The "Epidemic" of Oral Sex
Usually, we reserve use of the word "epidemic" to refer to something both horrible and widespread. Like, you know, a disease. But the other way we use "epidemic", it seems, is to make something sound horrible and widespread. To arouse hysteria. To make people feel that it could be in the food they drink, the air they breathe, the water they drink. Beneath the beds of their children. Lurking in their own closets. Everywhere and anywhere. Watch out!
For example, the "obesity epidemic". Or, the example at hand: "the oral sex epidemic".
Tim Harford tells us about it in his recent piece, "A Cock and Bull Story":
"Parents, brace yourselves." With those words, Oprah Winfrey introduced news of a teenage oral-sex craze in the United States. In the Atlantic Monthly, Caitlin Flanagan wrote, "The moms in my set are convinced—they're certain; they know for a fact—that all over the city, in the very best schools, in the nicest families, in the leafiest neighborhoods, 12- and 13-year-old girls are performing oral sex on as many boys as they can."
Are they right? National statistics on teen fellatio have only recently been collected, but the trend seems to be real. Johns Hopkins University Professor Jonathan Zenilman, an expert in sexually transmitted infections (and father of former Slate intern Avi Zenilman), reports that both the adults and the teenagers who come to his clinic are engaging in much more oral sex than in 1990. For men and boys as recipients it's up from about half to 75 to 80 percent; for women and girls, it's risen from about 25 percent to 75 to 80 percent. ...
... even as the oral-sex epidemic rages, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the percentage of teenage virgins has risen by more than 15 percent since the beginning of the 1990s.
To my eye, there are a few things to be happy about:
1. Female equality. Girls are 3 times as likely to be recipients of oral sex as they were in 1990. Boys' chances have gone up too, but only to the point where both genders are getting head at a similar rate.
2. If Caitlin Flanagan is right (which would be a rarity, but let's give the benefit of the doubt), "putting out" is no longer the province of the poor, but a cross-class phenomenon.
3. Teens, because of their changing sexual behaviors, are less at risk for disease!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
4. Teens, because of their changing sexual behaviors, are less at risk for unwanted pregnancy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
5. Repeat 3 and 4 without end.
It seems to me that there's some serious prudery underlying the use of the word "epidemic". What else could explain the objection to increasing oral sex? I personally don't understand why a parent would be particularly disturbed by their children's being engaged in oral sex, unless it's a general concern with sex or a more specific concern about their child being engaged in a sex act that's still seen, especially by older folks, as "dirty". Yes, they could get emotionally involved and then hurt. They could be used. But, frankly, no one gets out of adolescence unscathed by either of the above. Maybe not sexually, but maybe socially, maybe academically.
Here are the circumstances wherein I object to oral sex:
1. Obviously any time it is not consensual.
2. Any time where one partner isn't getting it and wants it, but the other is.
3. If it hurts and those involve don't want it to hurt.
If your kid is smart enough to be avoiding unsafe sex in favor of oral sex, applaud her/him. Feel proud of your parenting skills. Pat yourself, and your kid, on the back. Thank his/her sex ed teacher. Thank MTV.
I mean, WHAT'S THE PROBLEM? Oprah, why is this so scary?
One more thing: our culture supports parental fear of sex for their children. It is considered normal and even positive to be a father who does his best to terrify anyone his daughter dates, to be a mother who cautions her daughter about the danger of expressing desire, the damage they could do to their reputation. It goes for boys too: boys who want to have sex with girls are told that they are not "respecting" them. Parents are expected to shame their children into avoiding sex. These actions are considered good parenting. Damn near everyone thinks that telling kids to WAIT WAIT WAIT is the best thing to do; some might say to mention condoms too, but very few will say, "Hey, if there's little to no risk, tell them to do what they want!" That won't be having sex for everyone because some will still want to wait and that's cool.
Kids: if you're out there and want sex, do it, just do it safely. Oral sex is definitely safer for everyone, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. If oral and manual aren't for you, try a condom for vaginal or anal sex. And advocate for your school to offer comprehensive sex ed, starting young.
Parents: kill the shame. Your kids will only try harder to hide it from you; they won't stay celibate forever just to get your pat on the back. Be honest about the dangers of oral sex versus vaginal or anal sex. Be honest about the options for protection from STDs and unwanted pregnancy. And advocate for your children's schools to offer comprehensive sex ed, starting young.
Media: start covering this rise in oral sex as a success story. STOP CALLING IT AN EPIDEMIC!