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Is it really give and take? New research examines how young people talk about oral sex

Study highlights need for sex education programmes to focus on gender dynamics.

Gender inequalities persist in the experiences and expectations of oral sex among young men and women, but are often glossed over by young people, according to a study in the Journal of Sex Research.

The study was conducted by researchers as part of the sixteen18 project on young people's sexual practices at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. For this part of the study, they interviewed 71 men and women aged 16 to 18 in England, and conducted follow-up interviews a year later. The study focused on accounts of oral sex between men and women, rather than same-sex partners.

The researchers found that despite often talking about an ethic of equal give-and-take in oral sex, most interviewees described performing oral sex on women as a "bigger deal" than oral sex on men. In particular, both men and women said giving oral sex was more distasteful for men than women, and receiving was "easier" for men than women.

The authors say while there has been a lot of research on vaginal intercourse, much less is known about young people's expectations and experiences of other sexual practices.

The interviews revealed that the language men used to talk about women's genitals was often highly negative, and that women can be ambivalent about 'receiving' oral sex in part because of their awareness of these perceptions. In addition, young men were much more likely than women to say they simply did not perform oral sex if they didn't want to, while young women tended to describe strategies to make giving oral sex more palatable.

Study author Dr Cicely Marston, Senior Lecturer in Social Science at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: "Gender inequalities are clearly not confined to vaginal intercourse: even a practice that is talked about as equal turns out to be more problematic for women than for men. This underlines how important it is to pay attention to gender dynamics as part of sexuality education and sexual health promotion"

Dr Ruth Lewis, study author now at the University of the Pacific, said: "Sex education should cover much more than just pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. It's clear that we also need to be encouraging young people to think critically about how women's and men's bodies are talked about in society, the nuances of consent and coercion, and how gender equity might be negotiated in practice."

The study was funded by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK.

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