WARNING – THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SOME INFORMATION ABOUT MY OWN SEX LIFE. IT’S NOT GRAPHIC OR DETAILED, AND IT’S CONFINED TO THE “OBJECTION THE FIRST” SECTION, BUT IF YOU HAVE THE KIND OF RELATIONSHIP WITH ME THAT PRECLUDES WANTING TO HEAR ANYTHING ABOUT MY SEX LIFE, DO NOT READ THIS POST. ESPECIALLY DO NOT READ THIS POST AND THEN COMPLAIN TO ME THAT YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT MY SEX LIFE, OR THAT YOU OBJECT TO ME WRITING ABOUT IT AT ALL, GIVEN THAT YOU PERSONALLY MAY BE VIEWING IT.
I know this scare has been brewing for quite some time. “Oh, my god, teenage girls don’t think oral sex is sex!” “Oh, my god, they’re HAVING oral sex!” “Oh, my god, they’re having oral sex with random and mutliple people at parties, publicly, like they’re WHORES, and also the girls are not receiving it in turn!” I remember this. I remember this scare going on while I was in high school, because that’s when the Clinton scandal was taking up 109% of everyone’s attention. Apparently, many adults decided that if Clinton said oral sex wasn’t sex, then teenagers would pick up that belief, too, even though a) they were being awfully optimistic about how seriously teenagers take – or even know about – the opinions of their authority figures, and b) I don’t know about any of you, but I learned in 1994 that oral sex was sloppy thirds and sex sex was home base, and so the two were clearly not the same thing. That was well before the Clinton scandal broke. But this scare has come to my attention again recently. Bitch magazine published on their (s)hitlist a link to Caitlin Flanagan’s article in Atlantic Monthly about the phenomenon. So I thought I’d take it up again, with all of my objections to this faux trend and the hype about it.
Objection the first: Thinking oral sex is not the same as vaginal sex and does not constitute the loss of virginity is not the same as casually performing oral sex on multiple boys in one party.
I’m pretty sure I had this conversation with my mother when the Clinton scandal broke. She was shocked to learn that I didn’t think it was the same as sex, and that I thought it was a less big deal than sex. I was probably 15 at the time of this conversation, which means that, though my words echoed the words of some of the girls quoted in this article – and the opinions of most of my peers – I wouldn’t actually have any oral sex for another three years. In the privacy of a dorm room, not at a party. With my boyfriend. Who is now my husband. Obviously, I don’t think of myself as a typical example. But I have girlfriends. I don’t know any one of them that considers oral sex to be equal to or dirtier than vaginal sex. I also know that not one of them has performed oral sex on multiple partners in a casual and public setting. I don’t believe that any of them has made a habit of performing oral sex on people with whom they are not in a relationship. Not to say it hasn’t happened once or twice, but that’s probably the extent of it. Even the girls I knew in high school who were significantly more experienced and racier than me didn’t engage in that type of behavior. The raciest thing I heard in middle school was a Spin-the-Bottle game that involved breast-touching. I have a younger sister who is now a senior in high school who was upset when a few of her friends decided that a camp bus ride was boring and that French-kissing all the boys on the bus was the best way to pass the time. They were thirteen, I think. These girls (or at least one of them) are the “slutty” ones, the ones with the worst reputations at school, and that’s where it started.
Objection the second: If they’re still called “sluts,” not much has changed.
I found it remarkable that Flanagan didn’t notice it when she said, “Wide-eyed young girls spilled the beans on their slutty classmates, and intimated that they themselves weren’t so different.” Right. It’s still considered slutty to behave like this. It was considered slutty to behave like this ten years ago, and it was slutty twenty years ago, and it was slutty forty years ago. It’s not becoming a norm of teenage behavior. Obviously, I’m not arguing that sexual norms haven’t changed since the 1950s. I’m just arguing that they haven’t turned into, “It’s now considered normal and acceptable in high school to give blow jobs to as many guys as you can at a single party.” I’m also arguing that they’ve kind of changed for everyone, roughly equally. Can’t figure out why a thirteen-year-old thinks pleasing her boyfriend sexually is more important than getting herself off? Ask the twenty-five-year-old reading Cosmo. Don’t know why a fifteen-year-old thinks casual sex with acquaintances is a good idea? Tune in to Sex in the City. Why do we expect teenagers to have different values than the culture they’re being raised in?
Objection the third: Are those values really such a problem?
Obviously, to the extent that girls are not learning that their own desire is important, it’s a problem. And I do believe that that is happening, although not to the extent and not with the end results that so horrify Flanagan and others. But to the extent that oral sex is a little more casual than vaginal sex, and sex in general is a little more casual than it has been before, is this really such a big deal? Did the parents of these teenagers wait until they were married to have any sex at all? Do the parents of these teenagers not perform oral sex on their partners? I don’t understand all of the hand-wringing.
And I’m not being deliberately facetious. I wring my hands, too, over the idea that girls don’t demand sexual pleasue for themselves, and that they allow themselves to be used in a degrading manner – as part of one of these “trains,” for instance – in order to be more popular, and that many teenagers don’t understand that you can transmit diseases that way even if you can’t get pregnant. I just don’t think it’s happening as much as these articles imply, and I also don’t think that all of the evidence used in these articles is evidence of it happening. Half of all seventeen-year-old girls have had oral sex? Okay, fine. But that statistic doesn’t speak to how many times, who they had it with, or who got sexual pleasure from it (since you’ve “had oral sex” whether you were the receiver or the giver), and I refuse to get my stomach in a knot over the idea of a seventeen-year-old engaging in sexual activity with her boyfriend that has no chance of getting her pregnant (as long as they are acting to prevent transmission of diseases).
