Study contradicts myth of how teens avoid intercourse
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Contrary to popular belief, teens do not appear to commonly engage in oral sex as a way to preserve their virginity, according to the first study to examine the question nationally.
The analysis of a federal survey of more than 2,200 males and females ages 15 to 19, released Monday, found that more than half reported having had oral sex. But those who described themselves as virgins were far less likely to say they had tried it than those who had had intercourse.
"There's a popular perception that teens are engaging in serial oral sex as a strategy to avoid vaginal intercourse," said Rachel Jones of the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization in New York, who helped conduct the study. "Our research suggests that's a misperception."
Instead, the study found that teens tend to become sexually active in many ways at about the same time. For example, although only 1 in 4 teen virgins had engaged in oral sex, within six months after their first intercourse more than 4 out of 5 adolescents reported having oral sex.
"That suggests that oral and vaginal sex are closely linked," said Jones, whose findings will be published in the July issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. "Most teens don't have oral sex until they have had vaginal sex."
Proponents of sex education programs that focus on abstinence said the findings debunked the criticism that the approach was inadvertently prompting more teens to have oral sex, which still carries the risk of sexually transmitted disease, in order to preserve their virginity.
If anything, the findings support the need to encourage more teens to delay sexual activity of all kinds, said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association.
"This report reveals that teen sex - even with a condom - presents significant risk for future sexual experimentation and so underscores the need for redoubled emphasis on abstinence education for teens," she said. "Only abstinence education adequately addresses this problem."
But critics of abstinence programs said the findings reinforced the need for comprehensive sex education, because teens engage in a wide variety of sexual activities, all of which carry risks for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
"More than half of our teens are having sex - vaginal and oral," said James Wagoner, president of the group Advocates for Youth. "We can't afford the luxury of denial. Abstinence-only programs are the embodiment of denial. They have been proven not to work, and it's time to invest in real sex education, including condoms."
Others praised the research for providing much-needed data in the often highly polarized debate over teenage sexuality.
"We have these images of oral sex parties, but it's not based on evidence. It's not based on research," said Claire Brindis, a professor of pediatrics and health policy at UC San Francisco. "A study like this allows us to begin to dissect what actually is going on."
The new study analyzed data collected from a nationally representative sample of 1,150 females and 1,121 males ages 15 to 19 who were questioned in detail in 2002 as part of the federal government's National Survey of Family Growth.
A majority of the teens - 55 percent - said they had engaged in oral sex, which was slightly more than the 50 percent who said they had had vaginal sex. But oral sex was much more common among those who already had had intercourse: 87 percent of those who reported on a computerized survey that they had had vaginal sex said they had engaged in oral sex as well, compared with 23 percent who described themselves as virgins.
When the researchers examined the number of partners the teens reported, they found that among those who reported engaging in oral sex, 67 percent had only one partner, "another piece of evidence that there's not a lot of teens engaging in serial oral sex," Jones said.
This article appeared on page A - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle