The survey is not a national sample. The data, while carefully collected, comes from 580 ninth-grade boys and girls at two California schools. But the numbers are in line with — and even a bit lower than — larger studies of American teens' sexual behavior.
The young teens say oral sex is a safer, more acceptable alternative to vaginal sex. That's true, says researcher Bonnie L. Halpern-Felsher, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco. Oral sex, by itself, carries no risk of unwanted pregnancy. And some sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS, are harder to get from oral sex than from vaginal sex.
But Halpern-Felsher says the survey shows that many teens don't fully appreciate the very real risks of engaging in oral sex.
"Yes, risks are less likely to occur with oral sex. The question is, do you think at age 14 you are really ready for this?" Halpern-Felsher tells WebMD. "You are still having intimacy with another person, and there still are possible physical and emotional risks. My concern is the feeling that oral sex is no big deal. It very well might be a big deal."
How Teens See Oral Sex
Halpern-Felsher's study — published in the April issue of Pediatrics — provides sorely needed data, says youth sexual behavior expert David Landry, senior research associate at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis, and public education.
"There has been a dearth of information about adolescent oral sex in U.S. survey research," Landry tells WebMD. "A lot of the media reports I've seen about teen oral sex are rather alarmist. But it has been going on for a long time. It is nothing new, as data from 1988 and 1995 show. If anything, this latest research shows an incidence lower than we've seen before. But this is not a national sample."