When a 2005 Center for Diseases
Control study of 15 to 19 year olds reported that one in four teen virgins
had engaged in oral sex, public response was intense — to say the least.
Many news outlets reported that teens were engaging in oral sex so that
they could claim that they were still technically virgins, while talk
shows warned of teens casually engaging in oral sex at parties with
multiple partners. Some speculated that the apparent
rise in oral sex among teens was the result of the Clinton political
scandal that put into question whether oral sex was really sex. Others wondered whether teens
chose oral sex over vaginal or anal intercourse in response to a fear
of pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted infections.
The teens I work with constantly remind me that teen attitudes towards sex
have changed since I was their age. A class doesn’t go by without
my students responding to something I say with a good-natured eye roll
and an explanation of how folks "do it different now" or "don’t
think that way anymore." My students are teen mothers or pregnant
teens and we discuss sex openly during our women’s health classes.
Even so, I was surprised in 2005 when the CDC’s findings appeared to indicate that teens were engaging in oral sex because
they didn’t define it as sex and as an alternative to sexual intercourse.
My student’s didn’t share that they thought oral sex wasn’t sex
or that is was an alternative to sexual intercourse. Instead,
they spoke of oral sex as part of a sexual relationship or part of sexual
But the results of the CDC
study released in 2005 suggested that more than half of those
teens surveyed responded that they were engaging in oral sex.
Although researchers did not ask about the circumstances in which oral
sex was taking place, many people interpreted the data to mean that
teens were engaging in oral sex because they did not view it as sex
and felt that oral sex was a way to remain "technical virgins." In other words, the study claimed
that one in four teens was using oral sex as a substitute for sexual
intercourse. Could it be that teens were responding to abstinence-only curricula by opting for oral sex over intercourse? Or was
it that teens were avoiding sexual intercourse because of lack of access to contraception? Was this apparent teen
oral sex epidemic a good thing or a bad thing?
Well, it turns out that all
the speculation was likely in vain. A new study from the Guttmacher
Institute challenges the facts of and conclusions drawn from that 2005
CDC report. As reported by Amie Newman in Teen Myth Busting:
Study Shows Oral Sex No Substitute For Vaginal Intercourse, the Guttmacher report found that the
conclusion that teens frequently substitute oral sex for sexual intercourse
is flawed – oral and anal sex are significantly more common
among teens who have already had vaginal intercourse than among those
who have not. In other words, teens are more likely to
explore a range of sexual activities as they become sexually active
and are not likely to substitute one activity for another.
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Now that we know that teens
aren’t using oral sex as a substitute for sexual intercourse and that
they are engaging in a variety of sexual activities when they become sexually active, we must use this new data clarifying
teen sexual behavior to address the increase in teen
sexually transmitted infection and re-infection
challenge is to work with the reality of teen sexual behavior rather
than speculate over the myth of technical virginity.
we can look to the example of programs like Sexual Awareness for Everyone
(SAFE), which has had success
in reducing STI re-infection rates among the high-risk teenage women
of color participants
in the program.
A study of the SAFE program
conducted by Andrea Ries Thurman of the University of Texas
Health Sciences Center-San Antonio
and her colleagues followed a group of 14 to 18 year old black and Mexican-American
participants. SAFE offers comprehensive STI counseling and education.
Participants in the study attended small groups that included role-playing sessions,
interactive video sessions, reviews of written material and group discussion
that addressed strategies for prevention like abstinence and monogamy
while explaining the importance of sticking to STI medication regimens
Graduates of SAFE are less
likely to engage in high risk sexual behavior and have a lower incidence
of recurrent gonorrhea and chlamydia as compared with teen women in
a control group who received only 15 minutes of individual counseling.
The cumulative STI re-infection rate for teen women who participated in SAFE was 24 percent, for the control group this number skyrocketed to 40 percent.
As Emily Douglas wrote in response
to the data that one in four teen women have an STI, all four out of four teen
girls need better sex education
and better sex education requires a deeper understanding of the reality
of teens and their lives. Reproductive justice activists who work
with teens know that pro-knowledge programs built on solid data like
SAFE help to address the real risks teens face when they are sexually active.
Looking back, it is clear that the problem with the 2005 CDC teen oral
sex study wasn’t in the data but with the speculation that followed.
Programs like SAFE and their undeniable success in reducing risk demonstrate
that comprehensive sex education remains the key to empowering teens.
Sex education the Midwest Teen Sex Show style