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Slate’s Saucy Oral Sex Story Needs Better Statistics

A sample of patients from an inner-city clinic does not a national trend for teens make

Slate, which normally debunks over-hyped stories about teen sex and drug use, ran a curious article on teen oral sex this week, headlined more appropriately than it may have intended, “A Cock and Bull Story.”

With a breathless opening, noting Oprah’s introduction of the “teen oral-sex craze” and the Atlantic’s coverage of it as a middle and upper class phenomenon, it went on to say:

National statistics on teen fellatio have only recently been collected, but the trend seems to be real. Johns Hopkins University Professor Jonathan Zenilman, an expert in sexually transmitted infections (and father of former Slate intern Avi Zenilman), reports that both the adults and the teenagers who come to his clinic are engaging in much more oral sex than in 1990.

Only 50% of male clinic visitors reported receiving oral sex in 1990, but now 75-80% have had the pleasure; and for females, the number receiving climbed from 25% to 75-80%.

Well, it sounds like we’ve nailed down the numbers and that the “craze” has finally been scientifically confirmed.  But what Slate fails to inform its readers is that patients visiting an inner city Baltimore clinic (especially when you include both adults and teens) are not representative of American teenagers in general. 

Statistics on oral sex among teens from the general population, though only available for males and only available to compare from 1995 to 2002, show no such trend.  In 1995, 49% of boys 15-19 reported having received oral sex; in 2002, 51% reported it – a difference that was not statistically significant.

This certainly doesn’t undermine the thesis of the rest of the article, which is that teens will act rationally to reduce sexual risks. In fact, it strengthens it.  Teens who have occasion to visit an inner city STD or family planning clinic are almost certainly those who have personally experienced or seen friends or family face some of the possible consequences of unprotected sex.  And research finds that knowing people who have had such experiences is more likely to change behavior than being told about them.

But this doesn’t tell us anything about the behavior of teenagers “in the very best schools, in the nicest families, in the leafiest neighborhoods,” that the Slate article promises to expose. The national middle class teen oral sex epidemic remains a scientifically unsupported (but highly titillating) media creation.