Aug. 16, 2012 at 8:51 AM ET
A new report on teen sex contradicts a popular notion that teens are turning to oral sex as a way to delay “real” intercourse. The government study shows fewer teenage girls are having oral sex, compared to a few years ago.
The study, based on in-depth interviews with 6,300 young men and women aged 15 to 24, shows two-thirds in that age group have had oral sex, and just about the same proportion have had vaginal intercourse. But just about 42 percent of 15 to 19-year-old girls have given or received oral sex, down from 45 percent when the last survey was done in 2006-2008.
This is good news, the researchers say, because the earlier young people start any sexual activity at all, the more likely they are to get a sexually transmitted disease or to get pregnant.
The bad news is that teenagers and young adults are still highly likely to get sexually transmitted infections or STIs. “Despite the decline in the percentage of teenagers who ever had vaginal intercourse and increases in condom use, the rate of STIs has not decreased, particularly among teenagers 15–19 and young adults aged 20–24 years,” says the report, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.
“In 2010, about one-half of all new STIs occurred among people aged 15–24.”
The report shows that only 7 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 had had oral sex without ever having had vaginal intercourse. By age 22 to 24, just 2.7 percent of young women said they had given or received oral sex but not had vaginal intercourse.
“This new CDC analysis debunks many myths about when young people are initiating oral sex, and underscores the need for the kind of sex education that Planned Parenthood provides, which emphasizes not only pregnancy prevention, but sexually transmitted disease prevention as well,” said Leslie Kantor, vice president for education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“Although there has never been data to support it, there has been the perception that many teens engage in oral sex as a ‘risk-free’ alternative to intercourse. But the CDC analysis shows that sexually active young people are likely to engage in both activities.”
Planned Parenthood advocates for comprehensive sex education, and the Obama administration does too. The CDC researchers who did the study declined to comment on what it might mean, policy-wise, and said they were simply gathering statistics.
But the researchers also noted that teenagers often don’t understand the risks associated with sexual activity. “Research suggests that adolescents perceive fewer health-related risks for oral sex compared with vaginal intercourse. However, young people, particularly those who have oral sex before their first vaginal intercourse, may still be placing themselves at risk of STIs or HIV before they are ever at risk of pregnancy,” they wrote.
“The risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including human immunodeficiency virus or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is lower for oral sex than for vaginal intercourse or anal sex,” the report adds. “However, several studies have documented that oral sex can transmit certain STIs, including chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhea and syphilis. Teenagers and young adults engaging in sexual activity are at increased risk of STIs or HIV.”
Kantor said this calls for more sex education. “We need to make sure that young people have the skills to negotiate what they do and don’t want to do in sexual relationships, as well as education about and access to condoms and birth control so that they can protect themselves from STDs and pregnancy and remain healthy,” she said.
The study, based on hour-long, in-person interviews done from 2007 to 2010, also demonstrates racial disparities. Black girls and women aged 15 to 24 were far more likely than similar white girls to have had intercourse. The survey found that 74 percent of African-American females had vaginal intercourse at least once, compared to 68 percent of Hispanic females and 66 percent of whites.
And the study, meant to shed light on sexual practices, suggests that different types of sexual contact go together. “Among females aged 15–24 years, 26 percent had first oral sex before first vaginal intercourse; 27 percent had oral sex after first intercourse; 7.4 percent had oral sex on the same occasion as first intercourse; and 5.1 percent had oral sex, but no vaginal intercourse,” says the report.
But fewer girls were having oral sex than before. “About the same percentage of girls aged 15–19 years reported giving or receiving oral sex (41 percent and 43 percent, respectively),” the report says. This compares to 45 percent in 2006-2008.
“A higher percentage of boys aged 15–19 years had oral sex (49 percent) than had vaginal intercourse (44 percent),” it adds. This was about the same as 2006-2008.