"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 Laura Lindberg, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, in a news release. "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."
The Guttmacher Institute study analyzed data involving 2,271 teens aged 15 to 19 who took part in the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and others use NSFG findings to study health and plan health education programs and services.
The current analysis paints a vivid picture of teenage sexual activity in the U.S. and clouds perceptions that teens are likely to substitute one type of activity for another. Instead, the findings suggest that adolescents are more likely to try a range of different sexual activities around the same time. For example, some may try oral sex right before having intercourse for the first time, while others may have vaginal sex shortly before experimenting with oral sex.
Other findings from the study include:
- Half of teens aged 15 to 19 have had vaginal sex.
- Slightly more than half (55%) have had heterosexual oral sex.
- 11% have had anal sex.
Teen are much more likely to have oral sex once they have intercourse. The study showed that only one in four teenage virgins had oral sex. But six months after losing their virginity, more than four out of five teens were having oral sex. Within three years of first having vaginal sex, 92% had engaged in oral sex.
Oral and anal sex do not lead to pregnancy, but engaging in such behaviors puts teens at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, chlamydia, and human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been linked to cervical cancer. A recent CDC study showed that one in four teenage girls is infected with at least one STI.
The researchers say their findings have clear policy implications and criticize abstinence-only programs.
"Counseling and education should take into account total STI risk by addressing the full range of behaviors that teens engage in, including oral and anal sex. It is crucial that teens receive evidence-based education and counseling about STI risks and protective behaviors for all types of sexual activity," Lindberg says. "The federal government's exclusive emphasis on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs does not give teens the skills and information they need to be safe."
The Guttmacher Institute study represents the federal government's first measurement of the commonness of both oral and anal sex. The study findings are published online ahead of print in the Journal of Adolescent Health.