hard to swallow: overblown fears of teen oral sex

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there was a piece in the Atlantic Monthly a few months back that was a thoughtful but ultimately disappointing musing on the alleged oral sex craze among teenagers today (Are You There God? It's Me, Monica).

Caitlin Flanagan (about whom I have many reservations, thanks to reading Salon's Broadsheet too frequently) succeeds in resisting the tempting moral outrage over the news that young people are having oral sex, in particular, girls casually performing fellatio on their male acquaintances. but despite Flanagan's willingness to probe the topic of youthful hummers with some measure of sensitivity and introspection (including some meandering through Judy Blume and other young adult novels), she contributes to the distorted media contention that teens today are having disproportionate amounts of oral sex, in which young women have renegged on their own sexual desire in favor of performing a media-inspired, pornified sexuality for their peers.

in particular, Flanagan doesn't appear to have looked closely at the very study which supposedly bolsters the controversy over teen oral sex, writing "[a] huge report was issued by the National Center for Health Statistics. It covered the topic of teenage oral sex more extensively than any previous study, and the news was devastating: A quarter of girls aged fifteen had engaged in it, and more than half aged seventeen." interestingly, what the study actually reports (the pdf from the CDC can be found here) is that a third of all boys 15-17 have had vaginal intercourse, while slightly less (28%) have given oral sex and slightly more (40%) have received it, and of young men 18-19, two-thirds had had vaginal sex, 52% had performed oral sex on a woman, and 66% had received oral sex -- that is, the same percentage of men 18-19 had engaged in vaginal sex as had received oral sex. among teenage girls and young women, over one-third of 15-17 year olds had had vaginal sex (39%), 30% had given oral sex, and 38% had received it -- again, fewer had actually performed oral sex on a male partner than had engaged in vaginal sex, and the same percentage had received oral sex as had had intercourse. for older girls, the study repeats the findings, that as girls get older, most of those who are having vaginal sex are also engaging in oral activities. the study further explains that in each age group, about 10-14% of young men and boys who had had oral sex had not had intercourse, and about 9-11% of young women aged 15-19 had engaged in oral sex only. as the percentage of young men 15-24 increases who have had intercourse, the percent who have only tried oral sex declines to 3%.

these data, shockingly, suggest that sexually active teens who are engaging in vaginal intercourse are also likely to experiment with oral sex (giving and receiving), and that only a small proportion have had oral sex but not intercourse. over time, the majority of sexually active young people will be having intercourse as well as oral sex. and while slightly more men report receiving oral sex than giving it, of the young women surveyed, more actually reported receiving it than giving it (how this adds up remains to be seen).

so what gives? why is the media continuing to promote the myth that girl-on-boy oral sex is rampant amongst youth (in place of good old-fashioned intercourse), when the data indicate that young people begin experimenting with oral sex, but ultimately resort to the heteronormative standby? this report seems consistent with my own recollection of sexual exploration among my peers at that age -- perhaps attitudes toward oral sex have changed in the past 30 years, so that it's now considered an intermediate step between heavy making out and intercourse, but that doesn't remotely support the premise that scads of young women are suddenly going down on their male peers without reservation.

unfortunately, not only does Flanagan accept the media reports in place of reading the statistics for herself, she ultimately reduces female sexuality to women's delicate, emotional nature: "I am old-fashioned enough to believe that men and boys are not as likely to be wounded, emotionally and spiritually, by early sexual experience, or by sexual experience entered into without romantic commitment, as are women and girls." boys, of course, have unlimited sexual appetites whose bases are unquestionably biological and unemotional, whereas women are fragile flowers who need to be loved and cared for to protect them from the dangers of sexual pleasure. not only is this line of thinking offensive and demeaning to women, but it perpetuates the equally damaging idea that men don't bring emotional needs to sexual relationships.

finally, she comes to the sparkling conclusion that "...the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy--which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence." yes, that's right, the systematic domination of women in Western society actually represents a safety net that protects the delicacy of youthful femininity from the ravages of early sexuality, and has nothing to do with controlling and exploiting female reproductive capacity. i think the prevalance of rape and domestic violence in Western societies offers an excellent testament to the protective role of the Patriarchy (TM). if anyone is going to challenge the media's portrayal of youthful sexual behavior, or investigate how sexual norms are changing and what implicatons that might entail, clearly it's not going to be Ms. Flanagan. parents, the media, and other public voices too often retain this prurient tone in which their fears over female sexual desire overshadow the ways in which teens are actually exploring and experimenting with their sexuality in a decade of abstinence-only education and abundant internet porn. perhaps instead of frothing over "rainbow parties" and other urban legends, we should be thinking through what kinds of positive messages about sexuality we actually want to be transmitting to young people.

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This page contains a single entry by jordan published on March 19, 2007 12:37 PM.

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