Many parents and teens have probably not had the kind of conversation you're about to read. But maybe now's the time. It's about oral sex. Even if you don't want to think about it, kids are hearing and talking about it a lot these days. The question is, how many are actually doing it?
In a good old-fashioned photo booth, brought in for the weekend, they looked like kids, fresh-faced, spontaneous and silly. But when we broached a certain subject, these kids suddenly seemed very grown up.
Katie Couric: “How do teenagers view oral sex today?”
Galen: “It's like not a big deal or not as big a deal to some people because it's not sex. It's not intercourse, and it's just like, it's not as intimate or anything like that. Everyone just sees it as casual. Maybe not as casual as kissing, but it's like, no big whoop.”
Couric: “No big whoop?”
Amie: “I think people make it out to be a bigger deal than it actually is.”
No big whoop? No big deal? What's going on? For several years we've been hearing mind-bending stories of rampant oral sex at parties, school, on buses. How widespread is it? Until NBC News and PEOPLE Magazine launched our groundbreaking survey of 1,000 teens nationwide, the answer to the question "how common is oral sex" sounded like this:
Danny: “It depends what you think common is. In my school I know it's less than 15 to 10 percent have actually had oral. It's really what you're perception of common is. So I say it's not common.”
Couric: “So 10 to 15. Did you do a survey, Danny?”
Danny: “It's like less than 10 -- one out of 10 kids would have had oral sex.”
Couric: “And what grade are you in?”
Well, turns out, 13 year-old Danny aced that one. Just how common is oral sex?
Our survey revealed that about one in eight -- that's 12 percent -- of young teens between 13 and 16 have had oral sex. An almost equal, 13 percent, have had intercourse.
Tasha: “I'm 14 and from Wisconsin. You don't want to be the person that's gone the furthest, but then you don't wanna be the person who hasn't kissed or touched a boy.”
Erin, Tsetan, and Tasha are BFF'S, best friends forever, 14 years old, and from Wisconsin. They first heard about oral sex from classmates around 6h or 7th grade.
Erin: “I was like, ewww. You put your mouth where? It's like gross. At first it just kind of disgusted me.”
Now in 9th grade, they say they "get" why kids do it.
Erin: “I think girls get pressured into it. Like I think if they're boyfriend wants them to have sex, like they'll be like, 'no, but I could give you like oral sex.’ So I think some girls use it as an excuse to not have sex.”
And it's not just in Wisconsin.
According to our national study, 40 percent of sexually active young teens have had oral sex at least once to avoid having intercourse. 68 percent also say they did it to avoid pregnancy.
In fact, teen birth rates have declined in the past decade, thanks in part to pregnancy prevention programs and AIDS awareness campaigns. Better sex education and more emphasis on abstinence seem to have influenced teen behavior, too. But has all this talk about the risk of sexual intercourse unwittingly encouraged teens to try oral sex instead?
Justin: “I'm 14 and I'm from New Hampshire. The thing that scares me the most about the dangers of sex would probably be the diseases that you can get when you have sexual intercourse or oral sex.”
But the lessons they are learning and apparently heeding about condoms and intercourse are not being applied to oral sex.
Nine in 10 young teens who have had oral sex say they know it puts them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, but only three in 10 always use protection.
Couric: “Do boys wear condoms when they're having oral sex?”
Group: “No. No. Most of the time, no. They should but they don't.”
Erin: “They're like then what's the point? You don't get any feeling. Blah-blah-blah.”
Sable: “I'm 15 and I'm from New York. Oral sex is sex. I disagree with people who say that it isn't.”
And 77 percent of the young teens we surveyed agree that oral sex is sex. But it seems it’s not considered a rite of passage. More than half say kids who have only oral sex are still virgins.
Back in 1998, these teens were between the ages of 6 and 11. So how much is their nonchalant attitude about oral sex the result of a presidential affair?
Couric: “President Clinton said he didn't have sex with that woman -- with Monica Lewinsky -- when she was having oral sex with him. Do you think that had an impact on kids and the way they view oral sex?”
Group: “Yes, no. Somewhat.”
Spencer: “They showed the news thing and the impeachment trial in my school. And it had a big impact. It was everything anyone was talking about. And I guess, most of the kids got from that was if the president can do it, then we can do it.”
Couric: “Wait, hold on, hold on, that's Spencer's opinion.”
