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It's a "blow job" because it's work: How guys push women to make oral sex as common as shaking hands

How oral sex became a teen's workaround, a path to popularity -- but rarely the road to reciprocated pleasure

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Peggy Orenstein
April 2, 2016 10:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape"

Why Do You Think They Call It a Blow “Job”?

There has been a lot of anxiety over the past couple of decades about teens and oral sex. Much of it can be traced back to the late 1990s, to a New York Times report that among middle-class teens, oral sex—and by “oral sex,” it meant fellatio—not only was becoming ubiquitous, but that they were engaging in it far earlier and more casually than teens’ busy (read: neglectful) working parents realized. One health educator was quoted as saying, “‘Do you spit or do you swallow?’ is a typical seventh-grade question.”


Two years later, the Washington Post covered a parent meeting called by middle school counselors in Arlington, Virginia, a town of “elegant brick homes, leafy sycamores and stone walls”— again, code for white and middle class—to discuss the fellatio craze among thirteen-year-old girls. The reporter linked that incident to a wider regional trend, based largely on “student grapevine”–generated claims of girls who had dropped to their knees during study hall or at the back of a school bus.

Girls’ bodies have always been vectors for a society’s larger anxieties about women’s roles. It was likely no coincidence, then, that those early blow job scandals surfaced just as oral sex was making front-page news for another reason: the country was gripped by an obsession with a certain blue Gap frock and a cigar that was by no means just a cigar. President Bill Clinton’s alleged dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern less than half his age, dominated the headlines, sending mortified parents leaping from the couch to twist the radio dial or grab the TV remote when the latest reports aired. Most famously, in January 1998, Clinton testified under oath that “I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” A few months later, when DNA from his semen was discovered on the fabled dress that she had squirreled away as a memento of their tryst—and, might I say, ick—he insisted that he had not perjured himself because their relationship involved only oral sex. Suddenly, people across the nation were hotly debating whether mouth-to-genital contact was, indeed, “sex.” If it wasn’t, what exactly was it? And how were Americans supposed to explain the president’s hairsplitting to their children?

Oral sex had only recently become a standard part of Americans’ erotic repertoire. Historically, both fellatio and cunnilingus were considered more intimate than intercourse, acts to be engaged in only after marriage, if at all. In 1994, just a few years before the Clinton affair broke, Sex in America, the most definitive survey at that time to be released on this country’s sexual practices, found that while only a minority of women over fifty had ever performed fellatio, among women under thirty-five, three quarters had done so. (Most men, whatever their age, said they had been both providers and recipients of oral sex.) The rise in going down among straight couples, the authors wrote, was the biggest sexual change of the twentieth century. By 2014, oral sex was so common as to be unremarkable: as one researcher quipped, the number of Americans who thought Barack Obama was Muslim was larger than those who had never given or received oral sex.

But the notion that the practice was aging downward, that among teens it was becoming more common and less meaningful than intercourse, was most definitely a new phenomenon, one that caught not only parents but also researchers off-guard. There was very little hard data to back those early journalistic claims. Oral sex practices of minors had been considered unfundable in academia; even if one could get the money, what parent would allow their child to be questioned on the subject? More generally, there was a presumption among conservative politicians that talking to teens about any form of sex, even in the name of research, was tantamount to handing them an instruction manual. Because of that, vital information about kids’ sexual behaviors, including disease transmission, went unstudied.

By 2000 the Clinton presidency was winding down, but the blow job panic had just begun. A new story in the New York Times declared that sixth-graders were now, basically, treating fellatio like a handshake with the mouth. According to one Long Island child psychologist, girls that age would tell him earnestly that they expected to wait until marriage for intercourse, yet had already given head fifty or sixty times. “It’s like a goodnight kiss to them,” he claimed, “how they say good-bye after a date.” A psychologist at New York University’s Parent Institute, meanwhile, predicted that soon a “substantial” number of kids would be having intercourse by middle school. “It’s already happening,” he told the Times. (That was not true: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in most states rates of intercourse among middle schoolers were dropping.) An article in the now-defunct Talk magazine blamed dual-career “parents who were afraid to parent” for an epidemic of oral sex among seventh-graders—again acting out larger anxieties about women, in this case working mothers, through concerns about unsupervised, wayward girls.

