Study: Teen Sexual Behavior Hasn't Changed Much

The story is shocking, but perhaps not unfamiliar. At a birthday party for a seventh-grader, the boy's mother had gone down to the basement only to find all the boys lined up along one wall. The girls, the mother reported, had been going down the line performing oral sex on them.

But is the story true? Some people certainly seem to think so. In the new play "Good Boys and True" students at an elite boys' school have contests to see who can be orally serviced by the most girls. Last year's nonfiction book "Restless Virgins" detailed a sex scandal at Milton Academy, a Massachusetts prep school, involving a female sophomore performing oral sex on five male students. And by now most of us have heard of "The Rainbow Party," the 2005 young adult novel that suggested high school girls spend their afternoons fellating their male classmates.

But according to a newly published study of 15-to-19-year-olds by the Guttmacher Institute, teen sexual behavior in general hasn't changed much since 1991. Just a little more than half the teens studied had engaged in oral sex, only 5 percent more than had engaged in vaginal sex. Most teens who had had oral sex had also had intercourse, and only one in four teen virgins had had oral sex—not exactly the makings of a teen oral sex epidemic.

So why is society constantly speculating about the most salacious stories about our children? Possibly because they confirm our worst fears about the values of the next generation and our growing sense that we really have no idea what's going on with our kids. Maybe, also, because in our increasingly sexualized culture the stories seem not so implausible. Maybe it's easier to pay attention to a few shocking anecdotes than to what the data—or our children—tell us. (It's not surprising that most of the rumors focus on girls servicing boys, since our culture seems to revel in being simultaneously titillated and appalled by the precocious sexuality of teen girls, as evidenced by the recent controversy surrounding Miley Cyrus's seminude "Vanity Fair" spread.) "We were the free-love generation, and we're obsessed over the sexual lives of our children. We need to ask ourselves why," says Laura Sessions Stepp, author of "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both."

As for the veracity of the story about the seventh-grade birthday party, Stepp is skeptical. But the hysteria of the mother who called to tell her about it (who had heard the tale from another mother) is real. Stepp should know: she helped create it, with a 1999 front-page story in the Washington Post about the alarming fad for oral sex among middle-schoolers in Washington's suburbs, one of the first stories to publicize the idea that oral sex among youngsters was on the rise. Thanks to Monica Lewinsky oral sex was already on everyone's minds, along with the idea that the younger generation didn't consider it as serious as intercourse. "It had been going on among older teens. Then Monica surfaces, and all of a sudden it's front and center," says Stepp. "It was more than a wake-up call. It was a siren." Over the next few years the idea that kids were having oral sex—in basements, on school buses, in study halls—as cavalierly as shaking hands gained traction in the popular imagination. (In 2002 Oprah devoted an episode to the "epidemic.") The logic seemed self-evident: if oral sex wasn't "really sex," it was a way kids could satisfy their sexual urges while remaining chaste.

But according to the Guttmacher study, the idea that kids use oral sex as a substitute for intercourse is a myth. According to the study's author, Laura Lindberg, "There is no good evidence that teens who have not had intercourse engage in oral sex with a series of partners … Our research shows that this supposed substitution of oral sex for vaginal sex is largely a myth."

Even so, there can be a huge discrepancy between perception and reality when it comes to the sex lives of teenagers. "You'd think parents would be relieved by these studies, but when Oprah refers to oral sex as an epidemic, they're sold on the idea that that's what happening," says Kathleen Bogle, author of "Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus." "There seems to be a resistance to clearing up false perceptions on the parts of parents and of kids themselves."

Part of the reason for the misconception is that the language of teen sexuality is intentionally vague. When an adolescent talks about "hooking up" she may be describing a range of activities from kissing to having intercourse. "Because of the ambiguity of what 'hooking up' means, people often assume that in more of the cases it includes oral sex than it actually does," Bogle says. "You can be fooled into thinking everyone else is doing it." Another explanation is that these stories are, essentially, the most virulent form of gossip, salacious and nearly impossible to disprove. "We're afraid to believe it about our own kids, but we're eager to believe it about other kids," says Stepp. "That way, if our own kid does it, we can believe it's peer pressure."

The recent critical focus on abstinence-only sex education may also be contributing to the perception that kids use oral sex as a substitute for intercourse. According to a study published in the 2005 Journal of Adolescent Health, teens who had taken abstinence pledges were six times as likely to have engaged in oral sex as teen virgins who hadn't taken the pledge. The study was picked up by opponents of abstinence-only education such as Bill Maher, who suggested, in a televised special, that Republicans had created a generation of "apple-cheeked" girls who said no to sex but an enthusiastic yes to all sorts of other pornographic behavior. But, again, the Guttmacher study found that oral sex is much more common among teens who have already had intercourse than among virgins.

Whether they're having oral sex or not, the act seems to mean something different from what it meant to their parents. "For our generation, oral sex seemed more intimate than intercourse," says Stepp, who is a parent herself. "The thought that their 11-year-old-daughters are doing it is flabbergasting." The hysteria around oral sex, then, may be as much about attitude as behavior, suggesting that teens have become ever more exoticized in the eyes of the older generation, a seemingly strange and impenetrable tribe with bizarre rituals and alien belief systems. The truth, of course, is that some kids do it, some kids don't, and for every birthday party where the boys line up against the wall, there are hundreds more where the kids drink too much soda, play Grand Theft Auto, and then simply go home.