Students on the Hill Share Their Opinions About Oral Sex
"I did not have sexual relations with that woman."
Although former United States President Bill Clinton did not know it at the time, his 1998 scandal with 22-year old White House intern Monica Lewinsky would have a permanent impact on the public perception of what exactly constitutes sex.
The University of Kentucky recently revealed the results of a 2007 study that examined college undergraduates' ideas about sex. The survey asked 477 students which of the following acts they considered to be "sex," with 98 percent of respondents saying that penile-vaginal intercourse counted, 78 percent saying that penile-anal intercourse and a low 20 percent saying that oral sex counted.
Clinton finally admitted that his relationship with Lewinsky was "not appropriate," and after the infamous blue dress was discovered, Clinton announced in court that his definition of sexual relations did not include oral sex. Merriam-Webster's definition of sex as "sexually motivated phenomena or behavior" has not provided a solid answer either.
To determine if these findings reflect how students on the Hill feel about oral sex, the Echo administered a survey to 218 total participants-74 male and 144 female-asking them several questions about oral sex. Only 30 percent of those participants felt that oral sex should be considered sex.
Sixty-three percent of students also responded that they would be more likely to engage in oral sex than have intercourse during a first-time hook-up, while 37 percent said they would be less likely or just as likely to engage in oral sex as they would be to have intercourse.
Why do so many students no longer consider oral sex "sex?" Many students cited the same reasons for choosing oral sex over intercourse in an uncommitted relationship, such as no risk of pregnancy or a smaller risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
But practicing oral sex over penile-vaginal intercourse does not exempt one from the risk of contracting an STI. "You are definitely at risk of STIs with oral sex," Lydia Bolduc-Marden, nurse practitioner at the Garrison Foster Health Center, says.
"The [STIs that people] are the most at risk [for] are gonorrhea of the mouth and herpes because it's skin-to-skin contact, and if you have herpes type I (a cold sore) and have oral sex, you can give it to your partner in the genital area. Herpes I is not as virulent as herpes II. There are fewer and less serious outbreaks, but it's still herpes in the genital area," Bolduc-Marden says. Human papillomavirus (HPV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can also be transmitted through oral sex, although the latter less readily.
Students also responded that they would be more likely to engage in oral sex than intercourse because there is a greater emotional attachment associated with intercourse. Many students, mostly female, responded that they would only be able to have intercourse with a person that they were in love with.
Although many students responded that oral sex is more casual because it is less intimate, many answered with the opposite claim. Several respondents regard oral sex as an even more intimate act than penile-vaginal or anal intercourse because it involves placing your mouth on a very personal part of another person's body.
"I think oral sex counts as sex because it is a very intimate act performed by one person on another. It requires one to know another very intimately, or at least think that they do, as our drunken hookup culture leads us to think," a male senior says. "One does not just go around giving oral sex as freely as you eat dinner. I think there is a marked difference between oral sex and intercourse, but I still see oral sex as engaging in sexual activity."
The lack of sexual reciprocity on campus also seems to bother many students. When the parties involved are a male and a female, more often than not the female is the one who performs oral sex on the male; the survey results show that many male students do not return the favor.
"The reality is that the person you're performing oral sex on is getting the satisfaction of sex, especially if that person is male. The fact that you are not getting pleasure out of the situation just highlights the inequality of that particular scenario," a female senior says.
The most prevalent argument for oral sex's inclusion in the definition of sex, however, is the role that it plays not just for straight women but also in the gay and lesbian community.
"I feel that there are very heteronormative connotations to defining sex as strictly penile-vaginal intercourse," a female sophomore says. "Through this definition, we deny gay and lesbian people the rights to claim one of the most intimate, physical acts with their partners. There is also a sexist connotation in the idea that many people think of both vaginal and anal sex as forms of sex, but nothing else. Why do we insist on defining sex by what the man does, only involving penetration?" she says.
"I think this has roots in society's insistence on the 'innate' sexuality of men and the repressed sexuality of women. After all, we now know that even though men achieve orgasm primarily through penetration, women more easily achieve orgasm through foreplay or oral sex. Why are the vehicles of a woman's orgasm ranked lower on the, shall we say, 'sex hierarchy?'"
While some cite the biological argument of reproduction as what constitutes sex and what does not, many students feel that the social stigma associated with intercourse is far greater than that associated with oral sex. Their impression is not surprising.
According to a 2007 study of young adults' definitions of sex, 20 percent of people surveyed considered oral sex to be sex. When the same study of young conducted in 2001, 40 percent of people surveyed considered oral sex to be sex.
"Sex Redefined: The Classification of Oral-Genital Contact," an article by Jason D. Hals et al, explains this trend by reporting that "unlike respondents in the previous samples, our respondents were adolescents after the Clinton-Lewinsky era, which our comparisons of data over time suggest may have been a turning point in conceptualization of oral-genital contact."
Many experts are calling the trend in disassociating oral sex from sex the "Clinton-Lewinsky effect." And ever since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the prevalence of popular culture references to oral sex has increased dramatically as well, further impacting people's opinions of oral sex in today's society. Young people no longer see oral sex as an expression of intimacy but rather a way to engage in sexual acts while still preserving their virginity.
Sex education also changed in the 1990s, emphasizing abstinence and protection during intercourse over the role of oral sex in order to combat the rising teen pregnancy rate.
"Sexuality is an evolving, changing and utterly malleable thing," Assistant Professor of American Studies and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Lisa Arellano says. "It's not just that people think different things about oral sex, it"s that what constitutes oral sex might change over time. Research on sexuality is notoriously difficult-people obfuscate, mislead and sometimes lie because we have such discomfort around sexual practices.
Whether you agree or disagree that oral sex has become this generation's version of making out, as one student suggested, the important thing to remember is to stay safe when practicing any form of oral sex. The Health Center provides both condoms Sheer Dams for use during oral sex. Both forms of contraceptive substantially reduce the risk of spreading STIs.
And then of course there's the female senior who wrote that oral sex "just doesn't make for juicy discussions at Dana Sunday brunches," but that's another article in and of itself.