It was Oprah, however—isn’t it always Oprah?—who sounded the loudest alarm. In 2003 she invited onto her show a reporter for O Magazine who had interviewed fifty girls about their sexual practices. “Hold on to your underwear for this one,” the writer said, before revealing her ultimate stunner: the rainbow party. In this version of Girls Gone Wild, young women barely past their Barbie phase were donning different shades of lipstick, then fellating groups of boys in turns, leaving behind a “rainbow” of makeup on each penis. The girl whose color hit farthest down was declared the “winner.”

Well, what parent wouldn’t freak out? Children were having indiscriminate sex (or indiscriminate not-sex) everywhere! Under the table at bar mitzvahs! Behind the monkey bars during recess! No one, least of all Oprah, seemed to question the actual logistics of any of this. Exactly how were girls managing to complete multiple, random sex acts during the school day without an adult’s notice? Were thirteen-year-old boys really up to fifteen public blow jobs in the space of a few hours? Wouldn’t any rainbow effect be rinsed off or at least indelibly smudged by each subsequent partner? A 2004 NBC News/People survey taken shortly after the rainbow party story broke found that, in truth, less than one half of 1 percent of children ages thirteen to sixteen said they’d attended an oral sex party. Although that’s not zero, it’s hardly rampant.

So, no, children were not having orgies. That said, the seed from which the “rainbow party” myth sprouted did come from somewhere: oral sex has become relatively commonplace among teens. By the end of ninth grade, nearly one in five children has engaged in oral sex; by age eighteen, about two thirds have, with white and more affluent teens indulging more than others. Pinning that change on Bill Clinton or the sexual revolution or parental permissiveness, however, would be simplistic—and incorrect. Right-wing influence on sex education has played an equal, if not greater role. Federally mandated abstinence-only programs, which began in the early 1980s, not only reinforced that intercourse was the line in the sand of chastity, but also, using the threat of AIDS as justification, hammered home the idea that it might well kill you. Oral sex, then, was the obvious workaround. I doubt, though, that social conservatives would consider it a victory that, across a range of studies, college students who identify as religious are even more likely than others to say oral sex is not “sex,” or that over a third of teenagers included it in their definition of “abstinence” (nearly a quarter included anal sex), or that roughly 70 percent agreed that someone who engages in oral sex is still a virgin.


I wondered, though: If teens didn’t consider oral sex to be “sex,” how did they perceive it? What did it mean to girls to give or receive oral sex? Did they enjoy it? Tolerate it? Expect it? One evening, shortly after her graduation from a suburban Chicago high school, a young woman named Ruby allowed me to join her and four of her friends for a chat. We met in Ruby’s bedroom, one wall of which she’d painted midnight blue. Leggings, T- shirts, and skirts tumbled out of half-open dresser drawers. The girls sprawled on the floor, across the bed, on a beanbag chair.

When I asked about oral sex, a girl named Devon shook her head. “That’s not a thing anymore,” she said, waving a hand dismissively.

“So what is it, then?” I asked.

Devon shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

“Well, it’s not that it’s nothing,” added Rachel. “It’s not sex,” Devon countered.


“It’s like a step past making out with someone,” said Ruby. “It’s a way of hooking up. A way to have gone farther without it being seen as any big deal.”

“And it doesn’t have the repercussions that vaginal sex does,” Rachel added. “You’re not losing your virginity, you can’t get pregnant, you can’t get STDs. So it’s safer.”

That, unfortunately, is not entirely true—though, again, because oral sex is ignored by parents and educators, there is a widespread belief among teens that it is risk free. The result is that while their rates of intercourse and pregnancy have dropped over the past thirty years, their rates of sexually transmitted diseases have not. Teens and young adults account for half of all new STD diagnoses annually and the majority among women. The new popularity of oral sex has been linked to their rising rates of Type 1 herpes and gonorrhea (a disease that, about a decade ago, researchers thought was on the verge of eradication). Avoiding STDs, though, isn’t really why girls engage in oral sex. The number one reason they do it, according to a study of high schoolers, is to improve their relationships. (Nearly a quarter of girls said this, compared to about 5 percent of boys.) What, though, did “improving a relationship” mean exactly, especially since so many also told me that oral sex, at least where fellatio was concerned, was a way to emotionally distance themselves from their partners, protect against the overinvestment they feared would come with intercourse. For years, psychologists have warned that girls learn to suppress their own feelings in order to avoid conflict, to preserve the peace in friendships and romantic partnerships. Was performing fellatio another version of that? Whether they hoped to attract a boy’s interest, sustain it, or placate him, it seemed their partner’s happiness was their main concern. Boys, incidentally, far and away, said that the number one reason they engaged in oral sex was for physical pleasure.

