A new study of British teenagers delves into the social norms that stigmatize cunnilingus and lead to gender inequality in oral sex. The study, called Oral Sex, Young People, and Gendered Narratives of Reciprocity, was recently published in the Journal of Sex Research. It was conducted by Ruth Lewis, a sociologist at the University of the Pacific, and Cicely Marston from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Lewis and Marston spoke to heterosexual teenagers whose ages ranged from 16-18 years old and who hailed from numerous regions in Britain. In total, there were 37 young women and 34 young men in the study, and all were interviewed to gain insight into the younger generation's cultural understanding of cunnilingus versus fellatio. Lewis and Marston's conversations with the teenagers revealed that vulvas and vaginas were deemed gross and unappealing by the majority of surveyed teenagers, no matter their gender, and that going down on a woman is thought of as a "bigger deal" than going down on a man.
This is not the first study to refer to disparities in oral sex based on gender. A 2015 study by the University of Toronto, explained Medical Daily, found that while women are twice as likely to perform oral sex on a man, they are less likely to enjoy receiving oral sex. It's one thing to simply not enjoy oral sex; it's another to not enjoy it because you are ashamed of your body. This new study expresses some of the cultural attitudes that shape this unfortunate reality for many women.
I spoke to Dr. Jennifer Caudle, Family Physician and Assistant Professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, about the study findings. Dr. Caudle says that while the study may not be expansive, it still highlights an important issue. "This was a smaller study and a limited pool of research subjects, so I do ask, is this the case regardless of age group or country? But even if it's a small pool," Dr. Caudle tells Bustle, "it shows that a lack of body confidence is happening among young women. And I see it in my own patients."
Let's take a closer look at these frustrating research findings:
1. Cunnilingus Is Apparently "Distasteful" And Too Complicated
Both the young men and young women in the study used negative terms such as "distasteful" when describing cunnilingus. These negative reactions materialized when the subjects were asked to compare going down on women to going down on men. The statistical majority of participants also said that oral sex on women is "a bigger deal" than oral sex on men; male sexual desire is normalized while female sexual desire is misunderstood as confusing and less important.
This, of course, comes as no surprise — whether we are discussing faked orgasms, silence around female performance anxiety, the gendered concept of virginity, or slut shaming. Both the young men and young women in the study also expressed that fellatio is much easier than cunnilingus — which is justification for refusing to perform cunnilingus? Yes, cunnilingus can be tricky, but all you have to do is ask for guidance. But if socialization conditions men and women to view cunnilingus as a gross act that requires too much effort, then no one is going to want to talk about how to do it.
2. We Are Socialized To Consider Men's Pleasure To Be More Important
Please refer to the first item in this list. And then please adopt Nicki Minaj's philosophy, for the greater good of womankind. According to the interviewee responses, it was also much more common for men to refuse to perform cunnilingus if they were "not in the mood." How shocking that it was women who felt pressured and obligated to go down on their partners as soon as their partners asked for it, even if they weren't in the mood. Once again, providing men with pleasure is normalized while providing women with pleasure is not. As explained by Medical Daily, "Some of the girls even described strategies they used to make the experience more tolerable, such as having a drink next to them to mask an unpleasant taste."
While social norms that celebrate men's orgasms as the only orgasms certainly hold partial responsibility for the interviewee responses, the researchers still found more disturbing cultural attitudes...
3. We Are Socialized To Consider Women's Sexual Organs To Be Gross
Whether it was young men or young women talking about cunnilingus versus fellatio, the act itself was not the only thing disparaged. Vaginas and vulvas themselves were frequently spoken of as dirty abnormalities. Young men's remarks featured the words "nasty" and "stinking" when describing women's genitals. No wonder many of the interviewed women expressed disinterest in cunnilingus because they were uncomfortable with the idea of a man's face near her vulva.
Here in the States, it is not uncommon for grown women to have never looked at their own vulvas because of internalized stigmatization regarding the female body. Dr. Caudle says she sees this same discomfort and lack of body ownership among her female patients — especially the younger ones. "Sometimes, as a physician, I do get a sense that women don't have the same confidence about their sexual organs that I experience with male patients," she says. "While it's difficult for all genders to talk about sexual health with their doctor, from my younger women patients, there is a lot of shyness, reluctance, and less body confidence when they talk about these things. It's so sad; I want my female patients to be as body confident as men."
4. Men Who Enjoy Cunnilingus Are "Strange"
If vaginas and vulvas are considered strange, then it follows that men who openly celebrate them are considered strange, too. When researchers asked teenage girls their thoughts on men who enjoy cunnilingus, many responded by calling those men "weird" or "different." There was an identical stigma in teenage boys' circles, especially teenage boys from London. A 16-year old boy is quoted in the research as saying, "They call you a bocat [a negative term used to describe men that give oral sex to women]. It’s an insult basically, but if you were to get [oral sex] from a girl just the complete opposite [i.e., you would be congratulated]."
5. Sex Ed Can Make Things Better
As we've seen again and again, comprehensive sexuality education can make so many things better. Marston explained that the study results demonstrate the need for a whole new method of teaching youth about sexuality, pleasure, sexual health, and consent. Marston said, “It is vital to ensure that young people receive comprehensive sexuality education that addresses the importance of mutuality — discussing and agreeing to sexual activities that both participants want to do.”
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