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Cory Silverberg

The Need to Always Make More of Oral Sex

By August 17, 2012

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There was something odd about the headline of an article (which was otherwise remarkably not sensationalistic) in USA Today about teens and oral sex. The headline reads:

More teens have oral sex earlier than vaginal intercourse
What does it mean? Are more teens having oral sex BEFORE they have vaginal intercourse? Or are more teens having oral sex earlier compared to teens of yesteryear? But when was that? It's possible that it is just a poorly written headline, but I suspect instead that it reflects a need to justify writing about something like teens and oral sex by making sure people know that there is news here.

And there is news here. Only it doesn't have anything to do with the new statistics.

The article is about a report released today by the CDC based on data from the National Survey of Family Growth, which included questions for 15-24 year-olds about their first experience of oral sex, vaginal intercourse, and the timing of the two. Ridiculously, shamefully really, they continue to only ask teens about "opposite-sex" sexual behavior. Here's some of what they found:

  • 66% of females had engaged in oral sex (60% gave and 62% received)
  • 65% of males had engaged in oral sex (54% gave and 63% received)
  • Among women 26% had oral sex first, 27% had vaginal intercourse first, and 7% had them first during the same sexual interaction
  • Among men 24% had oral sex first, 24% had vaginal intercourse first, and 12% had them first during the same sexual interaction

The researchers give lots of good reasons for wanting to understand the order of initiation into certain sexual activities. And they point out that even though they've been asking questions about whether or not people have had oral sex since 2002, they weren't asking people when they first had it, and how that timing relates to other sexual activities.

In other words we don't know if more teens are having oral sex before intercourse now compared to before, since we haven't asked. And we do know that, according to these numbers at least, people aren't overwhelmingly having oral sex first.

It's hard to understand how the data point to, as one evolutionary biologist quoted in the USA Today piece suggests, a "hierarchical reordering of oral sex in American culture". Actually, it's hard to know what that even means. Is there a mappable ordering of oral sex in American culture? And who is doing that cartography?

This is what I mean about the need to make more out of oral sex. It's frustrating, particularly because there is actually something more to be said here. And after doing the necessary supplication, the article gets to it, explaining why this does matter, and why it should be news.

Even though teens have been waiting longer to engage in all kinds of sexual activity than they used to, and teens are using condoms more than they used to, sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates are not decreasing. As the authors point out, in 2010 almost half of all new reported cases of STIs were among 15-24 year-olds.

So some change has taken place, but not to the desired effect (that is, lowered STIs rates and significantly lower rates of unintended pregnancies).

This is the more we should be talking about when we talk about oral sex. And even though I'm sure it won't come up in election debates, I'm glad at least the CDC is trying to engage these issues and hope that eventually policy makers will follow suit.

Read More: USA Today: More teens have oral sex earlier than vaginal intercourse.

Related: Teen Sex Statistics

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