For both sexes, but particularly for girls, giving oral sex was also seen as a path to popularity. Intercourse could bring stigma, turn you into a “slut”; fellatio, at least under certain circumstances, conferred the right sort of reputation. “Oral sex is like money or some kind of currency,” Sam explained. “It’s how you make friends with the popular guys. And it’s how you rack up points for hooking up with someone without actually having sex, so you can say, ‘I hooked up with this person and that person,’ and increase your social status. I guess it’s more impersonal than sex, so people are like, ‘It’s not a big deal.’ ”

I may be of a different generation, but, frankly, it’s hard for me to consider a penis in my mouth as “impersonal.” Beyond that, I was concerned about the dynamics around oral sex: the morass of obligations, pressures, and judgments leveled at girls; the calculus and compromises they made to curry favor with boys while remaining emotionally, socially, and even physically “safe”; the lack of reciprocity or physical pleasure they described, or expected.


One afternoon in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, I met Anna, a freshman at a small West Coast college. Anna had grown up in a politically liberal family and attended progressive private schools through twelfth grade. She wore skinny jeans with laceup boots and had recently pierced the small flap of cartilage in front of her ear canal with a silver hoop; her long, wavy brown hair was swept to one side. “Sometimes,” she told me, “a girl will give a guy a blow job at the end of the night because she doesn’t want to have sex with him and he expects to be satisfied. So if I want him to leave and I don’t want anything to happen . . .” She trailed off, leaving me to imagine the rest.

There was so much to unpack in that short statement: why a young man should expect to be sexually satisfied; why a girl not only isn’t outraged, but considers it her obligation to comply; why she doesn’t think a blow job constitutes “anything happening”; the pressure young women face in any personal relationship to put others’ needs before their own; the potential justification of assault with a chaser of self-blame. “It goes back to girls feeling guilty,” Anna said. “If you go to a guy’s room and are hooking up with him, you feel bad leaving him without pleasing him in some way. But, you know, it’s unfair. I don’t think he feels badly for you.”

In their research on high school girls and oral sex, April Burns, a professor of psychology at City University of New York, and her colleagues found that girls thought of fellatio kind of like homework: a chore to get done, a skill to master, one on which they expected to be evaluated, possibly publicly. As with schoolwork, they worried about failing or performing poorly—earning the equivalent of low marks. Although they took satisfaction in a task well done, the pleasure they described was never physical, never located in their own bodies. They were both dispassionate and nonpassionate about oral sex—socialized, the researchers concluded, to see themselves as “learners” in their encounters rather than “yearners.”

The concern with pleasing, as opposed to pleasure, was pervasive among the girls I met, especially among high schoolers, who were just starting sexual experimentation. They often felt, for instance, that once they’d said yes to intercourse with a partner, they could never say no again, whether or not they were “in the mood.” “I remember sort of hating it,” said Lily, now a sophomore at a West Coast public university, about her sexual relationship with a high school boyfriend. “I wanted to please him, but it felt sometimes like we couldn’t have a normal conversation because he was so distracted by wanting to have sex. And I couldn’t really think of a reason to refuse”—not wanting to didn’t seem adequate. “Sometimes I felt like I was just a receptacle for his hormones.”

