Think abstinence... and think butt-fucking
Is 'Abstinence Ed' producing an 'epidemic' of oral sex?
Gays cruising in Washington DC parks don't have the bushes to themselves anymore. City parks are
where Washington junior-high students repair to enjoy oral sex, which spills over from the after-school parties that
kids throw before their parents get home from work. Maybe half of area youngsters are involved, says the
-- At Manhattan's prestigious Hunter High School, a there's a box in the nurse's office labeled "ONLY for
oral sex" that's filled with minted, spermicide-free condoms-- taken at a rate of 30 a day. Seventh graders quiz
each other, "Do you spit or do you swallow?"
-- In Georgia, routine screening for meningitis found an outbreak of oral gonorrhea among middle school
girls no one thought sexually active. "I call it body-part sex," declares a psychiatrist. "The kids don't even look at
Judging by these anecdotes, culled from media reports over the past year, America's youngsters have fallen
to cocksucking (and that, not cunnilingus, is what the hand-wringing is about) with the gusto of a tearoom queen at
a Grand Central Station glory hole.
Mum's the word
In 1996, Congress passed a rider to a welfare reform act allocating $250 million over five years for
education programs advocating total sexual abstinence outside of marriage. It's the only way to really prevent pregnancy
and disease, according to advocates of these programs, which sideline or ban outright discussion of
contraception, abortion, and condoms. Some teachers feel so constrained they won't take questions lest forbidden topics
"Abstinence Ed" was formerly a pedagogical backwater, one swamp away from Creation Science. Now it's
the only sex-ed there is in around a quarter of US schools, ten times as many as in the late 80s. And abstinence is
the dominant theme in more than 85 percent of US school districts with a sex-ed curriculum. With matching state
and local funds, Abstinence Ed is enjoying an infusion of nearly a half billion dollars of funding. By contrast,
annual federal spending on education geared to fight HIV infection is a mere $30 million.
The flood of abstinence money has floated nationwide such notions as the "Chastity Pledge" and-- for
those who've already missed that boat-- "Secondary Virginity." These ships have set sail on a quest to save boys'
virtue and girls' hymens. That giant sucking sound? It's the vortex generated as the cold front of Abstinence Ed meets
the hot air of teen lust.
Well, maybe. The sex lives of American youngsters is a dark continent, known only to its tribesfolk, who
know, in turn, only the village of their own social circle. Sociologists wanting an overall view have been on
tenterhooks ever since the US Senate scotched funding for a national adolescent sex survey in 1992, for fear, presumably,
of corrupting youth with knowledge of their own shenanigans. Data on what teens do for sex-- forget about
those younger-- are so sketchy that academicians cite in footnotes sources like an in-mall survey conducted in 1999
by Seventeen magazine.
Still, some broad trends are clear. In early 1970s, among American 15-year-olds, fewer than 5 percent of
girls and 20 percent of boys had engaged in sexual intercourse. By 1997, the figures were 38 percent for girls,
45 percent for boys. The rates of teen intercourse and pregnancy stabilized in the 90s after shooting up in the 70s
and 80s, and there's evidence of increasing non-coital sex (you know, sodomy) among teens-- and, believe many in
the field, among younger adolescents.
Do the increased reports of oral sex just reflect some new willingness to talk about it? Is it a rational response
on the part of young people to the risks of pregnancy and STD's-- licking and sucking being at least "safer sex"?
One of the few nationally representative teen sex surveys, conducted just before the abstinence juggernaut
hit, found rates of oral sex among black teenage boys more than doubling between 1988 and 1995, and
increasing slightly, along with mutual masturbation and other non-coital sex, among whites and Hispanics.
But a national survey's satellite-eye perspective can miss trends in local gardens and groves. Anyone
who's compared sexual histories with friends knows how widely early experiences vary. In Boy Scout Troop 70,
campers may shyly wear their underwear in the showers, while across town in Troop 69 there are piss-drinking
initiation rites and nightly circle-jerks. What a clique of kids does sexually probably has more to do with group
chemistry and ringleaders' sense of cool than the broad demographic factors-- race, ethnicity, zip code-- that
sociologists assume define the lay of the behavioral land. That half of Washington middle-schoolers are veteran
cocksuckers and suckees is likely overstatement, but that significant groupings of kids now casually put mouths to
genitals seems established.
Word on the street
Admittedly, when The Guide queried some high school boys from a gritty Northeastern city, rampant oral
sex was not what they reported so much as rampant rutting period.
