A trend to treat oral sex like an hors d’oeuvre means teens are losing a sense of intimacy, writes Bettina Arndt.
This article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 2003.
Thirty years ago men dreamt of oral sex. Men would talk of this sexual activity as an almost unimaginable treat, high on the list of sexual desires they had little hope of ever fulfilling. Now it is commonplace, with more than 80 per cent of Australian men and women having had the experience, according to the latest sex survey Australian Study of Health and Relationships published in April by La Trobe University.
Today oral sex is on the menu, not as some exotic desert to be enjoyed long after the meat and potatoes but for a growing number of teenagers, a mere hors d’oeuvre.
The trend is clear, say sex survey researchers although the numbers are not yet clear. One study of Sydney university students by Macquarie University researcher Sue Kippax found 13 per cent who’d never had intercourse, had had oral sex.
In the US this issue has been receiving much media attention in articles reporting high oral sex activity, among teens, even among virgins. “It’s like a goodnight kiss to them,” commented a Manhattan psychologist. A recent discussion paper by the Alan Guttmacher Institute reported one study which found 24 per cent of virgins had had oral sex.
The paper suggests the consensus in America is the action is rarely reciprocal, with males far more likely to enjoy female favours than the other way around. The action often takes place at parties, in parks, or even on school grounds. Most adolescent specialists claim similar scenes are occurring in Australia.
Last year Neil Mitchell, the 3AW radio announcer, reported a scandal over girls offering sexual favours, including oral sex, during lunchtime at a Melbourne Catholic school.
More recently years 8 and 9 boys at a Sydney private school apparently hired a hotel room and invited girls over for a competition to see who could be serviced most quickly a competition which, as one specialist quipped, would be over fairly quickly with boys of that age.
In fact, this is far from a laughing matter. It doesn’t say much for the liberation of women, if early sexual experiences of young girls are dominated by activities designed only to keep the boys happy. Back in the 1950s the action in the back of the FJ Holden was all about boys trying to get into girls’ pants. A nice girl certainly wasn’t expected to reciprocate her job was merely to stop the male going “too far”. Despite the taboos constraining that generation, there was pleasure for women in those “heavy petting” sessions, far more fun than is likely from going down on boys at parties.
Oral sex is unlikely to ever be a two-way street for teenagers but not because males are uninterested in giving pleasure. Kath Albury, who is researching pornography at Sydney University, believes the promotion of cunnilingus on the internet has meant many young men now see this activity as highly desirable. The major stumbling block is female discomfort with their bodies. The sex survey found that less than a quarter of 16-19 year olds acknowledged masturbation in the previous year.
Perth sexologist Dr Gabrielle Morrissey’s research finds few young women comfortable with their genitals. Confronted with photographs, the girls recoil. This yuk factor means girls are far more likely to give than receive. Oral sex is seen by women “as an intimate practice” which is “closely linked to women’s feelings about their own bodies”, concludes a research paper on oral sex by University of NSW sociologist Celia Roberts.
The notion of oral sex as a particularly sexual intimate activity is at the centre of a recent row in Britain.
In February Melanie Phillips, newspaper columnist for the Daily Mail, attacked a government-sponsored sex education program for including oral sex in “outercourse” activities being promoted as more desirable for adolescents than early intercourse. The course planners claim their approach is reducing the number of pupils having sexual intercourse by between 13 and 15 per cent. But Phillips argues that “holding hands or kissing are simply in a different league from intimate genital activity. That is because this involves areas of our bodies we guard as our most private and protected.”Revealing them is therefore a very special act. Doing so too casually strips that act of its significance and can harm our own sense of ourselves.”
For others the concern about oral sex is more pragmatic namely that if kids don’t see it as a big deal, they won’t be concerned about safe sex practices and STDs which can be orally transmitted. Fewer than half of the under-20s agree that oral sex is sex, according to the sex survey.
So there are genuine concerns about early oral sex activity but the answer is not to avoid mentioning the topic in the hope that kids won’t discover it. More talk is needed rather than less and since oral sex is a big ask for those embarrassing parent-child chats, skilled sex education teachers are the key to avoiding the pitfalls of this shift in the sexual repertoire.