The scene is a lavish bat mitzvah affair, replete with giant martini glasses and girls in slinky hipster dresses. The dolled-up bat mitzvah girl is discussing sex with her two pals. An older woman overhears and comes over to scold her “Please,” the girl retorts. “I’ve been giving blow jobs since I’m 12”. Her best bud chimes in, “It’s the only way to get guys to like you.”
Ok, so this wasn’t your daughter’s bat mitzvah (sigh of relief). Or your niece’s, or your own. It’s an episode of HBO’s Sex and the City. But instead of shrugging off this episode, titled “Hot Child in the City,” as a tawdry exaggeration, maybe we need to ask why, on one of America’s most widely watched TV shows, there is a depiction of a Jewish 13-year-old girl bragging about her adeptness at performing oral sex.
Barbara Victor, an educator with the Jewish Family Services in Montreal, says it in a nutshell: “Whether your kids are engaged in oral sex or not, it’s something kids are talking about.” And so were the more than two dozen teen girls and their teachers and counselors LILITH interviewed this fall. They made it clear that girls are performing oral sex on boys insignificant numbers and that young teens have ample opportunity to do so at elaborate and largely unsupervised bar and bat mitzvah parties. Worse yet, blow jobs are now seen as “no big deal,” simply part of the range of activities that many 12- and13-year-old girls engage in casually as part of their social lives. Seventeen-year-old Sari, from Long Island, sums up my research well: “You come into middle school and you have no idea what it is and you leave middle school knowing.”
Just a ‘Suburban Myth’?
In the recently released feature film “Thirteen,” 13-year-old Tracy and her best friend Evie take out their chewing gum to perform oral sex on the two boys they are dating that night. And this past October, on an “Oprah!” episode entitled “The Double Lives of Teens,” Michelle Burford, a writer for O Magazine who interviewed 50 teen girls and their mothers about the secret sex lives of teens, explained an American teen phenomenon dubbed rainbow parties: “All of the girls put on lipstick and each one puts her mouth around the penis of the gentleman or gentlemen who are there to receive favors and makes a mark in a different place on the penis, hence, the term rainbow.”
Elissa, a 13-year-old from southern California, is in the eighth grade at a private school. Oral sex, she says, is “so common now, people don’t even think of it as bad anymore. It’s cool if you do it.” She says girls she knows “give blow jobs” at house parties and dances and sometimes on school grounds as well. She reports that “some people have done it in the batting cage at their school, because no one goes near this area.”
Among Jewish teens, the opportunity presents itself repeatedly in non-school settings as well, and relatively early: at bar and bat mitzvah parties. It happens, we were told, outside the party, in a bathroom, or maybe even an open room with a pool table in it. There is a lot of making out and “freaking,” today’s word for bumping and grinding. The truly troubling element here is not what might in an earlier age have been termed necking or petting, but rather unilateral, ubiquitous girl-on-boy oral sex. Jen, 17, an eleventh-grader at a public school in Manhattan, says that “Oral sex happens at bar bat mitzvahs all the time. It starts in seventh and eighth grade.” This assertion is repeated by teens in private schools, public schools, Jewish day schools.
Baltimore-based sex educators Amy and Charles Miron, say that oral sex is known among some teens as “the bar mitzvah present.” Robin Stein is the director of The Response Center, an agency that staffs medical clinics and other services for Chicago-area teens, about one-third of them Jewish. “I have been hearing for three years about sex on school buses and on the buses on the way to bar/bat mitzvah parties around Chicago— oral sex primarily,” she says. “A reporter asked me do I have a source for the bat mitzvah bus story and asked, ‘Is this just a suburban myth?’ I said, ‘No, 1 cannot imagine it is all just a myth—we hear these stories so often.'”
Myra Greenberg Glassman of San Diego tells of chaperoning a trip for American Jewish high school students traveling through Eastern Europe. Greenberg, realizing that girls at the back of the bus had been involved in oral sex, asked them why they did it. The reply, “We were bored on the bus.” The girls told Glassman oral sex was “no big deal.”