"I'm more likely to fuck a girl," asserts Dean, a senior, who says he is just Amy and two Melissas away
from having sex with 23 girls, two shy of his goal of 25 before graduation. "Jizz in your girl's mouth and kiss her?
That's fucking gross." Dean's regular girlfriend never sucks his cock-- "Pussy's better than head any day." But it's
different with other girls, who presumably get by without a goodnight smooch.
"I figure like this," says Roger. "If you jizz in a girl's pussy, she can't get it out, but jizz in her mouth and she
can spit." Still, he adds, "If my bitch can't suck my dick, it's not all there." Dean won't go down on a girl himself
after he's shot, but beforehand he's game.
Are girls eager cocksuckers, or is it a favor to be begged? That's a 50-50 proposition, the boys agree. "If a
girl gives me a hole, I'll fucking throw my dick in it," declares Dean, who nevertheless relishes girls eager rather
than just willing to fuck him. So cocksucking and cunnilingus are definitely on the menu, though not featured
entrees. And the only exploit that earns bragging rights is vaginal sex.
But perhaps these sentiments, from kids near the tracks and not obsessed with adult approval, are just
For Americans of a certain age, oral sex is a risqué delicacy, an acquired taste. Kinsey's research
mid-century found it likeliest practiced by college graduates. Surveys of women over 50 suggest that only a minority have
ever tried oral sex, and then mostly as a late addition to their repertoire. Putting one's mouth, nose, and eyes
"down there" implied, far from something more casual or second-string, a heightened intimacy, a self-conscious
ownership of sex.
With New York Times reporters and Scarsdale child psychologists onto the trend, teen oral sex probably has
a class overlay. Indeed, if the PTA is suddenly up in arms over teen pregnancy and STDs, you'd expect
bourgeois kids to be the most sensitive to the shifting expectations-- and the most crafty at exploiting the hidden
backdoors. Class, curiously, is something that researchers of adolescent sex for all their fetishistic attention to race and
darker-hued ethnicities-- generally ignore.
But if hetero teen cocksucking and other forms of non-coital sex are now more casual and common than
before, a more basic reason may be heterosexuality's homosexualization. By the 70s, the pill and other
contraceptives sundered, for the Western middle class, intercourse's link to baby-making. Heterosexuality became, in that
sense, just like homosex-- a pursuit of pleasure and intimacy. Homosexuality has generally been a sort of salad
bar-- offering a variety of sex acts, with no generally-consented main course. Heterosexuality's table traditionally
groaned under a roast-beef centerpiece: penile-vaginal penetration. With feminism pushing the sexes toward equality
and contraception pushing reproduction toward pure choice, heterosex was bound to become more like
homosex's smorgasbord. Was Abstinence Ed the proverbial straw?
Selling hair shirts
"Abstinence has boomed in this country," says Leslee Unruh, president of the National Abstinence
Clearinghouse in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (www.abstinence.net). "We're
seeing it growing every single day, in schools, in communities. We're even seeing two Hollywood movies-- one
of them, Endless Days, coming out in March."
Days bereft of erotic charge could well seem endless. But the word that the Clearinghouse puts out to
abstinence educators across America isn't about hair-shirts and gruel. "It's not a message of 'Just Say No,'" Unruh tells
The Guide. "It's a fun message. It teaches about relationships, celebrating that the best sex is in marriage."
Like mastering golf or the piano, mastering one's impulses demands discipline. Pledging abstinence
means saying plenty of no, as Unruh spells it out-- no to vaginal sex, no to oral sex, no to anal sex, no to mutual
masturbation. It means saying no to cybersex, no to porn, and no to sexual fantasy. What about beating off? "Use
your energy instead of fixating on the fact of what's happening to you physically," is Unruh's counsel. "Get busy,
get active, get in sports."
The danger abstinence proponents see is not just disease or an inconvenient baby, but fundamentally
moral. "The arousal response of an individual is the most easily trained response in the human body," Unruh says.
"Sexual self-stimulation along with fantasy or porn can actually train a person to bond to pictures or objects," so that
real humans eventually leave the inveterate onanist limp and cold.
In the Clearinghouse's 2001 "Faces of Abstinence" calendar, the eight scrubbed and smiling members of
the student-run Socorro County [New Mexico] Abstinence Program-- five of them girls-- declare, "We are proud
of being abstinent and feel it gives us the freedom to do all the things we want in life and to accomplish our goals
and dreams." The tagline: "We Know We are Worth Waiting For!"
