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Lip Service

[whitespace] Einstein's tongue
Wag the Tongue: Big-brained Albert Einstein may have been a head of his time, relatively speaking, when it came to oral sex.

A loud and lusty public give-and-take on oral sex is blowin' in the wind

By Kelly Luker

NOTHING IS 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 Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky oral-sex debate brought it to a--ahem--head. First those leaks 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 ballpark) has been devalued as the coin of intimacy and is now 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. 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 (U. 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 twentysomething quotemeisters roundtabling about the recent Clinton troubles. "Jennings couldn't even get the words 'oral sex' out," Gagnon laughs. "I think he was terrified that someone would say 'blowjob.' "

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 the subject, you'd think that we'd be equally uptight about performing and receiving this most intimate of acts. Oh, but you'd be wrong.

Kneed to Know

IN THEIR SURVEY of almost 3,500 men and women of varying racial, economic and educational backgrounds between 18 and 59 years of age, 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 Sex exhibits a nifty graph correlating the year folks were born with the likelihood that they 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 also are beating the drums of hysteria a bit too prematurely. That age-line axis begins to detumesce 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 are, well, dreaming, thinking and talking about it. Period.

Gagnon points to a recent study of teens and sex that indicates 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 that how men's and women's magazines portray oral sex is 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," Gagnon says. "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 blowjob, it's like getting your ashes hauled ...but the same act is very different, symbolically, for women."

Glory Daze

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 meanings into oral sex. She mentions "glory holes," an urban, predominantly gay phenomenon, where men place their penis 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," Lever says.

Lever offers another insight into oral sex and prostitution. "Because men may feel that giving oral sex to a woman is degrading, 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 says dryly.

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," he says. "Clinton may think that oral sex is not a sexual relationship, and it's not uncommon that men think that. "

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 of 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 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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