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from “They Say ‘It’s Not Sex!'”

But experts call it “an oral sex epidemic.” What do Jewish teen girls think is really going on during those overheated bat and bar mitzvah parties? [Winter 2003–04] 

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. But the episode in question spotlights a practice Lilith has been hear- ing about for 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….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.

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, “It’s not sex….”

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. But undeniably 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.

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?

We ask 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 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?

…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….

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. Lilith decided to protect their privacy by using pseudonyms.

Kramer reports that among educators and counselors, explanations vary for why girls so willingly, and apparently casually, give boys blow jobs. Nora Gelperin, a Rutgers University sex educator, created a workshop for teachers two years ago on “Oral Sex and Young Teens: The New Third Base?” because when she went into schools to talk about pregnancy and contraception she kept hearing about oral sex. “At the back of the bus, in classrooms, in gyms when no one’s around, all over school it’s happening.” Gelperin reports hearing stories “all the time” about seventh-grade girls giving “blow jobs” to tenth-grade boys in order to elevate their social status. Abigail Natenshon, a psychotherapist in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs who treats children and young adults, con- curs. Natenshon adds: “Though most girls would not admit they are desperate, many youngsters will do anything to assure peer acceptance. Girls do what boys expect.” In this way, notes Gelperin, oral sex may be right in line with how we socialize girls. “We teach them to please others. It’s about pleasing and caring for someone else’s needs, though it is not necessarily in her best interest….”

Some observers speculate that this very lack of mutuality may be what’s appealing to girls. “There is a sense that women are denigrating themselves if they want to receive pleasure,” says NYU Gender Studies professor Julian Carter. Nora Gelperin points out that this fear of addressing pleasure affects the words used in teaching girls about sex. “In sex education, we don’t talk about the orgasm or clitoris. Some textbooks don’t even have the clitoris shown in it. Instead, there’s a focus on the fallopian tubes. Enough of the fallopian tubes. Girls have a right to be educated about the clitoris.”