"It's not always easy-- especially where we come from," says a statement from Teen Treasures, an
all-girl abstinence club in Cary, Mississippi. "All of us get teased, mocked, and ridiculed for the decision we've made
to stay pure."
Savvy abstinence educators work in the same groove as those who craft positive self-images for gay youth--
or connect good feelings with laundry detergent. The idea is to develop abstinence as a full-fledged identity, so
that the very challenges the undertaking poses become a source of commitment. Indeed, a recent study showed
that Abstinence Ed "worked" in schools only when a minority of students took a chastity pledge, becoming a sort
of self-selected elite. The payoff? A delay in first intercourse by around 18 months-- intercourse, of course, in
which the teenagers were even less likely used protection, since Abstinence Ed teaches that sex means a lifelong
commitment and safe sex is illusory.
The principles of abstinence must seem granite-solid when seen in the cold, clear South Dakota light. And
as social-engineering, they have a certain logic-- the idea being to keep sex small and maimed, like a bound
Chinese foot, the better for it never to stray from home.
But the hard rules for abstinence seem to grow blurrier the further one travels from Sioux Falls. Bill
Clinton spoke for a good number of Americans when he said oral sex wasn't sex. About half of college students agree,
even more if no one has an orgasm. A survey of southern college freshman found a quarter consider anal sex
abstinence. A survey of health teachers, Abstinence Ed's frontline, found that 30 percent consider oral sex abstinence.
These heresies so exercise the cardinals at abstinence's Vatican in Sioux Falls that they've taken to ranking programs
for their adherence to orthodoxy.
The culture's concept of virginity that is polished and sold by Abstinence Ed is highly gendered. Think
"virgin"-- is the image that comes to mind a boy? It's no surprise this year's "Faces of Abstinence" are mostly female,
with, one suspects, the few boys profoundly religious or grappling with same-sex desire. The snake spoiling the
abstinence movement's dream of a lustless teen Eden lies coiled between every boy's legs. Semen's fluid
dynamics insure that the male adolescent can't escape the stain of his seed. But wash pajamas and sheets, and all
trace disappears. A girl's virginity is proved traditionally by her anatomy (if she's steered clear of horseback riding
or vigorous masturbation), and virginity's loss is exposed by a swollen belly. Puff up virginity into a brand
identity, push it with a half-billion-dollar marketing campaign, and the message that comes home is guard the vagina.
If any message comes home at all. "Here's what I tell my teacher in health class," says Roger. "Now I'm
a teenager. Now's the time when my hormones are raging. Now's the time when I'm at my peak. My dick is
the biggest it's going to be, and I'm the best looking I'm probably ever going to be. If you're telling me that I can't
have sex until I'm married or out of college, then you're psycho. Because what you're telling me is to blow the best
time of my life."
The biggest problem with what may be widespread oral sex among teens, argues Deborah Tolman at the
Wellesley Center for Research on Women, is that boys are getting their dicks sucked without reciprocating, or even
much thinking about the girl behind the mouth. Worse, girls are going along.
"Girls aren't supposed to have any desire-- good girls aren't," Tolman tells
The Guide. "There's lots of talk in
the media about girls' sexuality, but it's all about how to provide pleasure to boys, not 'Five Ways To Make Sure
He's Paying Attention To How You Feel!'" Where the thorny thicket preventing sexual liaison between boys and
girls has been largely cleared in the past generation, flowers of sensitivity to girls' feelings have not exactly
bloomed. "The range of experience in which girls have oral sex is enormous, ranging from threat of harm to 'I really love
this guy and I have an overwhelming desire to do this,'" she says. "There are things about oral sex that are
very pleasurable for some girls-- and they're not only physical."
In her work with adolescents, Tolman queries them on "Why do you want to do it? Do you want to do it?
What is it like for you to do it? How does it make you feel?" Tolman is happy for teenagers to decide not to have sex--
but, she says, that should be a conscious choice that acknowledges their burgeoning desires and emotions, and
admits of paths not taken.
In the dark
The mainline family-planning groups opposing Abstinence Ed, such as the Guttmacher Institute, never talk
of pleasure or intimacy. They see adolescent sex essentially as a health problem, to the point of calling mutual
masturbation a "risk factor." Have these people never seen
Reefer Madness? Or are they cynically attuned in to
how much money can be made siding with the state in the drugs 'n' sex wars?
