'Technical Virginity' Becomes Part of Teens' Equation
Ten years after Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky's relationship made oral sex a mainstream topic, there's still plenty of debate over whether oral sex is really sex.
"There's not only confusion; there's fighting over it," says J. Dennis Fortenberry, a physician who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine. "People disagree fairly vehemently."
The latest fuss is spurred by new federal data that found that more than half of 15- to 19-year-olds have received or given oral sex. Although the study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not ask the particulars of these encounters, research conducted in pre-Clinton times, along with more recent studies, suggests that teens largely fall on the "it's not sex" side. (Related story: Teens define sex in new ways)
"If you were to ask someone if they were a virgin, they wouldn't include that they had given or gotten oral sex," he says.
A study published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Association examines the definition of sex based on a 1991 random sample of 599 college students from 29 states. Sixty percent said oral-genital contact did not constitute having sex. "That's the 'technical virginity' thing that's going on," says Stephanie Sanders, associate director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University and co-author of the study, which the researchers titled "Would You Say You 'Had Sex' If ...?"
"There is not nearly as much conversation between two people and as much thought put into engaging in oral sex. That, in my mind, makes it a lot different," says Michael Levy, 17, a senior from Owings Mills, Md.
What constitutes sex tends to be defined in a culture and varies with the times, Fortenberry says.
"In certain times in the history of the world, certain kinds of kissing would be considered sex," he says. "Not too many years ago, a woman would have been considered a 'loose woman' if she kissed a person before marriage."
But a new book from the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, an Austin-based non-profit that has worked for abstinence education with the Bush administration, doesn't waffle. In Questions Kids Ask About Sex, oral sex is clearly sex.
"Sex occurs when one person touches another person's genitals and causes that person to get sexually excited," the book states. "A girl or boy who's had oral sex doesn't feel or think like a virgin anymore, because he or she has had a form of sex."
Melissa Cox, who edited and contributed to the book, is a Denver-based medical writer who also edited a publication for Focus on the Family, an organization devoted to Christian family values.
She says a medical panel for the institute determined that oral sex is sex because it places young people at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and infections, puts them at risk for long-term emotional harm and opens the door for other sexual activity.
Not everyone agrees.
"If you look at the information that they have, you might find it difficult to cite a basis for that, other than someone's opinion," says adolescent-medicine specialist Fortenberry.
Teenagers say messages from the media make them feel that casual oral sex is normal and suggest that all teens are preoccupied with sex.
"I feel like I see more commercials about casual sex than I do about how important it is to have a family and how important it is to be in a marriage instead of having sex with people from a bar," says Shanae Sheppard, a 17-year-old senior from Owings Mills, Md.
Last week, the federal government announced $37 million in awards to 63 programs across the country aimed at encouraging young people to abstain from intercourse until marriage.
But abstinence-only education may inadvertently reinforce the belief that oral sex isn't real sex, says John DeLamater, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin and editor of the Journal of Sex Research, a scholarly journal published by the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.
"We should be sending a message that sexual activity is much broader," he says.
Because teens are focused on that narrow definition of sexual intercourse and the message is to postpone it until they are older, they tend to equate intercourse with adulthood, Tarver says.
"Oral sex is not on a pedestal the way that regular sexual intercourse is," he says.
What students say sex means to them
Opinions varied widely in a Kinsey Institute study of 599 college students from 29 states were asked: "Would you say you've had sex with someone if the first intimate behavior you engaged in was ..." Percentages who said yes for selected behaviors:
- Deep kissing
- Women - 2.9%
- Men - 1.4%
- You touch person's genitals
- Women - 11.6%
- Men - 17.1%
- Person touches your genitals
- Women - 12.2%
- Men - 19.2%
- Oral contact with a person's genitals
- Women - 37.3%
- Men - 43.7%
- Oral contact with your genitals
- Women - 37.7%
- Men - 43.9%
- Women - 99.7%
- Men - 99.2%
Source: Sanders, S.A. and Reinisch, J.M. (1999) "WOULD YOU SAY YOU HAD SEX IF?"; Journal of American Medical Association
Source: USA Today. Written: 10/19/05.