Parents need to dispel kids' myths about sex habits

September 20, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

Six years ago, a front-page story reported that oral sex had become a party game among middle-schoolers, and the news sent a shock wave through the ranks of parents who had been thinking they could put their feet up on the coffee table until high school began.

That first news report was purely anecdotal, however, and for a while parents could continue to tell themselves, "Not my child."

After all, how could an act of such intimacy have replaced "Spin the Bottle" among children who were still unashamed to sleep with stuffed animals?

Nobody knew for sure what was going on in middle school. Social scientists typically did not query younger teens about their sexual behavior. Like the parents, they thought they could wait until high school - because they thought the kids did, too.

But increasingly, rumors escaped from the kids' camp that they were telling each other that oral sex was a way to maintain technical virginity. That it was a way to prevent pregnancy. That it was a way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. That it wasn't really sex.

We still didn't know for sure how many kids were having oral sex, but what we were hearing made us nervous.

Now we know.

New data derived from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth shows oral sex is, in fact, more common than sexual intercourse.

According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just over half of teens age 15 to 19 have had oral sex - boys and girls are equally as likely to have done so - and a quarter of teens age 15 to 19 who have not had sexual intercourse have engaged in this intimate act.

And it isn't just other people's children.

"We found that, among teens who did not have sexual intercourse, white teens and teens whose parents had higher education and income levels were the most likely to have engaged in oral sex," said Jennifer Manlove, who directs research on fertility and family structure at the think tank Child Trends.

Also, among teens who have had sex, more than 80 percent say they have also had oral sex.

If the numbers are chilling, the reasoning is more so.

Among those teens who say they have not had sexual intercourse because they have not met the right person, 31 percent of girls and 26 percent of boys have had oral sex.

Of those who say they have not had sexual intercourse because it is against their morals or their religion, one in five has had oral sex.

And of those who say they have not had sex because they were afraid of contracting an STD, more than 25 percent have had oral sex.

The risk is that these teens, who consider themselves virgins but who engage in oral gratification, might not realize how vulnerable they are to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

"The news is probably not as bad as adults might have been led to believe," said Sara Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which celebrated the achievement of a goal set 10 years ago at its inception - a 30 percent reduction in the teen birth rate.

"But [the news] is likely not as good as most parents might wish," she said.

If parents were having a tough time talking to their kids about the mechanics and the morality of traditional sexual intercourse, you can imagine how difficult is it going to be for us to address this topic.

"Parents freely admit this makes them squeamish," said Bill Albert, director of communications for the National Campaign. "They don't want to enter into this particular lexicon of words."

And it makes parents dizzy. We are beginning to realize that our children are operating on a different intimacy continuum. An act that we might have rated at the highest level of trust and intimacy has traded places with the snagging of a locker loop among our children.

"They are running the bases backward," said Albert, employing the old baseball analogy.

"Things that parents might think would happen in the dugout after the bases have been rounded are now happening in the on-deck circle."

The fact is, our kids don't associate oral gratification with any kind of emotional commitment. It isn't intimacy, it is a party game. "This is a key violation for parents," said Albert.

And it isn't any good for the kids, either.

If a 14-year-old girl goes right from thinking that boys are gross to performing oral sex on one, she might need the comfort of her stuffed animals until she is 39.

If a 15-year-old boy, who can't bring himself to speak to a girl in the hall at school, is expected to engage her in this act of incredible intimacy, his brain might explode.

"If you start out holding hands and kissing and then you find out in a couple of weeks that you don't like him, much less is lost," said Albert.

"But if you go right to this level of intimacy, you aren't giving yourself a chance," said Albert.

I think we grown-ups can all agree that oral sex is not a safe alternative to sexual intercourse. I think we can all agree that it isn't good for their little hearts and their little brains, either.

What we adults have to do is say what we are all thinking: "Oral sex is sex." And then we have to take the next step.

We have to say that out loud to our children. Then we have to tell them we want them to wait, and that there are all sorts of reasons why they should.

For archived columns from Susan Reimer, go to

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