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Changing definition of sex

Jenna Johnson

So, does oral sex count as sex?

That's the question University of Kentucky researchers asked nearly 500 college students in 2007. Only 20 percent of them said oral sex was sex -- which is a steep drop from the 40 percent in similar studies in 1991 and 1999-2001.

The study was of 477 college undergraduates (328 women, 149 men) enrolled in a human sexuality course at a large state university. The question on the survey was: "Would you say you 'had sex' with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was..." then listed 11 behaviors. Students could answer "yes" or "no" (and couldn't skip any).

The behaviors included vaginal intercourse (98 percent say it's sex), anal sex (78 percent), oral sex (20 percent), intimate touching (9 percent) and deep kissing (6 percent).

The researchers find the news worrisome because oral sex can spread many diseases, including herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, HPV, intestinal parasites, hepatitis A and HIV. The researchers say they worry that as college students think of oral sex less as sex and more as "messing around," they will forget that they can still catch an STD.

Why the changing perceptions?

The researchers, led by University of Kentucky assistant professor Jason D. Hans, list off possible explanations in their recently released report: Between 1990 and 2006, many schools shifted their primary sex ed focus to intercourse to confront teen pregnancy rates and the spread of STDs. Now days there's a lot more sex on television (although, not much more oral sex).

And then there's their other theory, which they are calling the "Clinton-Lewinsky Effect."

For the past several decades, there have been ever-changing definitions of sex in society. But the researchers argued that when President Bill Clinton said during a 1998 press conference that he "did not have sexual relations" with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, there was a turning point in the country's definition of sex -- and oral sex was swiftly booted out of the "sex" category in the minds of many.

Unlike respondents in the previous samples, our respondents were adolescents after the Clinton-Lewinsky era, which our comparisons of data over time suggest may have been a turning point in conceptualizations of oral-genital contact. The dramatic and sudden shift in attitudes toward oral-genital contact can therefore be termed the Clinton-Lewinsky effect.

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By Jenna Johnson  |  April 5, 2010; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  News Overload  
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I went to high school in the late 70s and oral sex was not sex then. If that was all you did, you were still a virgin. Having oral sex with someone other than your bf/gf WAS cheating, though.

Posted by: didnik | April 5, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

> vaginal intercourse (98 percent say it's sex),


Must be the gay community!

--faye kane, homeless brain
Read more of my smartmouth opinions at

Posted by: Knee_Cheese_Zarathustra | April 5, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

intimate touching (9 percent) and deep kissing (6 percent).

Who is this? The mormons?

--faye kane, homeless brain
Read more of my smartmouth opinions at

My prev post referred to the 2%

Posted by: Knee_Cheese_Zarathustra | April 5, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Clinton has anything to do with it at all. It's just that (1) this generation probably has oral sex more or at least talks about it more than previous ones, to whom oral sex may not have even crossed their minds when it came to defining what counts as "had sex", and (2) the people taking the survey are young people, still crossing lines, and perhaps happy to see themselves as still having some lines and boundares to cross over yet/look forward to, (3) teenagers are just going to think about sex more than older people b/c it's all so new and exciting, and any people obsessed over something and talking about it all the time will create all kinds of new classifications and distinctions that others might gloss over and think, oh, it's all the same. Like Inuit communities that have 20-some words for snow - because they have to think about and talk about snow a lot!, (4) intercourse is special and distinct, not from a risk-for-stds factor, but carries the risk of pregnancy whereas oral sex doesn't, is just more difficult, and requires more emotional intimacy that some young people may not be ready for; one way or another, it is unique and special in many ways, so there ought to be a word for it, a way to describe it. And "intercourse" sounds like a textbook, "making love" could do the trick and of course is sweeter than any of the other words I won't put in the paper, but old fashioned and obscure to younger people. Thus, people my generation say "have sex" means intercourse. "Having sex" is a simple term, it's not slang or vulgar, and to my generation, at least those people I know, it has a precise meaning. It's a useful phrase. You can't change language patterns so easily. Better and more effective, I think, to tell kids clearly and directly: you can get STDs from oral sex. Go ahead and be specific with them - the goal is to change behavior, not to change language.

Posted by: KatieC1 | April 5, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Dirty old men in Hollywood have won, for the past 20 years they have tried to make this act (always done by women) into a joke. Even on TV it is everywhere. IN Cougar Town on Network TV, on the first show, the "cougar" picks up a "cub" and moves down his body- the ex husband walks in and says "i thought you hated that"(laughs). IN "yes men" Jim Carey fixes something for an old lady, and she responds by taking her teeth out and (you know the rest). This was a PG movie! I can only imagine that it is on Gossip Girl, etc. Sick stuff and people are so manipulated but guys will benefit from this.

Posted by: olderbutwiser | April 7, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

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