 09:01:00 PM:

Duskfire: Love your name. Sincerest form of flattery, and all...

"Rainbow Parties"

Oh god, this phenomenon has a label now?

Hazing: tr.v. hazed, haz·ing, haz·es

1. To persecute or harass with meaningless, difficult, or humiliating tasks.
2. To initiate, as into a college fraternity, by exacting humiliating performances from or playing rough practical jokes upon.

No, no it isn't. Or wouldn't be, if such an epidemic existed.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri May 26, 02:22:00 PM:

DF82 -- If I were encouraged/expected "Heathers"-style to add a ring to some guy's "rainbow," I would certainly consider myself harassed with a meaningless and humiliating task. If he was wearing a condom, you could add "difficult." Just sayin.  

By Blogger John B. Chilton, at Sat May 27, 07:14:00 AM:

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050530/pollitt

Imagine a vaccine that would protect women from a serious gynecological cancer. Wouldn't that be great? Well, both Merck and GlaxoSmithKline recently announced that they have conducted successful trials of vaccines that protect against the human papilloma virus. HPV is not only an incredibly widespread sexually transmitted infection but is responsible for at least 70 percent of cases of cervical cancer, which is diagnosed in 10,000 American women a year and kills 4,000. Wonderful, you are probably thinking, all we need to do is vaccinate girls (and boys too for good measure) before they become sexually active, around puberty, and HPV--and, in thirty or forty years, seven in ten cases of cervical cancer--goes poof. ... The Christian right doesn't like the sound of this vaccine at all. "Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful," Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council told the British magazine New Scientist, "because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex." ...

I remember when people rolled their eyeballs if you suggested that opposition to abortion was less about "life" than about sex, especially sex for women.


The Christian right is wrong on this one. As with so many other things.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Sat May 27, 09:17:00 PM:

Yes, the Christian Right's position can always be discovered by reading only one source, eh?

Mr. Chilton, you just gave evidence that there is no point in discussing anything with you. You might be worth listening to - many people incapable of reasoned argument have worthwhile things to say - but not worth arguing with.  

By Blogger John B. Chilton, at Sun May 28, 06:16:00 AM:

AVI,

Can I be your assistant? I still think I'm worth arguing with. You've not given me anything to argue about.

On the subject of unprotected sex, fark.com brings us this story:
http://www.local6.com/news/9283707/detail.html?1=1

Doctors said sexually transmitted diseases among senior citizens are running rampant at a popular Central Florida retirement community, according to a Local 6 News report.

No evidence that the Christian Right was involved. Whoever they are.  

By Blogger averagedrinker, at Thu Jul 13, 07:30:00 AM:

as parents, i think you should be really be alarmed by the percentage of teenagers who engage in oral sex, and teen pregnancy as well. but c'mon, you've gone through it too back in your younger years--and probably until now. it's just that you've got nothing to lose because you're parents already. but give them the chance.educate them. look for a simple way to get the information to them. i chat on webdate so i'm pretty mucy aware of how many younger people do it. i swear i'll not be selfish to my future kids.  

By Blogger LoVeS_LiFe, at Sun Jul 01, 03:46:00 PM:

Ok, well my opinion is that Oral sex and sexual intercourse both have its risks. If you go all the way, you can have a chance of getting not only pregnant, but you never know what your partner has if they are not tested. You are putting yourself at risk of getting any kind of disease and bad news is some have no cures. So if you have oral sex, don't think its better cause if a girl was to give a guy "head" then his semen can go in her mouth and if the girl has a cut, thats all it takes, even if a guy did the same to a girl. yor putting yourself at a risk. I am 16 years old and i am telling you all this. It won't kill you to stay innocent. Thats why we have something called abstinence. If you ever do decide to do anything though, you and your partner both need to get tested. You never know what you could pass on to each other.  

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