Oral Fixation

An economist tries to explain the rise in oral sex among teenagers. Thankfully he doesn’t get all Caitlin Flanagan on us, but his hypotheses aren’t exactly ground-breaking:

Schoolchildren are now bombarded with information about the risks of sex, particularly HIV/AIDS. Oral sex can be safer than penetrative sex: It dramatically reduces the risk of contracting HIV and reduces the effects of some other sexually transmitted infections (although you can still pick up herpes, warts, and thrush). An infection that might have made a girl infertile instead gives her a sore throat.

The rest is basic economics. When the price of Coca-Cola rises, rational cola-lovers drink more Pepsi. When the price of penetrative sex rises, rational teenagers seek substitutes. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that even as the oral-sex epidemic rages, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the percentage of teenage virgins has risen by more than 15 percent since the beginning of the 1990s. Those who are still having sex have switched to using birth-control methods that will also protect them from sexually transmitted infections. Use of the contraceptive pill is down by nearly a fifth, but use of condoms is up by more than a third. The oral-sex epidemic is a rational response to a rise in the price of the alternative.

Good answers, certainly, even if they’re fairly obvious. I’d also point to the greater social discussion and acceptance of oral sex as a valid and “normal” part of human sexuality. While I’m not a proponent of teenage oral sex, I do think it’s a positive thing that oral sex in general is being demystified, and that women receiving oral sex is becoming almost a de rigeur part of hetero sex. That certainly influences teenage behavior, as oral sex is now seen as a valid sexual option, and one that avoids pregnancy and lowers the possibility of contracting an STI.

It’s also heartening to see that condom use is up by more than a third. The stat about birth control pill use being down initially made me nervous, but then I remembered that I don’t even use the pill anymore — I’m on a different kind of hormonal birth control (the nuva ring, and it’s fabulous), and there are several other non-pill options available for women. I’m hoping that it’s the wider availability of non-bill birth control methods that accounts for lower pill usage.

And for the record, I think that Slate’s headline on this one went too far. Gross.

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15 comments for “Oral Fixation

  1. Thomas
    September 7, 2006 at 9:50 am

    While I’m not a proponent of teenage oral sex

    I’m not sure what that means.

  2. September 7, 2006 at 9:53 am

    I’m not sure what that means.

    It essentially means, “I don’t really give a shit about whether or not teenagers are having oral sex, although I do hope that their sexual choices are physically and emotionally safe for them. I’m mostly just covering my ass for when conservatives come in here and start accusing me of wanting teenagers to suck dick all day.”


  3. September 7, 2006 at 10:01 am

    I ‘m not a proponent of teenage oral sex either, if what we mean by teenage oral sex is girls sucking off boys because they feel they have to, while the boys fail to reciprocate. If oral sex is part of a mutually pleasurable exchange that leaves both parties feeling physically satisfied and emotionally safe, then party on.

  4. Thomas
    September 7, 2006 at 10:25 am

    Yep. It looked like a pre-emptive “I’m not telling them to do it.”

  5. September 7, 2006 at 10:44 am

    “Raging oral sex epidemic”?

    Oh, for God’s sake.

  6. zuzu
    September 7, 2006 at 10:48 am

    Interesting. This kind of ties in with the discussion we’re having below in the virgin thread, in that teenagers are presumed to be these oversexed creatures whose sexuality must be reined in lest they start an Oral! Sex! Epidemic! Yet there are an awful lot of teenagers who don’t do this, for various reasons, so the message is that there’s something wrong with them.

  7. PLN
    September 7, 2006 at 11:17 am

    I don’t know … his piece struck me as rather missing the point. Yes, teenagers respond to changing incentives, but that should lead us to actually care about what these incentives are–as the economists’ whose study he cites on parental-notification try to do–rather than simply assuming that what’s doing the work is straightforward risk-minimization. Rational-choice explanations can easy slip into tautology if one isn’t careful; I think Harford makes this mistake. If he’s claiming oral sex is up because [perceived] risks are up, how does this account for *anal* sex also skyrocketing? Etc.

    I wrote a bit more on this last week here.

  8. Thomas
    September 7, 2006 at 11:55 am

    PLN, I think you are right in part. But the rise in anal sex is not clearly an irrational adaptation if we (properly) understand risk minimization to work from the perception of risk, whether accurate or not. Anal sex is very good at preventing pregnancy, and its utility in that regard might make it seem like a great idea in a culture where the risk of unwanted pregnancy probably still gets a fair amount more mindshare than the risk of sexually transmitted infection. Also, comparing anal penetration with a condom with vaginal penetration with a condom, the former eliminates pregnancy risk entirely at a modest increase in the danger of infection compared with the latter: taking both risks together, it may be the safer course.

    That said, I don’t think that’s a complete explanation, and the cultural mainstreaming of anal penetration (of women by men) has a lot to do with it.

  9. PLN
    September 7, 2006 at 12:08 pm

    I pretty much entirely agree with what you said, Thomas; my objection with Harford was the sleight of hand I felt he was engaged in. He was shifting back and forth from a more substantive rational-choice explanation (risks of disease are what people are minimizing; they are more aware of it now; hence more oral sex) with a more minimal r-c explanation (they must be responding to some incentives; let’s do some digging and see what they are). To the extent he’s actually hitching his cart to #1, he fails to support it; to the extent he’s on track #2, he fails to actually flesh out the mechanisms in question (as you started to just now).

    My grumpiness is simply that he failed to “explain the rise in oral sex” as promised. Instead it’s just another “isn’t econ cool!” column.

  10. zuzu
    September 7, 2006 at 12:12 pm

    Also, if you’re in a milieu in which virginity is fetishized, anal is a tried-and-true way of remaining a “technical” virgin. The phrase “Virgin in the front, martyr in the rear” has been around in Catholic circles for a long time.

  11. September 7, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    If he’s claiming oral sex is up because [perceived] risks are up, how does this account for *anal* sex also skyrocketing?

    Simple. Our gay recruitment plans are working perrrrrrfectly! mua-ha-ha!

  12. September 7, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    Hugo, did you look at the stats? Oral sex is pretty equal-opportunity amongst teenaged boys and girls. Thank you, sexual revolution.

  13. September 7, 2006 at 8:17 pm

    I think teenagers should be told to use condoms or dental dams while doing oral sex. Just passing through

  14. Esme
    September 8, 2006 at 11:43 am

    Apparently my immune system is pretty good, I haven’t caught TEH ORAL SEXORZ yet this year.

    What would the vaccines be like I wonder? I mean, I know I’D stand in a long line if it’s anything like I think it would be.

  15. nerdlet
    September 8, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    Hugo, did you look at the stats? Oral sex is pretty equal-opportunity amongst teenaged boys and girls. Thank you, sexual revolution.

    The only stats I’ve seen cited show how many teenage boys and girls have received oral sex at least once. It doesn’t say they’re receiving it with the same frequency, and it seems rather doubtful that they are.

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