What is sex? Think you have that answer down pat? Well, if you have a teen or college-aged child, you might want to ask them what they think.
Most young adults agree penile-vaginal intercourse is sex, but less than one in five think that oral-genital contact counts as "having sex," according to a 2007 survey of undergraduate college students.
This attitude toward oral sex represents a dramatic and sudden shift in thinking since 1991, when a similar survey found that nearly twice as many young adults (about 40%) would classify oral-genital contact as sex.
Researchers point to former President Clinton's infamous statement, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," as the pivotal turning point in society's changing views about oral sex. The attitude shift has been dubbed the "Clinton-Lewinsky" effect.
"Like President Clinton, adolescents and young adults often interpret these words with a degree of latitude, depending on whether they want to maintain an image of being sexually experienced or inexperienced," Jason D. Hans and colleagues at the University of Kentucky, Lexington write in their report, "Sex Redefined: The Reclassification of Oral-Genital Contact."
A surge in abstinence-only education and sex education programs that focus primarily on vaginal-penile intercourse also may play a role in the disassociation of oral-genital stimulation from sex, the authors say.
Would You Say You Had Sex If ...?
The survey involved 477 undergraduate students, mostly white heterosexual females, enrolled in a human sexuality class. The majority (98%) of participants was age 24 or younger; the average age was 20.7 years.
The participants answered the following question:
"Would you say you 'had sex' with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was ..."
• Penile-vaginal intercourse?
• Penile-anal intercourse?
• Oral contact with partner's genitals?
• Partner's oral contact with your genitals?
• Partner touches your genitals?
• You touch partner's genitals?
• Oral contact with partner's breasts/nipples?
• You touch partner's breasts/nipples?
• Deep kissing?
• Partner's oral contact with your breasts/nipples?
• Partner touches your breasts/nipples?
Among the survey's notable findings:
• Only 20% of those surveyed said oral contact with their partner's genitals would constitute sex.
• Less than 80% of participants considered penile-anal intercourse as sex.
Males were much more likely than females to say sex included the following behaviors:
• Their partner touched their genitals (13% vs. 7%).
• Orally stimulating a partner's breasts or nipples (9% vs. 4%).
• Touching a partner's breast or nipples (8% vs. 3%).
Why the Concern?
Oral sex has become increasingly acceptable among youths in recent years, perhaps because it's viewed by some as a less risky alternative. But experts say oral-genital contact can lead to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Such diseases include HIV, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, and the human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been linked to cervical cancer.
The researchers encourage sex educators to increase awareness about oral sex and how it can lead to the spread of STDs.
Complete survey results are available online ahead of print. The article will be published in the June 2010 issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.
By Kelli Stacy
Reviewed by Laura Martin
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