Oral Sex: You Said A Mouthful

Before the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, there was a joke popular in New York nightclubs. What do eggs benedict and a blowjob have in common? They’re two enjoyable things you don’t get at home.

Yes, kids, there was a time when oral sex was exotic, primarily the province of prostitutes and gay people. Well, times have changed.

In the 1994 “Sex in America” national study, Ed Laumann and colleagues 3,432 American adults. They found that about a quarter of their sample had had oral sex in the past year. Today, depending on the study, it appears that over half of adults who have partner sex are having oral sex at least occasionally.

My patients have a wide range of feelings about oral sex. The most common include:

* I love it, what’s the problem?
* I like it, and feel self-conscious enjoying it
* I don’t mind doing it, I wonder if I’m good at it
* I don’t mind doing it, but why do some people love doing it?
* It’s creepy. Mouths don’t belong down there
* I don’t see what anyone enjoys about that

Making things more difficult, the common English expressions “to give” and “to receive” oral sex are way too limited. It’s true, in some couples one is giving (and not enjoying) and other is receiving (and enjoying, or wanting to enjoy). But in many couples, both partners are enjoying it equally, regardless of whose mouth and whose genitalia are involved (and of course in situations often called 69, all are involved at the same time).

So why the complicated feelings about oral sex?

* Religious taboos against non-reproductive sex;
* Personal “ick” factor;
* Confusion about why someone else would want their mouth “there”;
* Cultural norms about “who does that” (i.e., not “nice people like me”);
* Situations in which A wants B to go down on A, but A won’t go down on B;
* Situations in which A says to B, “I’m willing to go down on you, so you have to go down on me.”

Frankly, some of these feelings are about oral sex, while others are about something else (like power or trust or body image).

As a therapist, it’s not my place to encourage people to do oral sex. (In fact, while most patients like to get advice, most patients don’t want to be told what to do.) However, as with decisions about almost anything, it is my place to encourage people to talk about how they decide what to do, what their beliefs are about who does what, and whether they want to examine beliefs they acquired long ago.

For example, some women whose partners suggest cunnilingus (he goes down on her) refuse simply because they don’t feel clean “down there”—even after a shower. “I just can’t help how I feel,” they report. Or “I don’t know why anyone would want to do that. He says he enjoys it, but I just can’t believe it.”

The world won’t come to an end if her vulva doesn’t get licked (especially if she enjoys other kinds of sex), but why would a person hold on to a funny belief like that? I generally think there’s something else going on (like feeling her femininity is somehow dirty or deficient, or not wanting to feel too vulnerable), so it’s my job to help her chase that down—if she wants to. Sometimes she’s willing, sometimes not.

Then there are guys who expect blowjobs like it’s their right–big mistake. Or expect some majestic, theatrical, biologically unlikely Deep Throat–big mistake. Or who assume that every woman wants a guy coming in her mouth, or on her face–big mistake. Or who feel insulted if a woman spits the stuff out instead of swallowing it–big mistake. What’s with these guys?

“Too much porn” is not an answer. A lack of manners, or empathy, or communication, or appreciation is more like it. Guys, if you’re not taking your behavioral lessons from NASCAR, Star Wars, or Wrestlemania, don’t take it from porn, either.

Most people don’t know that legally, “sodomy” includes oral sex, and of course various states had criminalized sodomy for centuries. Those laws were endorsed by the 1986 Supreme Court decision Bowers v. Hardwick, eventually overturned in 2003 by Lawrence v. Texas. In both cases, laws criminalizing male-male anal sex was at issue. Heterosexual oral sex just came along for the ride, so to speak.

So is oral sex “sex”? If you haven’t had intercourse but have had oral sex, are you a “virgin?” Is a blowjob “infidelity”? Which is more “intimate,” intercourse or oral sex?

I am asked each of these questions many times every year, whether by patients, lecture audiences, or email inquiry. The answer to all of them is the same—it all depends on what you mean. All of these terms are socially defined; every culture in every era has its own answers, and every person adapts these answers to fit their own circumstances (whether of passion, guilt, or need to follow authority).

At the end of the day, oral sex is just one more way that people align their bodies with each other, or their hearts with each, often leading to wonderful pleasure for both people. For others it’s a way to prevent pregnancy, or to deal with pressure, or to feel grownup, or to make a buck, or to dance with taboos. It doesn’t matter if you do it or not; the reasons for your decision matter way more than your decision.

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