Kameron: “That's not really the effect it had on me, honestly.”
Couric: “But on kids your age?”
Group: ”No, I don't think so, I don't really think so.”
Natalia: “I don't think people paid attention to it that much.”
Kameron: “It was more like a chain of things. I think that being televised so much made it easier to talk about oral sex.”
Whatever the reason, according to our survey, oral sex is almost always a one-way street.
Kierstin: “I just think the girls just wanna get it done, get it over with and have that be it. And I don't think they're comfortable enough to get it done to them.”
Amie: “And also like, for a girl, you have to completely show everything.”
Group: “Yeah... girls give it more because I think they're less confident than guys are… less confident with their bodies.”
Couric: “What's in it for the girls? That he likes...”
Sable: “Yeah, that he likes me or I really want him to like me, I want to be popular and stuff like that.”
Courtni: “Like you want to make your boyfriend happy. You satisfy them and if you're in a relationship or you care about them if you satisfy that person, it makes you happy.”
In fact, according to our poll 85 percent of teens say that it is "somewhat or very important" to be in love before having oral sex.
Tsetan: “If you're going out with the guy, you have that privilege to like do whatever you want and not be called a slut.”
Many of these teens seemed to think oral sex is acceptable in a monogamous relationship. But if you have multiple partners…
Kierstin: “It makes you look trashy. The guys use you. The guys don't care about you at all. You won't get a serious boyfriend if that's what you're looking for.”
Amie: “I think that's degrading. Just one night, if you barely know him? Just that's when -- that's when it's a problem. That's when it makes girls seem like you know, the guy is superior. She's down on her knees, doing him a favor.”
Most everyone agreed that promiscuous guys -- labeled "players" or "man ho's" -- aren't judged as harshly as girls. But some boys admit it makes them look bad, too.
Couric: “Would you feel guilty ever about receiving oral sex from a girl with no emotional connection, no strings attached?”
Galen: “Like you're totally using her. And I mean some people like don't have a problem with that. But I mean, honestly, if you think about it, it's wrong.”
Sam: “I'm 16 years old, and I'm from Maryland. Unless like the girl was like -- I knew her really well and no emotion, I don't know. It'd be weird, and -- let's go with guilty, yeah.”
But something else is going on in teen culture and love has nothing to do with it. Sexual encounters with no emotional strings attached. Its called "hooking up." Or "friends with benefits, "- a friendship with sexual perks, but no commitment.
Tsetan: “Hooking up is kind of like a one-night stand. You can do anything. But it's like a one-time thing.”
Sam: “I think you could compare friends with benefits to the driving range. There's no commitment to playing a round of golf. But you can see what clubs are working for you.”
How common is friends with benefits? Well, of the kids who are having oral sex or intercourse -- about half of them say they've done so in a casual relationship.
Gordon: ”I'm 16 and from New Jersey. Having a crush on somebody, it's like you need to worry if the person likes you back or if something could actually happen. It's nerve-wracking.”
Erin: “At this age I don't want like a serious relationship. I'm 14. I don’t want to stick with a guy for like a year and a half. I'd rather have fun and just be with other guys.”
For many teens today, having a relationship is not a top priority. They say it's too emotionally risky, too time-consuming and there's another practical consideration.
Couric: “Who said money?”
Galen: “Relationships are expensive.”
Couric: “What do you mean?”
Galen: “Girls want the most expensive things like bags. Dooney & Burke purses.”
Gordon: “Uggs. Those ugly shoes.”
Kierstin: “They're so ugly.”
Having a purely physical relationship may sound uncomplicated. But many of these teens say what may work in theory, doesn't always works in practice.
Gordon: “It's always complicated because one person always develops feelings. So someone gets hurt.”
But parents don't panic.
Danny: “I think the toughest part of being a teenager is the misconception that teens, all they want is sex.”
And in fact there is good news. Our survey shows that seven out of ten teens, between the ages of 13 and 16 are not sexually active and haven't really gone beyond kissing.
Amidst all this candid conversation there's a counter-revolution going on. Many teens are just saying no.
Brittany: “I'm not like somebody that you can just push around. If some guy says, ‘Well, if you love me, you'd have sex with me,’ I mean guys have been using that line since forever. And you know, if they love me, then they wouldn't make me do it.”