Yesterday’s big news was the new Guttmacher Institute study that suggests teenagers are not using oral sex as a way to stay “technically still a virgin.” Rather, it says that teenagers who are engaging in oral sex are by-and-large also engaging in vaginal intercourse.

I must admit – I am rather surprised by this finding.  But I am, if nothing else, swayed and enraptured by good research.  Here’s what the Guttmacher Institute has to say about the numbers:

“Some teens may first experience oral sex immediately prior to vaginal intercourse, while others may initiate vaginal intercourse shortly before having oral sex. While only one in four teen virgins (26%) have engaged in oral sex, once teens have had vaginal intercourse, the proportion increases incrementally. By six months after first vaginal sex, more than four out of five adolescents (81%) have also engaged in oral sex, and by three years after first intercourse, nine in 10 (92%) have done so”

And here are the results that the Guttmacher Instutite draws from this data:

 “There is a widespread belief that teens engage in nonvaginal forms of sex, especially oral sex, as a way to be sexually active while still claiming that technically, they are virgins,” says study author Laura Lindberg. “However, our research shows that this supposed substitution of oral sex for vaginal sex is largely a myth. There is no good evidence that teens who have not had intercourse engage in oral sex with a series of partners.”

But I’m not so sure that I agree with Dr. Lindberg’s conclusions.  Please note that I have not read the actual research paper or analyzed the data myself!  But based on what I have read, here are my problems with her conclusions:

  1. I was not able to find anywhere in the information on the study data-gathering about what the teenagers were claiming about their reasons behind their sexual decisions.  We can, with relative clarity given the breadth of this survey, know what the teenagers are doing, but we can’t know why.  So I think it’s jumping the gun to say that teenagers are not claiming to be virgins when they have had oral but not anal sex.  There is other research that does go into a bit more detail of teenagers’ understandings of the meanings of these various activities that suggests differently.
  2. What about the 12 to 14 year olds?  I’m unclear on whether this study asked the 15-to-19 year old participants to think back on their sexual experience time-line (which is, of course, problematic in it’s own right) or asked about their current sexual activities over time (much better, in terms of creating quality research but presents it’s own problems in terms of funding).  But I’m concerned that younger teenagers were left out of the equation – it seems to me that many of these younger teens may be the ones who are claiming that one can have oral sex and still be a virgin.
  3. What does it mean when you say “1 in 4 teen virgins”?  Did they ask “Are you a virgin?”  And then follow that up with questions about actual sexual activities?  The term virgin just needs to be tossed.  It confuses conversation – as it did the Guttmacher Institute’s press release.  So I hope for more linguistic clarity in Dr. Lindberg’s final paper.
  4. The other point that is not fully addressed here is the sexual progression that teenagers go through.  Perhaps it’s common for a teenage couple to get comfortable with oral sex (in order to maintain virginity) and then quickly move on to vaginal intercourse.  In other words, perhaps oral sex is a “gateway sexual activity” to vaginal intercourse.  That’s not really addressed here at all.
  5. Okay, one more point and then I’m (hopefully!) done.  I take great offense at Dr. Lindberg’s sentence: “There is no good evidence that teens who have not had intercourse engage in oral sex with a series of partners.”  There is, in fact, no conversation at all until this point about a series of partners.  I am worried that this sentence belies Dr. Lindberg’s unconscious assumption that a teenager who is engaging in oral sex is something of a “slut” and more likely to engage a “series of partners.”

I am fully aware that one research project cannot answer all of these questions.  Gaining a really well-rounded and informed understanding of adolescents’ sexuality will take far more time and money.   Nevertheless, I was disappointed to see that the Guttmacher Institute, as a highly respected research facility, did not temper their statement of results with a nuanced approach to what kind and scope of information this data analysis is really able to provide us.

However, one of the results of the study that I am really, really delighted to see was: Teenagers are having anal sex. (The Guttmacher Institute suggests about 1 in 10 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 has had anal sex.) The sex-ed implications are very, very clear. Anal sex carries higher risk than either vaginal or oral sex because of increased likelihood of STD transmission and the physical problems that can be brought on by moving too quickly, not using enough lubrication, and other problems that might induce tearing and serious internal injury – all of which compound the STD transmission risk). So we have to talk with teenagers about anal sex. They or someone they know is probably trying it out, or has tried it out, and the likelihood is that they have never had any information presented to them about how to engage in anal sex safely.

I’ve been disappointed by much of what I’ve read about this study – it primarily just repeats what the Guttmacher press release said with little or no analysis.  But if you’re looking for additional commentary, here is a good place to start.