Mouths Wide Open: The Infiltration and Gender Politics of Oral Sex
Sarah Brafman

To those who lament that youth is wasted on the young, take heed, because the youth of America are aging at a particularly alarming rate. Before puberty even rears its ugly head, children, some as young as eleven, are throwing, "rainbow parties" where girls wearing different colors of lipstick move along a line of boys taking turns "going down" on them. And thus oral sex, once a risqué practice relegated to prostitutes, now infiltrates the tree lined streets of suburban America.

Misguided Pandemonium

"Rainbow parties" fortify a modern conception of oral sex as a physically impersonal act for both male and female, albeit messier for women. It is an inherently selfish practice as (with the exception of "sixty-nine" or mutual oral stimulation) only one person benefits sexually. Popular conception is that there need be no eye contact, no foreplay or preliminary kissing, no sense of emotional relationship between man and woman.

Reporters, parents and educators are horrified by what appears to be the downward spiral of sexual propriety. Caitlin Flanagan wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, "Girls don't consider oral sex in the least exotic-nor do they even consider it sex. It's just 'something to do.'" Flanagan's argument presumes that it is predominately and indiscriminately the girls servicing the boys and not vice versa. This sexism revolts against the moralism that emerged from the present generation of parents' sexual revolution. These parents, often reacting with near hysteria, grapple with what Flanagan deems the loss of a "healthy emotional connection" between young men and women. How do girls come to debase themselves by administering unreciprocated oral sex? And more importantly, who is to blame?

Blame men, cry second wave feminists like June Carter, a professor and feminist author, for "it's precisely at this age of early adolescence that girls' sense of self-worth changes dramatically...this is when they are finding out they have less power within a patriarchal system." The second wave, or the feminism dominant in the 1960's and 1970's, had a concrete agenda, which as Carter emphasizes, focused on changing the larger patriarchal system by changing the infrastructure of many unequal institutions. First wave feminism of the 1920s had solidified the right to vote, doing away with mandated inequality, and second wavers hoped to expand women's freedoms into the workplace, abortion clinics and the political arena.

Today, third wave feminism dominates feminist thinking. Today's woman's movement has shifted from a collectivist attitude to a postmodern individualist attitude. Women are no longer fighting for a few shared goals, but are tackling each issue as it comes. Blame the second wave for the oral sex trend, third wavers cry, as second wave feminists largely ignored pre-adolescence in their 1960's and 70's quest for equal opportunity and thus have left children lacking the sexual guidance they need.

Blame third wave feminists, second wavers might protest, for their cavalier, random expressions of feminism leave girls thinking promiscuous sex is automatically empowering.

Second and third wavers can agree on the "Blame Bush" approach, because his abstinence only education policy ignores the reality that adolescents want to explore their burgeoning sexuality. To second wavers abstinence is just another way of imposing institutional sexism, legislating traditional heterosexual, married relationships, while to third wavers, it inhibits girls' right to openly and casually exhibit their sexuality.

All these approaches fail to account for a 2005 Center for Disease Control study on the sexual behavior of adolescents. The study, which surveyed fifteen-to nineteen-year-olds, found young men and women were performing oral sex on one another almost equally, so the notion that oral sex is one-sided and unreciprocated in favor of men is false. Thus, although purportedly rampant, those rainbow parties that have sparked mass parental hysteria are most likely overblown media fodder. The problem with oral sex then, is not about who's doing who, or what's being done—it's about how we talk about it.

Guard Your Tongue

The percentage points may show that oral sex is equal opportunity for men and women, but that only speaks to the physical action. The attitudes burn with dissimilarity. These misguided attitudes lead to offensive language, which consequently leads to deplorable actions.

Words affect action. In their 1929 groundbreaking presentation of the linguistic hypothesis Anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf concluded humans "are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society." Sapir and Whorf's idea of linguistic determinism, shows how language directly determines thought. "It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group." Social behavior is affected by language-—a point masterfully demonstrated by George Orwell, who in 1984 created 'Newspeak' as the ultimate weapon of a dictatorship, as it rendered certain thoughts unthinkable by not allowing language to express them. In Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," he wrote that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." Today, the Sapir Whorf hypothesis continues to be an important tool of social analysis.

How did the language of oral sex become adopted into the English language as bastardized and crude? The answer has to do more with the oral cavity than genitalia. While the New York Times and Washington Post use the dignified "fellatio" and "cunnilingus," the population engaging in these practices almost never use these textbook terms. To the average fifteen-year-old fellatio is simply a "blow job" and cunnilingus "eating out." While these terms seem innocuous they're deceptively dangerous.

Blow job: the practice involves no blowing, though some women or men might argue it is an arduous job. The term, which originated in the 1960's around the time Andy Warhol released his film "Blow Job" depicting numerous scenes of oral sex, has a certain incongruous, unsettling calmness to it. Though linguists believe the term is derived from the term "blowoff" as in the need to "blow off steam" or relieve sexual frustration, the term also evokes images of wind, tranquility, soothing, release. The result of a blow job is a sense of calm or relief for the man and the term aptly represents that physical and emotional release, internally and externally. Orgasm exists in both sexes, but only men are granted the language that reflects release. The experience of enjoying oral sex is not unique to a man, but the verbiage is.