Those media-fueled sex panics tend to prey on parental fears about girls’ promiscuity or victimization; the backlash dismisses both as overblown. Rarely does anyone ask the girls themselves what they think, what they gain from or enjoy about their experiences. Sam mentioned social status. Lily talked about pleasing a boyfriend. Gretchen, a seventeen-year-old classmate of Sam’s, said she enjoyed the thrill, however short-lived, in having power over a boy. “I’ve gone down on four guys now. I don’t even know, really, why I do it.” She paused, chewing contemplatively on her lower lip. “I guess I like that feeling of ‘Ha! You can’t get this from anyone else. I am in control here!’ You knew they really, really wanted it and you could be like, ‘No! No!’ and then they’d be like, ‘Please! Please!’ Because they were so desperate. That part’s kind of fun. But it’s definitely not the physical side of it, because that’s so gross and it really hurts my throat. I mean, it’s sort of fun getting in the rhythm of it. But it’s never fun fun.”


Performing oral sex could make girls feel like the more active partner in an encounter. By contrast, they described cunnilingus and intercourse as passive, like something that was being done to them, leaving them vulnerable. Those empowered feelings about fellatio, though, coexisted with their opposites: a lack of control, pressure to comply, the unspoken threat of danger. Sam commented that while her male peers had been warned not to coerce girls into intercourse, pushing for oral was fair game. Because of that, while she had “plenty of guy friends,” she preferred not to be alone with them (which would, it seems, be an obstacle to true friendship). “In my social world, if you’re hanging out alone with a guy, the usual expectation is that you’re going to hook up with him,” she explained. “And if you decide not to, he might try to pressure you. So I’ll hang out with a guy at school, but I would never go to his house or to a movie or do anything that could be construed as more than ‘ just friends’ unless I wanted that to happen. It’s not that they’d force themselves on you; it’s that there would be pressure. There would be disappointment. And there might be tension in our relationship if it didn’t happen.”

I want to be clear here. Sam was not a pushover, not a meek or mousey girl. She was an honor student, an editor on her school paper, a varsity tennis player. She identified as a feminist and casually bandied about terms such as slut shaming, gender binary, and rape culture. She was applying to top-tier colleges. She was an astute observer of her world. She was also, most definitely, immersed in it. Nearly all the girls I interviewed were bright, assertive, ambitious. If I had been interviewing them about their professional dreams or their attitudes toward leadership or their willingness to compete with boys in the classroom, I might have walked away inspired. A sophomore at an Ivy League college, a lacrosse player whose mother was a partner in a large law firm, bragged to me about the “strong women” in her family. “My grandmother is a firecracker at eighty-eight, and my mom is crazy, and my sister and I are going to be as crazy as they are,” she said. “In my family, you have to have a personality and be loud. That’s how we interact. It’s like a form of feminine power and knowing yourself.”

Even so, she described how, at age thirteen, she slipped into a bedroom with her best friend’s older brother, a ninth-grader on whom she’d had a longtime crush. Although she had never kissed a boy, never held hands, never had a boyfriend, somehow—she doesn’t remember the details—she ended up going down on him. Afterward, he never mentioned the incident again, so neither did she. Her subsequent sexual experiences, a handful of casual hookups, haven’t been much different. “It’s always the same unspoken sequence,” she said. “You make out, then he feels you up, then you give him head, and that’s it. I think girls aren’t taught to express their wants. We’re these docile creatures that just learn to please.”

“Wait a minute,” I countered. “Didn’t you just tell me about all the strong women role models in your family, about how you were loud and have a big personality and didn’t take shit?”

“I know,” she said. “I think I didn’t realize . . .” She paused, trying to reconcile the contradiction. “I guess no one ever told me that the strong female image also applies to sex.”


Discussions of sexual assault and consistent, enthusiastic consent are, thankfully, becoming more common on college and some high school campuses, yet if teens think of fellatio as not-sex (or not “anything”), if it’s thought of as an entitlement or considered an appeasement, then both girls’ right to say no and boys’ obligation to respect that are compromised and the lines between consent and coercion and assault risks becoming blurred. “You know,” Anna mused, “in some ways giving head is a bigger deal than sex. Because it doesn’t necessarily do anything for me. So it’s like doing the person a favor because you love and care about them. And if it’s someone you’re dating, there’s an expectation that he’ll reciprocate. But in hookups, guys are typically really douchey about it. And there’s pressure for the girl to do it. So it’s about how comfortable you are resisting that pressure or not. It gets awkward to keep resisting.”

