The teenage oral sex panic began in the late 1990s. It is in some ways a part of the Clinton legacy—more specifically, the Clinton-Lewinsky legacy. It was Clinton’s most famous line (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”) and the subsequent debate on whether receiving oral sex qualified as “sexual relations” that produced the apparently shocking disclosure that a lot of teenagers were not only engaging in oral sex but regarding it as not quite sex.
Worse: According to press accounts, America’s young Monicas weren’t just having oral sex; they were having it in circumstances that would raise Hugh Hefner’s eyebrows. In July 1998, The Washington Post ran a front-page story with the headline, “Parents Are Alarmed by an Unsettling New Fad in Middle Schools: Oral Sex.”
Its main example was a scandal in an Arlington, Virginia, school, where a group of eighth-graders would get together for parties at which boys and girls paired off for sexual activities that eventually progressed from petting to oral sex. There were also a couple reported instances of public fellatio, on a school bus and in a hallway, that reached school authorities “through the student grapevine.”
From here, it was only a short step to tales of “rainbow parties” where several girls wearing different colors of lipstick would take turns servicing a boy until their lipstick traces formed a “rainbow” of rings. In 2003, this peril was explored by Oprah herself, with the help of O magazine feature writer Michelle Burford, who interviewed 50 girls, some as young as 9, and painted a frightening picture of kiddie debauchery. “Are rainbow parties pretty common?” inquired a rapt Oprah, to which Burford replied, “I think so. At least among the 50 girls that I talked to…this was pervasive.”
Burford did not say whether the girls had told her they themselves had attended such parties, or if they had simply heard rumors. Nor was any proof produced of what was actually said in those interviews.
All these stories invariably depicted the oral sex as almost entirely one-sided, with girls giving and boys receiving. “One more opportunity for male satisfaction and female degradation in the name of adolescent sexual curiosity,” harrumphed Baltimore Sun columnist Susan Reimer. In this familiar script, feminists saw girls as victims of male dominance, while conservatives blamed feminists and Clinton, whose bad example supposedly sent kids the message that fellatio was OK.
Now the “rainbow party” tale—which has never been substantiated and may well have originated with that Washington Post story—has become the subject of a novel, Paul Ruditis’ The Rainbow Party, published last summer by Simon Pulse, a young adult division of Simon & Schuster. While conservatives have widely denounced the book as yet another excrescence of our licentious culture, its message actually seems to be one of almost old-fashioned moralism: The girl who plans the party is humiliated when hardly anyone shows up, then punished with a gonorrhea infection to boot.
Ruditis’ novel has prompted a new round of hand wringing. On the Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes, radio psychologist Judy Kuriansky asserted that teenagers had been telling her about rainbow parties for years on her show, and assured the shocked hosts that yes, those parties really were going on. “Unbelievable,” sputtered Sean Hannity.
Unbelievable, indeed. For one, as Caitlin Flanagan points out in a lengthy review essay in The Atlantic, the different colors of lipstick would almost inevitably smear and destroy the supposedly sought-after rainbow effect. Besides, a boy would have to be a sexual superathlete to complete the circuit. The “current oral-sex hysteria,” Flanagan writes, “requires believing that a boy could be serviced at the school-bus train party—receiving oral sex from ten or fifteen girls, one after another—and then zip his fly and head off to homeroom, first stopping in the stairwell for a quickie to tide him over until math.”
Unfortunately, while Flanagan—who has recently drawn attention with her tart, often thoughtful critiques of feminism—starts on a skeptical note, she turns around about a third of the way into her sprawling, nearly 9,000-word tract and succumbs to the hysteria. She dismisses the tales of orgies and rampant anonymous blowjobs as nonsense, noting that she has been able to find only one verified account of a girl performing oral sex on multiple boys at a party. Yet she thinks the reality is bad enough.
“We’ve made a world for our girls in which the pornography industry has become increasingly mainstream,” Flanagan writes, “in which Planned Parenthood’s response to the oral-sex craze has been to set up a help line, in which the forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy—which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence. And here are America’s girls: experienced beyond their years, lacking any clear message from the adult community about the importance of protecting their modesty, adrift in one of the most explicitly sexualized cultures in the history of the world. Here are America’s girls: on their knees.”
What is the basis for this Wendy Shalit–style outburst? A study by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in September 2005, that found 25 percent of 15-year-old girls and half of 17-year-olds had engaged in oral sex. While the survey did not include children under 15, the report noted that in a survey several months earlier, only 4 percent of adolescents 13 to 14 years old said they’d had oral sex. (Did any of this represent an increase from the past? Probably not: A Child Trends analysis of data from surveys of unmarried males ages 15 to 19 in 1995 and 2002 found no significant changes in reported rates of oral sex experience.)
While Flanagan talks about sex “outside of romantic relationships,” the September 2005 study said nothing about the context in which these activities took place—casual encounters or steady dating.
The study did say something about one aspect of the alleged oral sex craze, something that contradicts conventional wisdom. Girls and boys, it turns out, are about equally likely to give and to receive. Actually, at least among younger adolescents, boys overall reported more oral sex experience than girls, but both boys and girls were more likely to report receiving oral sex than giving it—which suggests a lot of respondents are fibbing.
This finding was so counterintuitive that some “experts” chose to disbelieve it: Joe McIllhaney Jr., chairman of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, told The Washington Post he doubted that girls were really enjoying oral sex: “I’d like to know a whole lot more about the pressure boys put on girls.” Others, such as James Wagoner of the reproductive health organization Advocates for Youth, argued that the new data subverted the stereotype of boys as predators and girls as prey.
How does Flanagan deal with this information? By refusing to deal with it. Throughout the article, she assumes girls are only the givers, referring to “this strange new preference for unreciprocated oral sex” and even speculating that girls, ill-served by our modesty-unfriendly culture, have taken to giving oral sex in order to keep their own sexuality protected from male encroachments. (Boys, Flanagan adds, aren’t vulnerable to the emotional repercussions of sex the way girls are, so as a mother of boys she has little personal concern about the oral peril.)
Are some kids having sex too soon, and with too many partners, for their own emotional and physical well-being? Almost certainly. But the majority do not inhabit the sexual jungle of worried adults’ imaginations. The teenage fellatio craze exists mainly among adults. To those in the audience who are not worried parents, it provides both sexual and moralistic thrills; it plays both to the prurient fascination with teenage girls gone wild and to the paternalistic stereotype of girls as victims. It does very little to help either adolescents or their parents deal with the real problems of growing up.