Compare "blow job" with the connotations of "eating out." The "out" suggests not only foreignness, but also a lack of necessity. The way eating out in a restaurant is not necessary to survival, neither is the sexual practice of eating out. Instead, its viewed as a luxury or courtesy to the woman. While the male form of oral sex is associated with job, work, progress, "eating out" suggests the opposite. Eating out, the way to avoid having to cook a home cooked meal, has a resounding quality of laziness, antithetical to work.

Though subtle, these phrasings denote underlying differences in attitudes towards oral sex. While men are entitled to a blow job, women should feel lucky and thankful for being "eaten out" as, for them, it's a gift or reward. This is a sexist and unfair assumption; men and women possess sexual appetites. These phrases, however, assume men are more physical, with a greater sex drive, emphasizing men's sexual freedoms to the exclusion of women's.

The unequal terms play into the patriarchal system of asexual women, whose sex drive only responds to the attractive male prowess. As noted journalist and author Naomi Wolf expresses in Promiscuities, "The boys were physical, it was understood; we (women) were emotional." She goes on to say that before the 18th century, distinct attention and weight was given to exploring female sexual pleasure, specifically the clitoris. But by the 19th century, Wolf states, "The sex drive became ascribed to the masculine realm, and theories began to deny that it even existed biologically in women." Though the majority of third wave feminists would like to think these century-old myths are discredited, the misconceptions live on, cloaked in newer language like "blow jobs" and "eating out."

These linguistic terms are comparatively tame next to more blatantly offensive, cringe-inducing words like "bitch," "cunt" and "pussy." These words, largely used with resounding negativity and within the context of oral sexuality, have a significant effect on sexual culture today. A man, who has no respect for a vagina in his speech cannot be expected to have respect for it in his sexual practices. Granted, some might use the words "bitch," "cunt," "blow job," or "eating out" in an apparently inoffensive way, but though they may seem harmless in certain contexts, the words themselves remain derogatory and may eventually influence practice as well as speech. As influential Cornell University linguist Charles F. Hockett asserted, "Continuity of linguistic tradition is maintained in a community in the face of the constant turnover of the population through birth and death, immigration and emigration." Once a community assigns meaning to a word and the word has specific historical continuity, it has such potent significance that no matter how hard they may try, no small group, can redefine it. Try as they may, even feminists can't reverse historical linguistic precedent. And often, their efforts backfire.

The most troublesome users of these words are not the men who first began using them but the women who have now appropriated them into the vernacular as feminist, even empowering words. In their feminist treatise Manifesta, darlings of third wave feminism Jennifer Baumgardener and Amy Richards addressed this linguistic phenomenon in an interview with author Tamara Straus. Asked what the use of these words-specifically bitch, slut and cunt- meant to third wave feminists, Richards responded, "For so long those words were used against women. Now using them is women's attempt to reclaim them and say, 'Yes, I am difficult. I am a bitch. Call me a bitch.'" Flawed as it may be, this argument is a powerful force of third wave feminism and is a founding theory in such publications as Bitch magazine.

Since when does striving to be like a man make one a more empowered woman? This atrocious speech is simply a way for a woman to anticipate a man's response, adopt the terms before he can, and them claim it a feminist empowerment. Talking like a trash-mouthed man does not empower a woman. As Ariel Levy asserts in her anti-Manifesta work Female Chauvinist Pigs, using a man's terms just makes a woman an "honorary man" and thus "an exception that proves the rule, the rule is that women are inferior." Adopting "cunt" into the feminist vocabulary is giving an uncouth term false legitimacy.

Nowhere is this now acceptable lingo more prevalent and teeming than on college campuses, Columbia included. Referring to the vagina as "pussy" or "cunt," specifically in reference to oral sex—as Miriam Datskovsky did in her "Sexplorations" column for the Columbia Spectator—debases the entire practice, rendering it a casual and vulgar act, without dignity or sanctity. In one instance Datskovsky declares that "There is nothing not dirty about oral sex. It's someone's penis in your mouth; it's your tongue inside someone's pussy. Blow jobs. Eating out. Giving head. Gross." Whether intentionally or obliviously playing into societal linguistics, Datskovsky's words emphasize and enforce the act as "gross." And though in her article "My Movement, My Choice," Datskovsky writes "the feminist movement is best served by a wealth of voices and opinions," I hesitate to credit a woman as feminist when she deems an essential component of her biological womanhood "gross." Datskovsky can call herself whatever she wants, but one would hope that a genuine feminist lauds both the biological beauty as well as intellectual potential of women.