But while a "let's talk about it" approach has appeal, talk about sex is never neutral.
Tolman, alive to the unspoken truth of girls' sexual pleasure, tellingly sees it lensed through relationships--
a good blow-job for a girl happens when she really cares about the guy. Girls left among themselves tend to fall
in love with each other, pair by pair, Tolman says. What they don't do is huddle en masse and bury faces in
each others' crotches for a little cunnilingus. Boys are the driving force, she acknowledges regretfully, in adolescent
sex. Her work is to encourage more sharing of driving and processing about where the car is going.
Males don't find it so firm a rule that sex is as good as the relationship. That teenage boys, emotional clods,
are bad on average at one-on-one relationships has a corollary: they are good at massing in gangs. The increase
in teenage heterosex-- fucking and now sucking and fondling-- since the 70s has come with a corresponding
decrease in same-sex play among boys, with the gang its natural home and even its glue.
For most people, their stems eventually grow to entangle, but the angle of divergence between male and
female sexuality looms largest at sprouting. There's a case for boys cutting their sexual teeth with those who know by
bone their horniness, fascination with their dicks, and muteness about feeling-- that is, other males. The right salve
for the inflamed adolescent urge to fuck any hole may be homeopathic-- for boys to take turns being holes
together. After that apprenticeship, boys can be social-- that is, heterosexual-- about sex.
The gang is a curious phase in human social reproduction-- akin maybe to ferns whose spores go through
a hidden life-cycle on the forest floor as a sort of collective ooze. A disruption of the gang's social ecology likely
has something to do with the much bruited "crisis of boys": their violence, cultural disconnect, and general
While oxygen and light are generally held as good for living things, some creatures require their absence. In
the dark of the gut are billions of anaerobic bacteria that die if exposed to air, and will kill their hosts with
sepsis should they escape intestines for the abdomen. But we, in turn, couldn't live without these bugs flourishing, as
they help digest our food. Such bacterial colonies are like boys' gangs, whose homoerotic life is destroyed once
it's made visible, defined as "gay," or even talked about. Because there is money and attention to be had exposing
it-- by the media, therapists, and prosecutors-- such homoeroticism is getting killed off. There are many Scout
Troop 70s today and few Troop 69s.
No money-back guarantee
But a return to what may be a felicitous silence toward the boys' gang is no more in the cards than the
abstinence movement's plans for adolescence without sex. Sex is now hopelessly tied up in the circulation of money,
the buying and selling of products and identities. As huge as the US's funding for abstinence, it still pales, as the
folks in Sioux Falls point out, in comparison to the money Hollywood and Madison Avenue pump into selling sex. As
a peacock's plume symbolizes, sex is ultimately about getting attention, and by doing so, projecting one's form
into the future. And attention-- "eyeballs" in Internet lingo-- is increasingly the market economy's common
currency. To Amazon.com, you are the accidental vehicle for projecting your spending power, as much as to evolution
you are the accidental vessel for projecting your genes. Sex and the market readily dissolve into each other.
The media flare-up around increasing teen oral sex, and the abstinence movement that fuels it, illuminates
the present stalemate in Western culture. The Christian Right may be feasting for now on its barrel of abstinence
pork, but to play the game, they have to ape the gays, creating a special minority sexual identity and their own
versions of the high school "Gay/Straight Alliances." And for all their efforts, they are pushing on jello, producing
probably a corresponding bump of fellatio to the extent they depress rates of intercourse. In the same way, an
in-store promotion on cake decreases sales of cookies.
The great thing about the market is that there's something for everyone, a niche grows to serve every taste.
But not every good can be bought and sold. The commons where all can graze their flocks-- or the zones of
silence where boys' sexual identity coalesces-- requires social consensus, an agreement to exclude buying and
selling, light and air, from certain domains.
But the opportunism that the market cultivates spreads cancerously to claim all commons. That's how
capitalism yields sameness everywhere, so that distinct localities disappear-- leaving the bleak scatter of Wal-Marts
and McDonald's outside every hollowed-out American, Czech, and Chinese town. Among those disappearing
localities are the homo- and hetero-erotic, previously fruitfully distinguished.
Cruising the park tonight? The next heterosexual generation, juices charged by Abstinence Ed, may be
sucking cock beside you in the underbrush.
|Author Profile: Bill Andriette
|Bill Andriette is features editor of
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