|Teen Sex Obsession
The Sex eZine - Sex Education
Who really is obsessed with sex:
Parents have Generation Shock when it comes to Teen Sex
"It doesn't cross your mind because it's not something you have done," Fuller says. "Most parents weren't doing this (as teenagers) in the way these kids are."
But if parents are looking for reasons to freak out, the health risk of oral sex apparently isn't one of them. Teenagers and experts agree that oral sex is less risky than intercourse because there's no threat of pregnancy and less chance of contracting a sexually transmitted disease or HIV.
"The fact that teenagers have oral sex doesn't upset me much from a public health perspective," says J. Dennis Fortenberry, a physician who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
"From my perspective, relatively few teenagers only have oral sex. And so for the most part, oral sex, as for adults, is typically incorporated into a pattern of sexual behaviors that may vary depending upon the type of relationship and the timing of a relationship."
Data doesn't tell whole story
A study published in the journal Pediatrics in April supports the view that adolescents believe oral sex is safer than intercourse, with less risk to their physical and emotional health.
The study of ethnically diverse high school freshmen from California found that almost 20% had tried oral sex, compared with 13.5% who said they had intercourse.
More of these teens believed oral sex was more acceptable for their age group than intercourse, even if the partners are not dating.
"The problem with surveys is they don't tell you the intimacy sequence," Brown says. "The vast majority who had intercourse also had oral sex. We don't know which came first."
The federal study, based on data collected in 2002 and released last month, found that 55% of 15- to 19-year-old boys and 54% of girls reported getting or giving oral sex, compared with 49% of boys and 53% of girls the same ages who reported having had intercourse.
Though the study provides data, researchers say, it doesn't help them understand the role oral sex plays in the overall relationship; nor does it explain the fact that today's teens are changing the sequence of sexual behaviors so that oral sex has skipped ahead of intercourse.
"All of us in the field are still trying to get a handle on how much of this is going on and trying to understand it from a young person's point of view," says Stephanie Sanders, associate director of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University, which investigates sexual behavior and sexual health.
"Clearly, we need more information about what young people think is appropriate behavior, under what circumstances and with whom," Sanders says. "Now we know a little more about what they're doing but not what they're thinking."
The $16 million study, which took six years to develop, complete and analyze, surveyed almost 13,000 teens, men and women ages 15-44 on a variety of sexual behaviors.
Researchers say that the large sample size, an increased societal openness about sexual issues and the fact that the survey was administered via headphones and computer instead of face to face all give them confidence that, for the first time, they have truthful data on these very personal behaviors.
"There is strong evidence that people are more willing to tell computers things, such as divulge taboo behaviors, than (they are to tell) a person," Sanders says.
More analysis needed
Researchers cannot conclude that the percentage of teens having oral sex is greater than in the past. There is no comparison data for girls, and numbers for boys are about the same as they were a decade ago in the National Survey of Adolescent Males: Currently, 38.8% have given oral sex vs. 38.6% in 1995; 51.5% have received it vs. 49.4% in 1995.
Further analyses of the federal data by the private, non-profit National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the non-partisan research group Child Trends find almost 25% of teens who say they are virgins have had oral sex. Child Trends also reviewed socioeconomic and other data and found that those who are white and from middle- and upper-income families with higher levels of education are more likely to have oral sex.
Historically, oral sex has been more common among the more highly educated, Sanders says.
Teens and oral sex
Heterosexual oral sex among teenagers ages 15 to 19 varies by age and gender, with older teens more likely to engage in intercourse.
Percentage of teens who have had intercourse and their ages:
Boys 15 — 25.1% 16 — 37.5% 17 — 46.9% 18 — 62.4% 19 — 68.9%
Girls 15 — 26.0% 16 — 39.6% 17 — 49.0% 18 — 70.3% 19 — 77.4%
Percentage of teens who have had oral sex and their ages:
Boys 15 — 35.1% 16 — 42.0% 17 — 55.7% 18 — 65.4% 19 — 74.2%
Girls 15 — 26.0% 16 — 42.4% 17 — 55.5% 18 — 70.2% 19 — 74.4%
Source: 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, Centers for Disease Control of Prevention
The survey also found that almost 90% of teens who have had sexual intercourse also had oral sex. Among adults 25-44, 90% of men and 88% of women have had heterosexual oral sex.
"If we are indeed headed as a culture to have a total disconnect between intimate sexual behavior and emotional connection, we're not forming the basis for healthy adult relationships," says James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a reproductive-health organization in Washington.
Oral sex might affect teenagers' self-esteem most of all, says Paul Coleman, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., psychologist and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Intimacy.
"Somebody is going to feel hurt or abused or manipulated," he says. "Not all encounters will turn out favorably. ... Teenagers are not mature enough to know all the ramifications of what they're doing.
"It's pretending to say it's just sexual and nothing else. That's an arbitrary slicing up of the intimacy pie. It's not healthy."
A survey of more than 1,000 teens conducted with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy resulted in The Real Truth About Teens & Sex, a book by Sabrina Weill, a former editor in chief at Seventeen magazine. She says casual teen attitudes toward sex — particularly oral sex — reflect their confusion about what is normal behavior. She believes teens are facing an intimacy crisis that could haunt them in future relationships.
"When teenagers fool around before they're ready or have a very casual attitude toward sex, they proceed toward adulthood with a lack of understanding about intimacy," Weill says. "What it means to be intimate is not clearly spelled out for young people by their parents and people they trust."
Although governmental and educational campaigns urge teens to delay sex, some suggest teens have replaced sexual intercourse with oral sex.
