Lilith Feature

They Say “It’s Not Sex”

When “Sex in the City” features a bat mitzvah party where the precocious 13-year-old girls talk about performing oral sex on the guys “to be popular, “we’re tempted to blow it off, as it were. After all, this is television, not real life.

While this is certainly not a behavior exclusive to Jewish teens, the episode in question does spotlight a practice LILITH has been hearing about for several years from parents, educators, counselors and adolescent girls themselves. Unbidden, they have spoken to Lilith about the prevalence of oral sex among young teens—at parties, on school grounds, at camp, and at the back of the bus.

Reports on National Public Radio, in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press all quote specialists in adolescent medicine, psychiatrists and educators who agree that oral sex is a widely popular practice among young teens. USA Today reports an online sex survey in which more than half the 10,000 respondents were under age 14; 25% had participated in oral sex; a psychiatrist speculates that one-third of middle-school girls have performed oral sex on boys. SIECUS, the renowned Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US, has published dramatic findings about what teens are doing, and discusses one study in which 24% of teens surveyed said oral sex was likely to be an activity in their “casual” relationships. At least one Jewish teen website has run a jokey sex “test” on oral sex and other practices. And this doesn’t take into account the fact that most surveys on teen sexual activity don’t even ask about oral sex “and most do not question the youngest teens,” according to Sara Seims, a past president of the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

No one is suggesting, even for a moment, that Jewish teens are leading the oral sex revolution. But they may have earlier and more frequent opportunities for sexual contact in a supercharged social milieu than their non-Jewish peers. The rush of elaborate parties at age 13 and younger—parties which may include unsupervised bus rides to and from the party venue—means that there is a context, repeated almost every week in season, for getting it together. 

A random selection of adult women I spoke to as this report was being edited—writers, artists, foundation executives—agreed that many young teens know this activity is going on, and say that oral sex is “no big deal.” Almost every one of these Jewish women with children between the ages of 10 and 20 had the same response when I told them what we were writing about; No surprise. Many of them reacted immediately to tell me their kids assert, “Don’t worry. It’s not sex.”

Despite the frequency and consistency of these anecdotal reports from adults and on some Jewish teen websites, and despite the widely publicized reports from sexuality researchers on oral sex and young teen girls, Jewish schools, camps and youth groups don’t seem to be taking note of this sexual behavior. There is plenty of attention paid to crisis issues relating to girls’ bodies (eating disorders, cutting, low self-esteem around body image), but not to this.

To get a better sense of what’s really going on, Lilith asked Ilana Kramer (Cornell ’03), an experienced crisis-line counselor who is now a graduate student in gender studies, to speak to teen girls, sex educators, professionals in Jewish schools, therapists, parents, rabbis and clinic workers. From all corners, she heard them talk about the prevalence of oral sex. But she also heard teens say, again and again, that, just as I’d heard their mothers report, “It’s not sex.”

The reasons for this denial or demurral are more complex than mere concealment of what might be seen —especially at 13 or 14—as transgressive behavior. In a way, it’s political. With so much focus on “abstinence only” education in schools, and so little frank talk about sexual feelings, anything that is not strictly defined as vaginal intercourse seems to teens to be—de facto—NOT actual sex.

As a consequence, teens see oral sex as perfectly safe, since it’s “not sex” and since it is rarely discussed in health class, which focuses on protection and prevention (of AIDS and pregnancy). Unprotected oral sex does, though, carry physical risks, and the teens Kramer spoke to are dismally (and dangerously) unaware of this. And perhaps there’s emotional risk as well.

There is an intimacy to this act, even if it is almost always unilateral (girls on boys). If these teen girls claim it’s not intimate, we have to assume that on some level they’re stifling their own responses, positive or negative.

As you read the report which follows, keep in mind the asymmetrical aspect. Girls are not getting sexual pleasure from oral sex. So what do they get? The reward of being popular with the guys? The gratification of bonding with other girls?

After more than three decades of feminist revolution—in a year when more women than men are applying to medical school, and women are entering the rabbinate in unprecedented numbers—we learn that many Jewish girls and young women still think their worth is defined by how they please men (or, in this case, 13-year-old boys).

Well, we ask here some feminist questions and some Jewish ones.

The feminist ones are about power and control. Who’s in charge here? Is it the girls, since they still have all their clothes on and they are not the vulnerable ones this time? Or is it the guys, who — as our informants put it — get to choose which girls they’ll allow to gratify them? Therapists and sex educators wrestle with this conundrum too, as you’ll see.

At the other end of the spectrum, there seems to be an increased interest in being shomer negia—a term young people are using to describe themselves when they refrain from all touching with the opposite sex. The term has even entered the vocabulary of non-Orthodox teens as a way to calibrate sexual behavior. At the same time, we’re hearing some young teens at Orthodox schools and camps interpreting oral and anal sex to violate no precept against premarital sex, still remaining, “technically,” virgins. Brittany Spears meets halakha? Time to rethink a more realistic Jewish sex ethic?

A more widely applicable Jewish question is about the party celebrations that sometimes accompany bar and bat mitzvahs. Not to get into the tired discussion about over-the-top parties,

Are the girls in control because they have their clothes on?

but…we need to start treating these young teens (13, 14) like the children they still are in many ways, though on the cusp of adulthood. Although this milestone signals the beginning of Jewish adulthood—with increased ritual responsibility, for example—it doesn’t mean adult hood in all ways. What kind of values are transmitted to the young celebrants? Adults aware of oral sex practices have a valuable opportunity to explore sexual values with teens in some very practical ways.

At those bat and bar mitzvah parties, with grownup women often dressed seductively and everyone in a party mood, young teens sense the sexual energy in the air. Some parties feature hired dancers in tight out fits cavorting seductively with each other and with both the kids and the adults. This combined with little oversight (grownups often in separate rooms) can be a setting for some sexual behaviors in the kids inspired by the adults.

Partly this behavior is just teens being teens. But it’s also a matter of Jewish parents and the Jewish community giving them opportunity and perhaps even some subtle encouragement to experiment sexually, aided and abetted by peer pressure. National Federation of Temple Youth director Andrew Davids told our reporter, about the bnai mitzvah experience: “We’re sending a message, ‘You’re gonna have a big party and then be an adult,’ and then we’re surprised when they do nothing but party and do what they perceive to be adult behavior.”

An indication of how casually teens view oral sex is that all the girls aged 13 to 17 Ilana Kramer interviewed for this article were willing to have their real names used. However, LILITH has decided to protect their privacy by using pseudonyms. The people you’ll meet in this report who are identified only by first name are Jewish teens whose names and hometowns have been changed. But their ages and their words are exactly as reported.  


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