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Lip Service

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Janet Orsi

Dream On: More people than you think are giving oral sex the big kiss-off.

Oral sex ain't what it used to be

By July St. James

THERE IS NOTHING quite as embarrassing as being caught snoozing at the wheel while a whole sexual revolution is unfolding under your nose. Admittedly, this latest brouhaha with the Clinton/Lewinsky/oral sex debate brought it to a--ahem--head. First those reports a few years ago that Newt Gingrich was known to get a little lip service from young ladies other than Mrs. Gingrich. Now it's allegedly President Clinton's turn with a toothsome--ouch--Beverly Hills-reared intern. For politicians so partisanly opposed, their defense is remarkably similar: oral sex doesn't count as infidelity.

Trend watchers of teen mores also file a disturbing report: The once-sacred "B.J." (if intercourse was a "home run," then oral sex was considered out of the baseball park) has been devalued as the coin of intimacy to worth only a few ducats more than a handshake.

Apparently there's some serious rearranging happening on the sexual landscape nowadays. Beneath the tittering, the snickering, and the endless dirty jokes, inquiring minds want to know: Just what the heck is going down with going down?

Fortunately, the folks with their thumb on the big, throbbing pulse of society are more than happy to spill.

"There have historically always been images of oral sex, but it's not what humans do naturally," reports sociology professor John Gagnon, Ph.D. One of the country's foremost sex researchers, Gagnon helped design the 1994 University of Chicago sex survey, a highly respected and comprehensive study of American sexual practices later incorporated into two books, The Social Organization of Sexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1994), and Sex in America (Little, Brown, 1994).

Dr. Gagnon thinks about sex--oral sex, anal sex, gay sex, what-have-you sex--a lot. But the difference between him and the Bud Man on the street is that the good doctor thinks intelligently about The Deed. And he's used to folks coughing and blushing when they're trying to ask him intelligent (one hopes) questions about sex--specifically oral sex.

"It still invites an enormous amount of nervous laughter," observes Gagnon about this particular region in his probing study. Gagnon recounts a recent TV interview he watched, with Peter Jennings and a group of 20-something quotemeisters roundtabling about the recent Clinton troubles.

"Jennings couldn't even get the words 'oral sex' out," laughs Gagnon. "I think he was terrified that someone would say 'blow job.'"

Gagnon notes that oral sex did not emerge as a widespread sexual technique until the 1920s. Called the "genital kiss" by marriage manuals of the day, oral sex--particularly cunnilingus--was recommended as a way to express intimacy between couples.

Given how tight-lipped we are about intimacy, you'd think that we'd be equally uptight about this most intimate of acts. Oh, but you'd be wrong.

In their survey of almost 3,500 men and women ages 18 to 59 of varying racial, economic, and educational backgrounds, Gagnon and his fellow researchers discovered that far more people have experienced oral sex than have not. But, who you are may well influence the, uh, outcome. Whites are about 30 percent more likely to engage in oral sex than blacks, while higher education also correlates with greater likelihood of indulging. Religion appears to have little influence on whether people give or receive oral sex except, not surprisingly, for those who consider themselves Religiously Conservative Protestants.

One presumes they're on their knees enough as it is.

Age is another factor. The Social Organization of Sexuality exhibits a nifty graph correlating their year of birth with the likelihood that folks experienced oral sex. Starting from a relatively shriveled point for the 80-year-olds, the axis representing age projects to practically erect by the time it hits the 38- to 40-year-olds. For those keeping track, that would be the guys and gals who came of age around the tail end of the last sexual revolution.

Notes Gagnon, "I think the behavior [of oral sex] became less a behavior of intimacy [over the last 70 years] and more because one was technically competent. You used to do it only with someone you cared about a lot, but it has now become technology and technique."

THE DOOMSAYERS predicting a new batch of dangerously immoral youth are also beating the drums of hysteria a bit too prematurely. That age-line axis begins to detumify for both men and women under 30 years old--surprisingly, though, at a much faster rate for men. It appears that the gender stereotyped for dreaming, thinking, and talking about oral sex is, well, dreaming, thinking, and talking about it. Period. Gagnon notes that a recent study of teens and sex indicates that oral sex--particularly fellatio-- is sometimes used as an alternative to penetration, thereby allowing women to claim technical virginity. But, he adds, "that is not the majority."

Gagnon also notes how men's and women's magazine portrayals of oral sex are a good indication of how it is viewed differently by the sexes.

"Women's magazines treat oral sex in the traditional way--it's something you do for intimacy in a relationship," says Gagnon. "Men's magazines detach oral sex from the relationship--it's an experience in and of itself." He adds another example: "When a man goes to a prostitute and pays for a blow job, it's like getting your ashes hauled ... but the same act is very different, symbolically, for women."

Janet Lever, Ph.D., writes the Sex & Health column for Glamour magazine and, with Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., just co-authored The Great Sex Weekend: A 48-hour Guide to Rekindling Sparks for Bold, Busy or Bored Lovers (Putnam, 1998). Lever agrees that men and women read very different meaning into oral sex. She mentions "glory holes," an urban, predominantly gay phenomenon, where men place their penises in holes of public bathroom walls for totally anonymous fellatio. "That whole notion that neither party would know the other is astounding to a female," says Lever.

She offers another insight into oral sex and prostitution. Because men may feel that giving oral sex to a woman is degrading, she notes, "there are men who do this with a call girl and who will not do it at home.

"Which," she states in no uncertain terms, "is grounds for justifiable homicide."

SO, BACK TO THE Clinton/Gingrich theory of oral sex vs. unfaithful-to-your-wife sex. Even the sex researchers find this defense hard to swallow.

"That's a lovely way for a man to think," Lever dryly responds. However, her research indicates that it is not as impersonal as the president and that other blowhard would have us believe.

"It's not an everyday event," notes Dr. Lever. "It's still a birthday-special occasion event."

Gagnon takes a milder, more scholarly approach to the debate. He points out that not just oral sex, but sex itself is an unnatural act--but he is speaking sociologically, not religiously.

"Sex is a cultural act and comes with an elaborately loaded set of meanings," he says. Whether oral sex constitutes infidelity is a dilemma peculiar to the thinking mammal.

"Is oral sex, sex? Is it part of a relationship? What constitutes a relationship?" Gagnon offers up an array of the almost limitless permutations the human race asks itself when groping for values around its sexual behavior. "What we're doing is struggling for meaning of the act."

"Clinton may think that oral sex is not a sexual relationship, and it's not uncommon that men think that," he continues. However, the president, or any man for that matter, may answer quite differently depending on whether he is being surveyed by scientists or if his dearly beloved has a gun pointed to his head as she poses the question: "You only make that discrimination when you're in trouble," Gagnon laughs.

Lever offers one more observation on the difference between the sexes when it comes to the great oral debate: "It's a major frustration of men that they don't get oral sex, but you know what?

"They don't give it much, either."

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From the February 5-11, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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