Tracking Young People’s Perceptions of Oral Sex

Much to their parents’ consternation, adolescents engage in a range of behaviors that may be considered sex, including oral-genital contact. But do adolescents consider such contact to be sex? The issue has been explored in Perspectives—a special report published in 2000 and an original research study from 2010 show how discussions on this topic, by researchers and adolescents, have evolved over time.

In the earlier piece, Lisa Remez explores the question of whether adolescents consider oral sex sexual activity or abstinence. The biggest difficulty in doing so? The lack of credible data. Remez cites the conservative climate of the late 1990s (and the concurrent nationwide push for abstinence-only education) as an example of ideology’s “dictating science.” As a result, there was a near-exclusive focus on penile-vaginal intercourse in research; other sexual behaviors were considered too inflammatory to be studied. Information on adolescents’ engaging in oral sex was largely anecdotal, and the extant research was conducted by magazines for teenagers or used samples that were not nationally representative. Remez makes the point that when President Clinton declared in 1998 that he had not had sex with Monica Lewinsky (although the two had had oral sex), 20% of American adults did not consider oral sex to be sex; it is perhaps unsurprising that substantial proportions of adolescents and young adults held similar views. The piece concludes with the suggestion that a wider range of sexual behaviors among adolescents be examined because these behaviors have to be accurately identified before they can be addressed.

In the 2010 study, Jason D. Hans and colleagues continued to struggle with the issues outlined by Remez. Their aim was to see if the classification of oral sex had changed over time, by comparing current data on what constitutes sex with data from earlier studies. They found that about 20% of the college students surveyed considered oral sex to be sex, compared with 40% in 1991 and 1999–2001. Hans and colleagues state “that a shift has occurred in sociocultural conceptualizations of this behavior” and term the phenomenon “the Clinton-Lewinsky effect.” Furthermore, citing earlier work that found that adolescents view oral sex as more acceptable than penile-vaginal sex, they suggest that this view may be the result of abstinence-only sex education’s continued focus on penile-vaginal intercourse.

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine