Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Head of the Class

Some people are upset about the phenomenon reported in this NYT Magazine article. It seems that teenagers are having a lot more oral sex these days, presumably as a means of avoiding HIV transmission.

Amy blames the phenomenon on abstinence-only education:
And yet, it seems not to have occurred to people that teenagers are having unprotected oral sex because their teachers have told them that having protected intercourse is too dangerous. No one is talking about the fact that preaching abstinence and telling kids that pre-marriage romantic relationships can hurt them may be encouraging promiscuity.
I agree with Amy that abstinence-only education is pretty stupid (read the rest of her otherwise excellent post for more details). But is the shift to oral sex one of its ill effects? Are the abstinence-only classes really telling kids to avoid having sex and just failing to mention that oral sex counts as sex? Given the right-wing origins of abstinence-only education, I figure the classes probably tell students not to have any form of sex, especially not the crime-against-nature variety.

So why the shift to oral? It sounds to me like a fairly rational response to the risks involved. I’m inclined to present it to my students as an example of how people respond to changes in relative costs by substituting in favor of less costly activities. The fact is that while both oral and vaginal anal sex can transmit HIV (and other STDs), the risk is a good bit lower for oral sex. Comparing unprotected oral to unprotected vaginal or anal, the evidence, such as it is, indicates that oral is much safer. I assume the same goes for the comparison between protected oral and protected vaginal or anal. I have not seen any comparisons of risk for unprotected oral versus protected vaginal or anal. But even if the former is riskier than the latter, they are both safer than unprotected vaginal or anal, so it makes perfect sense that both would increase in frequency relative to unprotected vaginal or anal, once people became aware of the risk differential. The fact that vaginal sex can lead to pregnancy shifts the balance even further toward oral.

Yes, the kids are still engaging in a risky activity. Then again, they’re engaging in a risky activity every time they cross the street. People take calculated risks all the time. Indeed, the most salient point raised by the opponents of abstinence-only education is that teenagers will take some sexual risks, so it’s foolish to just exhort them not to have sex at all. But by the same token, it’s also foolish to think that teenagers will always minimize risk by using protection even for the lowest-risk activities. Instead, they probably perceive condom use and oral sex as two different modes of reducing their risk, and they figure doubling up is overkill. After all – they might reason – if you’re going to reduce your sensitivity by using a condom, you might as well skip the oral and go for the vaginal.

Belle Waring and Eszter Hargittai have a different objection. They’re disturbed by the fact that boys are receiving oral sex without returning the favor. Well, okay, they should return the favor. But most high school boys are socially maladroit asses – that’s old news – so I’m betting that the girls weren’t getting much out of the vaginal sex in the old days, either. Are the girls being pressured into doing it? Sometimes, I assume, and that’s bad but hardly new, either. So it seems to me that girls are probably getting a better deal than they used to, because they can satisfy their horny boyfriends with less chance of getting infected and no chance of getting knocked up. In fact, my reading of the NYT Magazine article is that girls are playing a key role in negotiating the shift in behavior: “According to Jesse, Caity set the ground rules. ''Caity told me, ‘Adam knows he's not going to get in my pants, but I might get into his.’” That doesn’t sound to me like a girl getting pressured into an unequal relationship; it sounds like a girl deciding what kind of risk she’s willing to take.

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