Most young men do, of course, take no for an answer. Yet nearly every girl I spoke with had at least one experience with a boy who had tried, despite her clear refusal, to coerce or force her into oral sex: verbally, via repeated texts, or by physically planting his hands on her shoulders and pushing downward. A sophomore at a midwestern public university, for instance, told me she felt lucky that she’d never been sexually assaulted. A few minutes later she described going back to a boy’s room after a party during her freshman year. They kissed for a while, and then he attempted the shoulder push. She said no, and he backed off, only to try again a few minutes later, and then once more shortly after that. When she refused for the third time, he blew up. “Fuck you, then. I’ll find someone else,” he said and shoved her out of his room. It was the middle of the night in February and her dorm was two miles away. She cried the whole way home.

Another young woman, a freshman at a New England college, told me that she performed oral sex for the first time shortly after her sixteenth birthday. It was not by choice. “It was the summer after sophomore year in high school,” she recalled. “I’d been talking to this guy for a while; he seemed nice. We were in the back of his car kissing. He just . . . I don’t know how it happened. I was high, and that was confusing. He was very aggressive. He wanted to have sex, and I was like, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea.’ He was not accepting. He kept trying for sex. And I was like no. So he sort of forced oral sex. He pushed my shoulders. And I didn’t know how to get out of it. I was mostly just shocked. It wasn’t a good feeling. And it’s lasted. I never liked the idea of oral sex again after that. I still don’t.”

Girls have long been made the gatekeepers of male desire, charged with containing it, diverting it, controlling it. Providing reliable release from it had now become their responsibility as well. Oral sex had become their compromise, a loophole, a strategy for carrying out that expectation with the minimum of physical, social, or emotional fuss. “It’s almost like . . . clean, you know what I mean?” a junior at a New York City public high school told me. I didn’t know what she meant, not really. “It’s like . . .” she said, “it’s like . . . it’s what’s expected of you.”

Girls rarely mentioned manually stimulating a boy. If the goal was to remain detached and impersonal, I would’ve thought that would be the obvious choice. “No,” said Ruby in Chicago. “A guy can do that himself. ‘A hand job is a man job. A blow job is yo’ job.’ Guys will actually say that. ‘Just give me a blow job if you’re going to do anything.’ ”


Listening to stories of obligatory, often coerced, usually one-sided oral sex, I began to wonder: What if, rather than blow jobs, guys were expecting girls to, say, fetch them lattes from Starbucks. Would the girls be so compliant?

Sam laughed when I asked her that. “Well, a latte costs money . . .”

“Okay,” I said. “Pretend it was free. Let’s say guys expected you to keep getting them cups of water from the kitchen whenever you were alone. Would you be so willing? And would you mind that they never offered to bring you one in return?”

Sam laughed again. “Well, I guess when you put it that way . . .” As Anna said, reciprocity in casual encounters was never assumed. That was fine with some girls, even a relief; those like Anna, however, who enjoyed oral sex, were miffed. “It’s just expected that the guy will get off,” she complained, “and then maybe he will be like”—she dropped her voice into a low register and gestured halfheartedly toward my torso with her chin—“ ‘Oh, uh, do you want me to . . . ?’ It’s never like he’ll do something for me and maybe I’ll do something for him. It’s like, naturally I’ll do something and then he’ll ask if I ‘want’ him to.” One young woman I met, a college freshman who was a self-described “nympho” (who had also, she said, spent every summer of her teens at “Jesus camp”), told me that she no longer tolerated lack of reciprocity from her “randoms.” “The worst experience I had was when I hooked up with this guy and he got me down to my bra and underwear and he’s in his boxers. Normally the next thing would be the bra comes off. But the bra didn’t come off. Instead, all of a sudden his boxers were off. And then he did this”— she pantomimed the shoulder push. “And I was like, ‘Wait, just because my organs are inside and yours are outside I’m not going to get anything and you expect me to go down on you?’ I was like, ‘We are done. This is not going to happen.’ It was incredibly awkward, though. I had to get him out of my room.”

Excerpted from "Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape" by Peggy Orenstein. Copyright © 2016 by Peggy Orenstein. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins.

Peggy Orenstein

Peggy Orenstein is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and author of "Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap" (Anchor Books).

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