Swat Ed: Deep Throat

Swat Ed is The Phoenix’s biweekly sex education Q & A. We accept all questions and they are kept completely anonymous. If you’re looking for medical advice or a diagnosis for that weird thing on your genitals, get in touch with a medical professional! For everything else, email swatedquestions@gmail.com. Today’s subject matter is oral sex on a penis and the societal expectations around the act of fellatio.

I read the previous “Deep Dive” from last semester and wondered if you could go in depth on oral sex involving a penis in the same way. I don’t hook up with people very much but in my experience, I’ve nearly always gone down on my partners and I don’t think that they feel the same sense of obligation. I don’t mean that they never go down on me, I just don’t think that they’re as motivated to do it. What’s up with that? -Going down, yelling timber

While all facets of sexuality and sexual behavior are influenced by societal perceptions and beliefs, fellatio has an interesting place in American sexual history. According to 1994’s Sex in America,  the most definitive study on sexual behavior of its time, a minority of women over 50 years of age had ever engaged in fellatio in their lives, while three quarters of women under 35 had. Previously, oral sex was considered even more intimate than intercourse and something one would only do with their spouse, if at all. The scandals of President Bill Clinton prompted a mass of news-cycle fearmongering, with magazines, talk shows and parenting groups warning that young people were engaging in an epidemic of oral sex. The Clinton scandal and the news coverage of fellatio among young people probably contributed to the act entering the mainstream, as did the rise and prevalence of internet porn. Federally mandated abstinence-only programs, which began in the early 1980s, have also probably contributed to this. The programs push to avoid intercourse at all costs, narrowly defining a loss of virginity as penis-in-vagina intercourse. Oral sex is therefore an easy workaround of the system, supported by the fact that religious students are more likely to say that oral sex is not sex. Given the sexual revolution, porn, media coverage, and abstinence-only education, it makes more sense that by age eighteen two-thirds of teenagers have engaged in oral sex.

Oral sex, therefore, emerged in popular culture as a sort of halfway point between something that relatively benign like kissing and the “all the way” or “home run” of sexual intercourse. That middle ground gives it an interesting and unique status as a sexual act. There’s a public perception among young people that it’s less of a big deal than “actual” sex (a perception that can have both positive and negative outcomes) and less risky than intercourse. There’s obviously no risk of pregnancy, but there is still STI transmission risk, and oral sex has been linked to rising rates of gonorrhea and herpes type 1. Many people report fellatio as less personal than intercourse and therefore fair game for a one-time hookup — if you don’t want to have intercourse, you can just fall back on fellatio and call it a night.

Looking at fellatio in the social currency of hookup culture, we can see how it figures into the male-centric pattern of our society. Since fellatio isn’t perceived as quite so sexual or as big a deal as intercourse, it can be easier for people to justify pressuring others for it, verbally or with physical coercion. For givers, it can be perceived as easier to justify giving it to someone else just to get it over with. In “Deep Dive,” our focus was on cutting through societal misinformation and personal discomfort to give and receive cunnilingus successfully with a focus on pleasure. The pleasure of the receiver isn’t usually the issue when it comes to fellatio. We should pay attention instead to how the giver feels about the process and what the overall emotional and power dynamic is between partners. If the giver feels as though they are placating their partner or trying to avoid being seen as prudish, there’s a problem. I’m mainly speaking about hookup events, not necessarily sex in romantic relationships, but these ideas are frequently applicable to sex in relationships. We should also note that oral feels like such a common and mainstream activity that it’s easy to forget some people don’t like giving or receiving or both, and that’s okay.

Oral sex is a selfless thing — one person is doing all the giving and the other person is doing all the receiving. That’s not a bad thing at all, but it does mean that a sense of obligation around it can really feel terrible. In general, we should never feel as though any sex act does nothing for one partner. Even if they’re not receiving any sort of pleasure, doing something for the other person should feel positive and exciting. We can also look at the perceived roles people take on during oral sex. Giving oral sex can be perceived as a passive or submissive act. There is no inherent quality to any sex act: people can passively receive or actively receive, and the same goes for giving. People who don’t like the way they approach giving oral sex can think about whether it feels active, or more like they’re just being used as a masturbatory device. Similarly, receivers can think about whether they’re active participants or passive enjoyers. Switching it up can be a good change of pace.

Most importantly, try to actively avoid yielding to expectations over your own personal comfort and desire. This might mean identifying when you feel pressured to give oral sex as to not leave a hookup partner disappointed. Conversely, it might mean identifying when you feel pressure to get something out of a hookup partner to avoid feeling disappointed. It could also include looking at the way you approach fellatio: as a chore, an unpleasant task, or a joyful occurence to be shared with a partner? Since the pressure around this act is particularly strong, it’s okay to take a step back from situations you’re unsure about before deciding to proceed.

P. Afdersex '69

P. Afdersex ’69 loves Swarthmore, friendly discussion, and positivity. They are studying human anatomy and communications and hope to one day start a movement toward yonic architecture to balance out the more phallic structures of the world.

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