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4 Things You Didn't Know About Oral Sex

The truth about oral sex, from cancer risk to what teens say about it.

1. Oral sex is linked to throat cancer. continued...

Doctors know, however, that oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV are easier to treat than those caused by factors like smoking and drinking.

Brawley says the best prevention method is still unclear, but "in terms of public awareness, this information certainly should be available to people," he says.

Expanding the use of the HPV vaccine could be one approach, but Brawley says, "I'm not sure that we have studies enough to make a blanket assertion that this is a reason to vaccinate boys for HPV." The FDA has approved the HPV vaccine Gardasil for males aged 9-26 -- but only to help prevent genital warts in those boys and young men, not as a way to curb HPV infection in their partners. The CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices allows but doesn’t require boys as young as 9 to get Gardasil.

2. Oral sex enhances some adult relationships, strains others.

Among adults, oral sex causes stress for some couples and enhances intimacy for others, says sex therapist Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, of Fair Oaks, Calif. She says stress about oral sex often has to do with one partner's concerns about hygiene.

"One person will not want to receive it because he or she worries about the partner's reaction," Weston says.

Some people may also be anxious about their performance -- doing it well enough to please a partner -- or about responding appropriately to receiving it. "Some people can't just let go and receive," Weston says.

Sexual power dynamics may be part of it, too.

"Some people resist doing it because they feel a bit subjugated," Weston says. Her advice for those people: "They have a very important body part between their teeth; and after all, who is in charge in a position like that?"

Other people, Weston says, experience oral sex as a "relationship strengthener" and "a very intimate connection" shared with a partner. "It's being able to look at the partner and see them going into really very personal space," Weston says.

3. Unprotected oral sex is common, but has risks.

Several sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, HPV, and viral hepatitis can be passed on through oral sex.

"Oral sex is not safe sex," says Terri Warren, RN, owner of Westover Heights Clinic in Portland, Ore., a private clinic specializing in STDs. "It's safer sex, but it's definitely not safe sex."

The risks depend on a lot of different things, including how many sexual partners you have, your gender, and what particular oral sex acts you engage in.

Using barrier protection can reduce the risk of getting an STD. A barrier can be a condom covering the penis, or a plastic or latex "dental dam" placed over the vulva or anus. Instead of a prepackaged dental dam, a condom cut open to make a sheet is also an acceptable barrier.

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