"If you say to teenagers 'no sex before marriage,' they may interpret that in a variety of ways," says Fisher.
Talking to teens is crucial
Experts say parents need to talk to their kids about sex sooner rather than later. Oral sex needs to be part of the discussion because these teens are growing up in a far more sexually open society.
Anecdotal reports for years have focused on teens "hooking up" casually. Depending on the group, teens say it can mean kissing, making out or having sex.
"Friends with benefits" is another way of referring to non-dating relationships, with a form of sex as a "benefit."
But not all teens treat sex so casually, say teens from suburban Baltimore who were interviewed by USA TODAY as part of an informal focus group.
Alex Trazkovich, 17, a high school senior from Reisterstown, Md., says parents don't hear enough about teen relationships where there is a lot of emotional involvement.
"They hear about teens going to the parties and having lots and lots of sex," he says. "It happens, but it's not something that happens all the time. It's more of an extreme behavior."
"Technically a Virgin"
Ten years after Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky's relationship made oral sex a mainstream topic, there's still plenty of debate over whether oral sex is really sex.
"There's not only confusion; there's fighting over it," says J. Dennis Fortenberry, a physician who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine. "People disagree fairly vehemently."
The latest fuss is spurred by new federal data that found that more than half of 15- to 19-year-olds have received or given oral sex. Although the study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not ask the particulars of these encounters, research conducted in pre-Clinton times, along with more recent studies, suggests that teens largely fall on the "it's not sex" side. (Related story: Teens define sex in new ways)
"Some adults say it is a form of sex, but kids don't really see it that way," says Natalie Fuller, 19, a sophomore at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif.
"For most teens, the only form of sex is penetration, and anything else doesn't count. You can have oral sex and be a virgin."
Fuller was 16 when she, her brother and her mother co-wrote the book Promise You Won't Freak Out, which includes discussion of teen oral sex.
The report released last month by the CDC shows that one-quarter of teens who have not had intercourse have had oral sex. The survey questions, administered via headphones and computer for maximum anonymity, clearly defined the actions to eliminate any ambiguity about the meaning of the term "oral sex."
"The implications are that teens who define themselves as abstinent may be engaging in oral sex," says Jennifer Manlove, a senior research associate with the non-profit group Child Trends, which analyzed the federal data.
Kyle Tarver, 17, a high school senior from Pikesville, Md., who was among an informal USA TODAY focus group of Maryland teenagers, says most teens who have had oral sex think of themselves as virgins.
"If you were to ask someone if they were a virgin, they wouldn't include that they had given or gotten oral sex," he says.
What students say sex means to them:
Opinions varied widely in a Kinsey Institute study of 599 college students from 29 states were asked: "Would you say you've had sex with someone if the first intimate behavior you engaged in was ..." Percentages who said yes for selected behaviors:
You touch person's genitals
Person touches your genitals
Oral contact with a person's genitals
Oral contact with your genitals
Source: Sanders, S.A. and Reinisch, J.M. (1999) "WOULD YOU SAY YOU HAD SEX IF?"; Journal of American Medical Association
A study published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Association examines the definition of sex based on a 1991 random sample of 599 college students from 29 states. Sixty percent said oral-genital contact did not constitute having sex. "That's the 'technical virginity' thing that's going on," says Stephanie Sanders, associate director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University and co-author of the study, which the researchers titled "Would You Say You 'Had Sex' If ...?"
"There is not nearly as much conversation between two people and as much thought put into engaging in oral sex. That, in my mind, makes it a lot different," says Michael Levy, 17, a senior from Owings Mills, Md.
What constitutes sex tends to be defined in a culture and varies with the times, Fortenberry says.
"In certain times in the history of the world, certain kinds of kissing would be considered sex," he says. "Not too many years ago, a woman would have been considered a 'loose woman' if she kissed a person before marriage."
But a new book from the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, an Austin-based non-profit that has worked for abstinence education with the Bush administration, doesn't waffle. In Questions Kids Ask About Sex, oral sex is clearly sex.
"Sex occurs when one person touches another person's genitals and causes that person to get sexually excited," the book states. "A girl or boy who's had oral sex doesn't feel or think like a virgin anymore, because he or she has had a form of sex."
Melissa Cox, who edited and contributed to the book, is a Denver-based medical writer who also edited a publication for Focus on the Family, an organization devoted to Christian family values.
She says a medical panel for the institute determined that oral sex is sex because it places young people at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and infections, puts them at risk for long-term emotional harm and opens the door for other sexual activity.
Not everyone agrees.
"If you look at the information that they have, you might find it difficult to cite a basis for that, other than someone's opinion," says adolescent-medicine specialist Fortenberry.
Teenagers say messages from the media make them feel that casual oral sex is normal and suggest that all teens are preoccupied with sex.
"I feel like I see more commercials about casual sex than I do about how important it is to have a family and how important it is to be in a marriage instead of having sex with people from a bar," says Shanae Sheppard, a 17-year-old senior from Owings Mills, Md.
Last week, the federal government announced $37 million in awards to 63 programs across the country aimed at encouraging young people to abstain from intercourse until marriage.
But abstinence-only education may inadvertently reinforce the belief that oral sex isn't real sex, says John DeLamater, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin and editor of the Journal of Sex Research, a scholarly journal published by the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.
"We should be sending a message that sexual activity is much broader," he says.
Because teens are focused on that narrow definition of sexual intercourse and the message is to postpone it until they are older, they tend to equate intercourse with adulthood, Tarver says.
"Oral sex is not on a pedestal the way that regular sexual intercourse is," he says.