Teens See Oral Sex As A 'Casual Alternative' To Intercourse, Study Shows

One in five ninth graders polled have had oral sex; one in seven aren't aware of STD risks.

Teens believe that oral sex is safer than intercourse and is more acceptable to their peers, according to a report published in the April 2005 issue of Pediatrics. One in five ninth graders report having had oral sex and one-third say they intend to try it during the next six months.

Questionnaires were distributed to 580 ninth-graders in two California public schools to determine their attitudes toward sex and their own sexual behavior, in the study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco. It is the first of its kind to gauge teens as young as 14 and their perception of oral sex as opposed to intercourse.

Twenty percent of the students surveyed said they have had oral sex, compared to just over 13 percent who have had intercourse. Nearly 32 percent said they intended to have oral sex within the next six months, compared to 26 percent who intend to have intercourse. The data also shows that adolescents believe oral sex was less likely to have negative social and emotional consequences, such as a bad reputation, getting into trouble, feeling bad about themselves and feeling guilty. They also considered it less of a threat to their values and beliefs.

"These findings suggest that adults should discuss more than one type of sexual practice when they counsel teens," Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, associate professor of adolescent medicine at UCSF, said in a statement. "The fact that [teens] at 14 are having or considering oral sex and consider it safer and more acceptable is important information for parents and [adults] who work with youth. When we counsel [teens] about the risks and benefits associated with sex, we need to understand how they perceive it among themselves."

One disturbing finding of the study revealed that teens still carry a common misconception about the health risks of oral sex, where one in seven teens thought the risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) from oral sex would be zero. "When oral sex is more frequent, sexually transmitted infections can rise if those who engage in it do not use protection," UCSF researchers pointed out. It is still possible to contract STDs from oral sex, including herpes, chlamydia, hepatitis, syphilis, and even HIV.

Halpern-Felsher says one of the main issues contributing to the problem is the lack of proper sex education in schools and a lack of openness among parents to speak candidly to their teens about sex-related issues. "Teens are hardly getting any education at all in schools, and certainly not about the facts," she told MTV News. "I don't think parents are talking about it, and physicians aren't talking about it. It's hard enough for people to talk about sex in general, but we need to, because teens are putting themselves at harm."

The doctor also found that teens see oral sex as having fewer social and emotional risks, and young teens may be engaging in sexual activity and intimacy they are not quite prepared for. She encourages parents to sit down with their teenager to discuss the emotional and health risks of oral sex.

"Parents need to recognize that this is going on, and that they need to be honest and bring it up to their teens like you would any other sexual behavior. You need to tell them it's not a casual alternative. There are real risks involved. There's real intimacy and things you need to think about," she said. "It's not just giving away sex in the bathroom just because that's the way you think you'll get a boyfriend or a girlfriend."

Teens are living in a day and age where they're taught abstinence or nothing at all, and the social aspects which are far more important to teens are often overlooked, according to Halpern-Felsher. However, she does not believe the teens are being pressured into engaging in these activities by their partners, or even the media, but more of the lack of a social stigma surrounding oral sex.

"Some of the reasons people might be doing it might not be for love, but to satisfy someone else, or to satisfy yourself, and I don't think a 14-year-old is ready to make those kinds of decisions," she said. "Are we going to stop them? No. But we should educate them so they have the proper information to make the decisions themselves."