Perhaps a little more respect and sanctity in the approach to oral sex may even improve the pathetic dating scene at Columbia. In the Fall 2006 issue of The Current, Josh Hirschland (CC '09) addressed the ever growing issues surrounding the campus dating scene. In "The Mating Game" Hirschland quotes one student as saying "You have to hook up with somebody to get anywhere with him...it's all about sex here [at Columbia]." Hirschland bemoans the loss of the "traditional dinner-and-a-movie culture," where students skip the getting to know one another and head straight for, most commonly, the oral sex. While Hirschland focuses on the "straight to sex" approach, he overlooks the problems of verbal foreplay as the inherent root of the issue. Because oral sex is often perceived as both easy and enjoyable, it becomes attractive as a way of short- circuiting the need to date. Or, if it doesn't short circuit it completely, the casual attitude and language of oral sex, the hope of scoring easy "head," can diminish dating and relegate it to a sexist, gendered waste of time.

A Proposal

Examining and restructuring the American sexual educational infrastructure offers a way to begin changing gendered attitudes towards oral sex. Ideally, appropriate sex-ed should be coming from the home, where parents can nurture and teach their children about sexual development, attitudes and gender roles. But as American familial structures continue to erode, and many parents remain absent in their children's lives, theories of acceptable sexual discourse are being shaped at an early age by R-rated movies and pornography rather than parental insight.

That being the case, it is becoming increasingly more important for educators and policy makers to step in to ensure that all children are receiving appropriate sexual education. Even 40 years ago, in 1969, Dr. Mary Calderone, founder of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) realized "Sex is so intrusive and our culture is so permeated with sexual messages that planned and relevant sex-education programs are vital now." Her argument is truer today than it was 40 years ago as adolescent sexual activity continues to increase, along with media representation of such behavior.

Despite children's familiarity with sexual images, language and ideas, formal sex education in this country is mediocre at its best. When we think of sex ed we think sex. Often the education is roughly presented as "This is what sex is, don't do it." This fails to aid healthy sexual relationships. Sex-ed is so much more than sex. It must be about teaching the appropriate language of sex, about sexual harassment, emotional relationships and gender roles. It should be about letting students ask questions and voice curiosity so their foremost concerns are addressed and sexual attitudes put into appropriate context.

Today, sexual education before 7th grade is almost unheard of. Discussion of birth control and condoms frequently waits until 12th grade. As children are exposed to strong sexual images, and as puberty and sexual activity often begins by 5th grade, this system is completely inadequate. The SIECUS advocates a school-based sex education program "appropriate to students' age, developmental level, and cultural background" beginning in pre-kindergarten and continuing through 12th grade. With this broader definition of sex ed as more than just sex, it makes sense to begin sex ed as early as Kindergarten. This doesn't mean teaching 5 year olds about condoms but explaining what to do if an adult or peer touches you inappropriately. As the student grows up, caring adults should consciously be presenting information on appropriate and inappropriate touching, sex and gender roles, and finally, sexual relations. While some parents may squirm at the idea of speaking candidly about sex to students at such young ages it is important to engage issues at an early age so children have some formal background and advice before diving into the sexual unknown.

The new sexual education system must also move beyond the misguided idea of "abstinence only." Currently, 51% of public school districts teaching sexual education require that abstinence be promoted. Another 35% require abstinence to be taught as the only option for unmarried people and either prohibit the discussion of contraception altogether or limit discussion to its ineffectiveness. Only the remaining 14% teach abstinence within a more liberal comprehensive program. "Abstinence only" is ineffective. A prominent recent study led by Dr. Alba Dicenso uncovered the ugly fact that "abstinence only" programs correlate with increased rates of pregnancy. Four abstinence programs and one school program saw an increase of 54% in the partners of men and 46% in women.

We must expand sex ed beyond such narrow understandings of sexual relations. Ward Cates, president of the Family Health Institute asserts the need for a novel approach in sexual education, arguing that we need to "get away from the dichotomy we've set up between sex and abstinence, the view that sex is vaginal intercourse and abstinence is nothing beyond holding hands."

Realizing the need to move beyond "holding hands," oral sex should be discussed in the classroom, as a valid alternative to sexual intercourse. Instead of learning about oral sex by watching a girl gagging on an uncensored internet porn site, a middle schooler should learn that oral sex is one way for people to be appropriately physically affectionate. Teaching about oral sex in a safe and regulated environment will provide the precise opportunity to begin negating many of the misguided and gendered terms associated with oral sex that have seeped into the adolescent lexicon. Eradicating misguided terms and teaching young men and women how to properly engage in sexual relationships is the ultimate lesson in empowerment. This is a great challenge, one that requires strong political intervention and advocacy. Third wave feminists are precisely the people to advocate this political change.

Many third wavers believe today's feminism requires only action at a personal level, and that political feminism is no longer necessary. What feminists today fail to see is that there is still a need for an ongoing political agenda, that the movement is still political, that there are still legislative battles to be fought and won.

Today's feminists cannot just rely on the political battles fought by their feminist foremothers to further social equality. They must fight appropriate twenty-first century political battles, such as for sexual education reform, to bring about the social equality they desire.


Sarah Brafman is a Columbia College sophomore. She would be more than happy to discuss these topics further.

design by Zach van Schouwen