May 9, 2003 - Risky oral sex may be fueling the unprecedented recent rise in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among teenagers. A new study shows sexually active teenagers have more oral sex partners than sexual intercourse partners, and most have never used protection, such as a condom, during oral sex.
The study, published in the May issue of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, surveyed 212 10th grade students about social factors that affect their sexual behavior.
Researchers found that teenagers are much more likely to engage in oral sex than sexual intercourse, and they have oral sex with more partners than they have intercourse with. For example, 23% of teens said they had three to four oral sex partners within the last year, but only 13% had the same number of partners for sexual intercourse.
The study showed that 40% of teenage boys and girls said they had engaged in oral sex within the past year, and over 25% of those teens had three or more oral sex partners in the last year. Most sexually active teenagers (70%) said they never used protection during oral sex that might reduce their risk of becoming infected with an STD.
Researchers say nearly 3 million American teenagers become infected with one or more STDs each year, including bacterial infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia and viral infections like HIV and herpes. Although the risk of getting an STD through oral sex is lower than through intercourse, it is possible to become infected with all these STDs through oral sex.
The study also showed that oral sex behavior was more strongly influenced by teenagers' perception of their friends' oral sex habits than for other types of sexual behavior. Most teens said their best friend's oral sex behavior was similar to their own.
In addition, researchers found that sexually active teens were viewed as more popular by their peers, but they weren't necessarily viewed as more likeable. And teens who had sex with higher numbers of partners or without protection from STDs were viewed as less popular.
"Even though they may not be well liked by many of their peers, some adolescents have strong reputations of popularity," says researcher Mitchell Prinstein, of Yale University, in a news release. "The results are consistent with the idea that reputations of popularity are associated with adolescent sexual behavior. It may be that adolescents' decisions to engage in sexual activity are influenced in part by their desire to maintain or increase their levels of popularity."
Researchers say the findings suggest that health promotion efforts should explain to teenagers that although some popular teens engage in sexual behavior, kids who engage in risky sexual behavior are actually less popular among their peers.