Casey E. Copen, Ph.D, et al., “Prevalence and Timing of Oral Sex with Opposite-sex Partners among Females and Males Aged 15–24 Years: United States, 2007–2010,” National Health Statistics Reports (August 2012).
The researchers analyzed data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) covering the years 2007–2010. Over 6,000 youth ages 15 to 24 were asked whether their first oral-genital sexual contact with an ‘opposite sex’ partner occurred before, after, or on the same occasion as their first penis-vagina intercourse. Responses were gathered using audio computer-assisted self-interviewing (youth entered their answers to questions into a computer without telling them to an interviewer).
- About two-thirds of females (66%) and males (65%) aged 15–24 years had ever had oral sex with an ‘opposite sex’ partner.
- Among females aged 15–24 years, 26% had first oral sex before first vaginal intercourse; 27% had oral sex after intercourse; 7.4% had oral sex on the same occasion as first intercourse; and 5.1% had oral sex, but no vaginal intercourse.
- Among males aged 15–24 years, 24% had first oral sex before first intercourse; 24% had oral sex after first intercourse; 12% had oral sex on the same occasion as first intercourse; and 6.5% had oral sex, but no vaginal intercourse.
Despite almost two decades of decline in the percentage of teenagers who ever had vaginal intercourse, and increases in condom use by sexually-active youth, the rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has not decreased significantly for these populations. As the researchers are careful to note in this report, in 2010 roughly one-half of all new STIs in the United States occurred among people aged 15–24. The data from the National Survey of Family Growth show that in a nationally representative sample of teens and young adults, roughly two-thirds have had oral sex with an ‘opposite sex’ partner and one-fourth had oral sex with an ‘opposite sex’ partner prior to vaginal intercourse, regardless of gender.
While oral sex generally places one at less risk for STIs than unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse, it is not a risk-free activity. Sexuality educators have struggled with educational policy makers to address this topic as comprehensively as possible, since many young people engage in this behavior long before they engage in risk behaviors for unintended pregnancy (i.e. penis-vagina intercourse).
The researchers note that there has long been speculation as to the reasons some young people in ‘opposite-sex’ pairings engage in oral sex before vaginal intercourse: among these may be to preserve ‘virginity’, to reduce risk for STIs, or to experience sexual pleasure while being able to claim that one is practicing abstinence (from penis-vagina intercourse). The study does not help to clear-up these questions, as the authors freely admit:
“This report provides basic descriptive statistics on types of sexual behavior among adolescents and young adults, and does not address the myriad factors that influence the timing and sequencing of these sexual experiences for this population.”
Nonetheless, the data invite future researchers to explore the reasoning behind young people’s decisions to engage in oral sex before, during, or after an initial experience with penis-vagina intercourse. Future research could also explore the oral sex behaviors of youth in same-sex relationships and compare them with youth in heterosexual relationships. Additionally, the sexuality education field would benefit from data that would inform the development of programs that acknowledge oral sexual behaviors and foster informed discussion of the risks and reasons associated with them.
Copen CE, Chandra A, Martinez G. (2012). Prevalence and timing of oral sex with opposite-sex partners among females and males aged 15–24 years: United States, 2007–2010. National Health Statistics Reports; no 56. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, accessed 30 August 2012, <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr056.pdf>.