And I know that people will say, “Oh, but you’re not a parent.” Okay, but a) I am a big sister. I feel very protective towards both my younger sisters, one of whom is in this age group. And I can honestly say that as long as she’s safe, loved, and getting as much as she’s giving, I’m happy for her, and b) if parental reaction to this is more about, “Oh, my baby is growing up,” and less about, “These practices are emotionally and physically dangerous,” as is implied by the “But you’re not a parent yet” attitude, then I have even less respect for them than I did before. Parents, teenagers have sexual urges, because they have gone through or are going through puberty, which means “the time in life when you get sexual urges.” The lucky ones are even acting on them. You did or would have, too.
Objection the fourth: If you are an adult interviewing a teenager on their attitudes about sex, you should know they are probably making every effort to come across as blase and experienced to you, because they are teenagers, and they do that. Their answers have no bearing on their actual behavior. If you don’t know that, you’re perhaps in the wrong profession.
This relates to that “and intimated that they themselves weren’t that different” sction of the quote. They tell an adult a story about a friend of theirs whose behavior is slutty, and the adult acts predictably horrified. What are the kids going to do, align themselves with the values of these adults, right in front of them and everything, or quickly align themselves with that which the adults want to reject? Clearly, they’re a little shocked and put off by these stories as well, or they wouldn’t be telling them. You can’t take their “intimating” that seriously.
Objection the fifth: You probably know your own kid better than you think you do.
After another recent teenage-behavior scare, the one about “friends with benefits” (which is, again, something that plenty of older people are doing or pretending to do), my father asked me if I thought my fourteen-year-old brother was at risk for this type of behavior. Now, I love my brother very much, and I think one day he will grow into quite the lady-killer. But right now? He’s kind of a dork. I don’t know that he’s been able to say “Hi” to a girl he has a crush on. I told my dad that he was more at risk for NOT having any of this type of behavior for a long, long time, and that if my dad really wanted to help, he’d figure out how to get him into one of these situations, not out of them.
I’ve encountered this attitude in other venues. Remember this spring, when some schools banned prom because kids just use it as an excuse to rent hotels and get drunk and have sex? Lots of hand-wringing them. But listen, parents. If your kid goes out to parties all the time before prom, and doesn’t come home, and always claims to be sleeping at a friends’, whose parents you don’t know, then they are also going to do that at prom. If your kid engages in none of these activities before prom, because a) you are too strict for them to get away with that, b) they are not really inclined to that sort of thing (which plenty of teenagers are not, I swear!), and/or c) they are too dorky to be included in that sort of thing, they are not going to do them at prom. You probably already know which of these categories your kid falls into.
I also had a sort of weird discussion with my mother-in-law. I went on a teen tour to Israel when I was 16, for five weeks, and expressed that I expected that I would send our kids on one, too. (Actually, since my grandparents sent me on mine, I sort of expect that my dad will send my kids on theirs, but that’s neither here nor there.) My mother-in-law said that she thought this was a bad idea because kids get up to all kinds of trouble on trips like that, away from home, with limited supervision. I said, first of all, that supervision is not that limited, and second of all, that I went on a trip. Not entirely getting my point, she said, “Yeah, and you said some kids were drinking and partying.” I pointed out that a) they got caught and their parents were called, and b) I still didn’t do anything. I was sitting that night with a bunch of people who knew that it was going on and chose not to go to it. I reiterate, if your kid does that kind of thing when not on a teen tour in a foreign country, your kid will do that kind of the thing when on a teen tour in a foreign country. Admittedly, in Israel, your level of supervision is no longer a safeguard, but you still have the other two – inclination and dorkiness. And you usually know whether your kid has either of those. Really, the biggest worry is if you know your kid wants to drink, you know your kid is cool enough to be invited to hang out with those who want to drink, and so only your vigilance has kept them from doing so. And I think, given their genetic material, there’s little chance our kids won’t be too dorky to be invited to the big, drunk orgies.*
I have no other objections I want to get into right now**, but I do want to say one other thing. I really do understand why parents don’t want their kids having their boy/girlfriends in their actual bedrooms, because there are beds in there, and things can go in beds, so I’m not objecting to the rules themselves. But I do think parents have to understand the phrase “my room” from a teenage perspective. To a parent, who owns the whole house, a bedroom is the place where one sleeps, (hopefully) has sex, and engages in private activities of various types. To a teenager, their room is basically their apartment. The rest of the house is not “theirs” in the same way, and so their bedroom is usually their location for sleeping, eating, dressing, studying, socializing, lounging, etc. So some of the time, when they bring a boy/girlfriend up there, it’s not with the understanding that sexual activity will be engaged in, it’s with the understanding that this is where they live and so where else would they go? Again, I’m not saying that means you should let your teenagers have their boy/girlfriends in their rooms. I’m just remind you that your understandings of “bedroom” are different so you can be guided accordingly.
*I should stress that these kids don’t exist yet, much less do they show signs of wanting to rock and roll all night.
**I do object to how obsessively this is all focused on girls, because obviously, boys are not a factor in blow jobs at all, but there’s just too much there.