Two articles in December's Family Planning Perspectives—both extensively reported in the New York Times and USA Today—might make you think that the nation's teens have just started to indulge in new, dangerous sexual practices that require a forceful response from public health officials. But look closer, and you'll see that the articles are less about health than politics.
Unquestionably, the sexual behavior the two articles depict is profoundly disturbing. One in ten boys aged 15 through 19, for example, has had anal sex with girls. Far more commonplace is oral sex, with teens now viewing it as something, like kissing, that you might do with someone you don't care about much. Many virgins, viewing oral sex as "not really sex," think they're remaining abstinent when they do it. So pervasive among teens has oral sex become, experts warn, that oral herpes and pharyngeal gonorrhea are on the rise. Most troubling is the growing acceptance of this "body-part sex" as early as the seventh grade. Some 12- and 13-year-old girls, it seems, consider fellatio the necessary price of hanging on to a cool boyfriend or looking sophisticated to friends; and, they reason, it removes some of the pressure to go all the way.
Yet neither article tells us much we don't already know. One study, based on data from as far back as 1988 and 1995, shows that the percentage of boys having intercourse or receiving oral sex, while high, has barely changed during those seven years. The second, more timely, study, based on interviews with health professionals about reports of rising oral sex among adolescents, found no consensus: some believe there's more oral sex; some think kids just talk about it more. The one recent behavior shift that is clear is the increase in younger teens practicing oral sex, a development reported in 19 newspaper stories in the past 18 months.
So if there's nothing really new here, why the fuss? The answer reveals itself in one report's title, "Oral Sex Among Adolescents: Is It Sex or Is It Abstinence?" With congressional funding for abstinence-only sex education about to reach its five-year limit, a regrouped public health establishment is here to say: it doesn't work. "What concerns me is what kids don't know. They're not protecting themselves," as Linda Alexander of the American Social Health Association told the Times. The clear implication: to protect kids, educators need to get into the specifics of oral and anal sex and teach kids how to use condoms and dental dams. Sound familiar?
The critics' recommended return to more "enlightened" sex ed isn't a solution; it's a proximate cause of the problem. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the main reason kids cite for avoiding intercourse is fear of pregnancy and STDs. Kids have decided, it appears, that oral sex is a safer alternative. In other words, it is our almost exclusive focus on "risk reduction" and "negative health outcomes" that has helped to mainstream teen oral sex. But if this dehumanized, soulless, loveless, and morally vacuous language is all adults have to offer, is it any surprise that middle schoolers see no problem with body-part sex?