Is it true, as Oprah Winfrey said in 2003, that there is an "oral-sex epidemic" among America's teenagers? Ever since stories emerged in The New York Times and USA Today about the supposed occurrence of "rainbow parties," at which girls put on different shades of lipstick and give oral sex to a group of boys (producing the "rainbow"), there has been an acute interest in and questions about the sexual behavior of teens. But despite all the concerns, no one seemed to ask if the epidemic really existed. Researchers from the Guttmacher Institute have done the first national study of teenagers and noncoital sexual activity and have found that while over half of 15-to-19-year-olds have engaged in oral sex, they do not appear to be substituting oral sex for intercourse, nor are they commonly having oral sex with multiple partners. NEWSWEEK's Raina Kelley spoke to study coauthor Rachel Jones about why the myth has persisted.
NEWSWEEK: Precisely what did your study find?
Rachel Jones: Contrary to popular perception, large numbers of teens are not substituting oral sex [or anal sex] for vaginal sex [in order to] maintain their technical virginity.
What was the impetus to do this study?
There seemed to be all these media reports sensationalizing rapidly rising rates of oral sex among adolescents ... so we wanted to look at the numbers to see if it was actually true.
Why did the public think teenagers were substituting noncoital sexual activity for vaginal sex? Were they, in fact, simply having this kind of sexual activity in larger numbers?
We really think it was just because of these anecdotal media reports--it [so-called rainbow parties] does occur; but it's not as common as we think. If we hear that some teens are doing it, people start to think that all teens are doing it.
Do you think that pressure to stay abstinent created an atmosphere where we believed teens' sexual patterns had changed in response?
All we basically had were anecdotal reports and studies going back a couple of decades showing that teens believed that you could have anal sex and still be a virgin when you get married. In my experience doing this kind of research, the idea of abstinence and teenage sexuality is something that naturally gets sensationalized. And adults tend to pay more attention to the anecdotes rather than the facts.
Who did you survey to get your results?
We looked at the government's National Survey of Family Growth from 2002. It is the first and only nationally representative study of sex among male and female adolescents. It looked at 2,271 females and males aged 15-19. In earlier research, studies of oral sex among teens tended to be within one gender or one school or one school district or a convenient sample [such as a health clinic or after-school group].
How well do you think these numbers from 2002 correlate with what's happening with teens now?
The government's National Survey of Family Growth from 2006 is being processed in this coming year. So I can't say; but if I had to make an educated guess, there probably hasn't been much change. We compared the numbers from 2002 to other studies going back to 1991, and the numbers have remained very consistent.
How truthful do you think these teens are and do you think using the computer-assisted self-administered interviews helped elicit more truthful answers?
As a social scientist, I think most people are honest under these kinds of circumstances--they have nothing to gain by lying, especially when the most sensitive questions [regarding age of onset and frequency of oral and anal sex and number of partners] were anonymous and confidential. Plus, the people that administer these tests are very skilled and sensitive about asking kids these kinds of questions without judgment.
How does your study show that kids aren't actually substituting noncoital sexual activity for vaginal sex?
We found that while 87 percent of nonvirgin teens have had oral sex, only 23 percent of virgins had. Plus we discovered that adolescents who disagreed with the statement that sex at 18 is OK were significantly less likely to have engaged in noncoital sex: they just weren't having the same amount of oral sex that sexually active teens were having.
You also found that most virgins who had oral sex have only had one sexual partner (and only 8 percent reporting four or more).
And that again suggests that teens aren't having serial oral sex. While adolescents who had engaged in both oral and vaginal sex were most likely to have four or more lifetime partners--which suggests that oral and vaginal sex are closely related in teens' minds and sexual history and we need to study that further.
You and your coauthor say that a better understanding of noncoital activities among teens is needed--why?
The most important reason is that 1 in 10 teenagers has had anal sex. That's not a sizable number, but it's still significant [though data shows little change in the numbers of teens participating in anal sex since 1991], they need to understand the risks of sexually transmitted diseases that go along with this kind of behavior and the risks related to all noncoital sexual activity. It's important to know for a fact what teens are doing so we can adequately prepare them to protect themselves from STDs.