updated 4/4/2005 1:01:44 PM ET 2005-04-04T17:01:44

About one in five ninth-graders report having had oral sex and almost one-third say they intend to try it during the next six months, a small study of teens at two California schools reports.

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The teenagers, whose average age was 14½, also say oral sex is less risky, more common and more acceptable for their age group than intercourse.

The researchers surveyed 580 ethnically diverse ninth-graders in two California public high schools.

Girls and boys reported similar experiences and opinions about oral sex, which surprised the study’s lead author, Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, associate professor of pediatrics at University of California San Francisco.

“I think the stereotypes don’t exist as much anymore,” she said. “Girls and boys both see oral sex as not being a big deal.”

The study appears in April’s edition of the journal Pediatrics, published Monday.

Clueless adults
What’s known about the risk of oral sex is based largely on case reports and studies of HIV transmission in gay men.

While there’s little reliable data on the health risks, parents and health care providers can tell teenagers that there is a potential for getting herpes, hepatitis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and HIV from oral sex.

And parents can discuss how oral sex might affect a teenager’s relationships and self-image, she said.

The study, although limited by the small number of teenagers surveyed in only two schools, is still interesting, said Dr. Robert Blum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He was not involved in the research.

“Adults are sitting there yelling at each other about abstinence, condoms, oral contraception and abortion, and kids have found their own path,” Blum said. “That’s the most important issue that underlies these data: Adults are more clueless than we would like to admit.”

In the survey, the teenagers were instructed to imagine themselves in a dating situation that included unprotected oral sex with a partner who had had previous sexual intercourse with other partners.

The teenagers were then asked to estimate the chance that they would get various sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and the chance that they would experience social and emotional costs such as feeling guilty or getting a bad reputation.

More data on oral sex and teenagers is expected soon from the federal National Survey of Family Growth, which for the first time in 2002 included questions on oral sex, said David Landry, a researcher at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that studies reproductive issues.

Landry said the California survey is encouraging because it shows teenagers know that oral sex carries some health risk.

“Most adolescents also correctly recognized that oral sex is less risky than sexual intercourse,” Landry said.

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