Oral sex is becoming a more frequent and acceptable sexual behavior among young people.
According to new Canadian research, more than 75 percent of sexually active young women have previously engaged in oral sex, and half viewed oral sex as less intimate than intercourse.
“From my study, all of the women who had engaged in sexual intercourse had also engaged in oral sex as well,” according to University of Alberta researcher Brea Malacad and her team. “This data tells us that oral sex is becoming very much a part of most young people’s sexual repertoire.”
“Anecdotal reports indicate that, over the past decade, oral sex has become an increasingly common and casual activity among adolescent females,” says Malacad. There has been increasing concern among parents and the media that the casual attitude and frequency of oral sex leads to exploitation of young women. Unprotected oral sex may be less risky in terms of disease transmission than unprotected genital intercourse. However, disease transmission is still possible with oral sex, and evidence suggests that many young people do not practice safe methods during oral sex.
To estimate the prevalence and attitudes of these behaviors in young women, Malacad and her team administered an anonymous questionnaire, to 181 women aged 18-25 years. The questionnaire contained questions about numerous behaviors and attitudes regarding different sexual practices.
Malacad and her team found that approximately 75 percent of the 18 to 25 year old women had engaged in oral sex, which was nearly the same number as those who had had vaginal intercourse. 25 percent of participants had not engaged in any sexual activity at all, and of those who had, many had only one sexual partner.
“The mean age at first experience was approximately 17 years for both coitus and oral sex, though 27 percent of the sexually active participants had their first oral sex experience before age 16 (compared to 16 percent for coitus).”
50 percent of the young women surveyed felt oral sex was a less intimate activity than vaginal sex, and 41 percent thought it about as intimate as intercourse. The remaining nine percent view it as more intimate than intercourse.
The majority of the women had positive emotions about their sexual experiences, and that their most recent experience was in a committed relationship.
Those who reported more negative emotions associated with their most recent oral sex experience were younger and less likely to be committed to their partner
In addition, “both intercourse and oral sex were associated with mostly positive emotions overall, which suggests that most young women are engaging in these activities because they enjoy them,” said Malacad. “Based on the results of my study, there is a percentage of women (just over 30 per cent) who feel powerful when performing fellatio. Apparently some women find it empowering and believe that it can wield a lot of power.”
Regarding protection from sexually transmitted diseases, “eighty-two per cent of respondents said that they never used protection when engaging in oral sex, compared to only seven percent for intercourse,” said Malachad.
Malachad’s study is useful in quantifying a sexual behavior that has been of great media interest, and getting information from the young women themselves regarding their knowledge and attitudes. “These results indicate that oral sex is at least as common as vaginal intercourse and that it has the same emotional implications for young women,” she comments. “I guess, depending on the perspective, young women’s sexuality can be seen as a positive, empowering thing for women or a very negative thing,” she said.
These data are particularly useful in highlighting an area in which health educators and parents can intervene to reduce the risks of oral and other sexual behaviors, and provide targeted information about the emotional implications associated with engagement in oral sex. Given that as many women in this study had engaged in oral sex as in vaginal sex, sexual education curriculums may need to be adjusted to reflect this prevalence and address knowledge gaps.
Per Malachad, “it’s almost like it didn’t occur to them to protect themselves when having oral sex. I don’t think young people are aware that infections can be spread this way and there are options in terms of protecting oneself.”
“In order to provide relevant sex education, we need to get into these difficult topics that have to be talked about: the uncomfortable things that teens really need to know about—sexually transmitted infections and transmission of disease, particularly through oral sex, as well as the social and emotional implications of sexual activity,” said Malacad.
Malacad’s findings are published in the June edition of the European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care.