Does Your Teenager Think Oral Sex Isn’t “Real Sex?”
And why the answer to that question might put your teen at risk.
When I was student teaching, my classmates and I would keep a tally of how many times we’d caught kids having sex at school and then report back to one another during our weekly night classes. While this might seem like some kind of perverted drinking game, I assure you, our interest was only emotionally- and sociologically-inspired.
“What the hell is going on?” my classmate Rachel asked one night. Earlier that day, she’d found a female student giving a male student a hand job underneath a jacket oh-so-casually draped over their laps while the class was watching Schlinder’s List.
This was not the first time one of my fellow student teachers had come upon scenes like this. They had found girls giving boys hand jobs or blow jobs in classrooms, on the bleachers during assemblies, in the bathrooms, and in the parking lot.
There were two concerns that really stuck out for us:
1. The willingness these teens had to engage in public or semi-public sex.
2. The complete and total imbalance around who was giving pleasure and who was receiving it.
We couldn’t extract any helpful data from our experiences. It didn’t seem to matter if a high school had a liberal, moderate, or conservative student body, or one in which socioeconomic levels were low, middle, or upper class. We could find no commonalities.
Then one day, my classmate Carrie shared a story about two students caught engaging in a blow job in the boy’s bathroom. During a discussion with the principal, the students had been belligerent and angry at being called out for something that wasn’t a big deal.
“Blow jobs aren’t even sex!” the male student had yelled at one point.
A silence fell over our group for just a moment after Carrie shared that story. We looked at one another as a collective understanding dawned on us that finally explained what was happening.
It’s not sex.
I know many adults who share the opinion that nothing is sex until a penis goes into a vagina. While I fully respect everyone’s right to have their own definition of sex, I feel that the penis-in-vagina (PIV) definition of sex is incredibly heterocentric and reductive. In response to this, some insist that they count the same activity as sex for gay men — it’s just PIA in that case. (Except for those who don’t consider anal sex to be “real sex.”)
So…does that mean two women can never experience sex together unless there’s a dildo involved?
I could also throw a few other inconsistencies out there, like:
- Why is sticking a penis in a vagina considered “penetration” (and therefore “sex”) when sticking a penis in a mouth is not? What’s the difference between these two holes?
- Why do we use the term “oral sex” or “anal sex” if those acts aren’t considered sex?
- Where is the line between intimacy and actual sex?
Again, my point here is not to suggest that everyone come together and vote on one universal definition of sex. (How dull a world that would be.)
But I do question whether or not our disregard of certain acts as “real sex” is trickling down in damaging ways to our teenagers. Here’s how:
It’s dismissive of queer experience
If we are passing down the definition of sex as vaginal penetration, how on earth can teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc. feel validated in their sexual experiences? How do they “own” the interactions they have with others that don’t happen to be PIV sex?
I fear it is ultimately disempowering to them to feel that experiencing anal, oral, or digital sex isn’t “real sex.” Not to mention the fact that insisting on defining sex as PIV penetration continues to marginalize LGBTQ youth, and entrench the cultural emphasis on heterosexual behavior as the “norm.”
It trivializes sexual experiences
One of the reasons I feel so strongly about defining oral sex as sex is because of an experience I had with a lover. Over the course of several months, I performed oral sex on him many times, mostly at his insistence, which he demonstrated by physically maneuvering me into position. (In other words, he never asked me or demonstrated any willingness to discuss the interaction.) After I was done, he would leave or ask me to leave, never once giving me — or even offering to give me — sexual pleasure in return.
These encounters deeply scarred me and for years, I felt annoyed with myself for feeling almost traumatized about something that didn’t matter. “It’s not even sex,” as one friend once admonished me. “Why can’t you just get over it?”
A long time later, I realized that yes, (in my opinion) having a guy come in your mouth and swallowing his semen is sex. And it scared me that I hadn’t considered it sex before that point.
The perspective that it wasn’t “real sex” put me in a situation in which I felt like I was obligated to give him head. What’s the big deal, right? It’s not any different than kissing.
If I had been able to define a blow job as “real sex,” I feel my interactions with that partner would have been very different.
Interestingly, I have never overheard a conversation about cunnilingus that didn’t define that action as “real sex” and therefore, an interaction that required more thought, deliberation, and debate between partners. As such, in my circle of friends, cunnilingus is much less common than a blow job (which aren’t “real sex”). Hmmm…
It increases the risk of transmitting disease
If it’s not sex, then you don’t need to use protection, have a discussion about your health and sexual history, or assess the risk factors of an encounter, right?
It bypasses consent
Here’s perhaps the most troubling piece of all to this perspective that only PIV penetration is real sex: You don’t need consent to do things that aren’t “real sex.”
During my years in social work and education, I cannot even count how many times I witnessed, or heard about, a female student who broke down weeks or months after an encounter with a partner in which they performed oral sex and later deeply regretted it. Many of them hadn’t wanted to engage in those exchanges, but like me, felt they couldn’t say no because a “blow job isn’t a big deal.”
The few times that a student was experiencing especially deep trauma over a past interaction and a faculty member asked if she had given her consent to the boy in question, every single one of those girls brushed the question aside.
“It wasn’t sex, so why would we have even discussed it?” they said.
Of course, the law doesn’t agree with that, but in the moment, between two young, inexperienced people who don’t believe that sex is anything but a penis in a vagina, consent is irrelevant. This is, of course, incredibly dangerous, putting young women in a position to feel like they’re unreasonable not to engage in any activity so long as there’s no vaginal penetration by a partner’s penis, and putting young men in a position where they could get into serious trouble.
Further, it continues to perpetuate the centering of male pleasure in a sexual experience and teaches young men that women’s pleasure is not only not their responsibility, but a liability. As Peggy Orenstein shared in her book, Boys and Sex:
Zachary, …a high school senior …in the Bay Area, outlined a strategy that, at best, seemed to miss the point [of consent]. “If the girl wants to go further the first time we hook up, I’m like — ” He lifted his hands in the air as if he’d been burned, then glanced downward, presumably to where a girl’s head would be. “She can do whatever she wants. I’m fine with that. But I’m not going to go there because I’m paranoid as fuck.”
A new perspective
Again, I will emphasize that I don’t think the answer is for us to all to come to a consensus on what constitutes sexual activity.
But I do think it’s long past time to stop emphasizing PIV sex as the only “real sex.”
I think we need to make sure our kids know that there are many different expressions of sexual behavior and that yes, they can choose what they define as sex or not, but that it’s important to communicate those definitions to a partner in order to be clear about consent.
It’s also essential for teenagers to know that even if they choose to make their own decisions about what “real sex” is, the law has its own definition — especially when it comes to minors — and they need to know exactly what those definitions are and the role consent plays.
And yes, I think it’s time we are very clear that blow jobs, hand jobs, and anal sex might not be part of some adult’s definitions of sex, but they are not “nothing,” not the equivalent of kissing, and not a non-negotiable, fundamental part of a makeout session.
Maybe we don’t have to define sex, but we can at least give our teenagers the tools to attach weight to intimate experiences so they can make choices that will better honor their hearts and bodies.