Although parents say they feel confident about supervision at Jewish activities, we’ve had reports of oral sex on trips and at Jewish summer camps, as well as at those bar/bat mitzvah party buses. Daniel Kopf, 20, an NYU undergraduate who was a camper and then a counselor at Camp Ramah in Massachusetts, says “I learned about sex at Jewish camp.” Kopf recalls that after Havdallah services, campers would go into the woods in pairs “to do sexual things.” Although no interviewees would go on the record about this, we have heard similar reports from Orthodox camps. Jen, who has been a counselor at Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, says, “I promise there’s oral sex happening at the camps…. Every night after 10:30, kids go hook up with each other behind the cabins.” Sari, 17, from Long Island, New York, reports that when she was a counselor, she heard that some of her campers, going into eighth grade, were regularly engaging in oral sex. “It’s a new experience, but the kids haven’t learned about what a big deal it is or about the STIs [sexually transmitted infections].” she adds. “They say that because they ‘haven’t gotten around a lot,’ they don’t have to worry about contracting STIs.”
Why Is It Happening?
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 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, concurs. 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.”
Laura Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, also wonders about the ways in which adult women can offer more support. “I’m baffled that girls are so desperate to be accepted by peers, and by boys. They don’t feel empowered to say, why am I doing this? Do I really want this?”
Others, however, believe that there’s a payoff here for girls, too. It’s power. Montreal Gazette reporter Donna Nebenzahl, who interviewed teens in June for an article on oral sex, told LILITH, “Some girls say it’s a power thing that they have…. In order to give a blow job, you’re in control of it, even though it’s really about servicing the boy. For girls, there’s a certain status, because your friends do it, you’re gonna be cool too, you’ll be part of the group, this is the line.” Jen, the Manhattan eleventh rader, agrees. “What girls get from it is reputation, popularity, and guys will stick around more. If you give head to Billy, he’ll make you popular and then he’ll tell more guys and if you give head to them, you’ll get even more popular.”
The fact that girls believe giving a blow job isn’t sex also explains, in part, their willingness. Says Jen, “In seventh- and eighth-graders, they don’t see oral sex as any different than groping or kissing.” Part of this attitude, ironically enough, may come from the cultural importance of virginity. Pop star icons like virginity-boaster Britney Spears send a disturbing mixed message to teen girls. “Britney says she’s a virgin,” explains Adrienne Verrilli, director of communications at SIECUS, “but also is very sexy, which sends the mixed message that you should be both, and creates a pedestal of what you should be to boys. It’s complex.” NYU Gender Studies professor Julian Carter calls oral sex in young teens “a creative response.” She says, “Oral sex allows young teens to reach a compromise of peer approval and maintaining virgin status.”
Carter also views the oral sex phenomenon as part of an adolescent power dynamic. “At 12 and 13 you have no control over money, freedom, anyway, so this may be a means of attaining power. It’s precisely at this age of early adolescence that there’s a drop-off in power; girls’ sense of self-worth changes dramatically at this age, this is when they are finding out they have the less power within a patriarchal system and begin doing less well in school.”
One thing is for certain, no matter why girls are giving boys blow jobs, they’re not getting much in return. “Although girls say they do it, they don’t say they actually like it,” says Barbara Victor. And boys are reportedly not so obliging. Daniel Kopf confesses that “When I was 14 and first heard one of my friends went down on a girl, we were all like ‘Ewwww!’ I think there’s more stigma for guys going down on girls.” Jen says, “The girl always does it because guys say it’s gross but for a girl to do it it’s cool. Also, it’s not considered macho for a guy to do it. Girls also don’t like to get it because they’re insecure about their bodies, it’s always girls doing it to guys.”
But, 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 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.”
It may also be that oral sex is considered “safe.” Ellen Kanter, a nurse-educator for the Family Life Education program at the Lake County Health Department in Illinois, works with low-income Latinas and African-Americans and educates them about sex and preventing pregnancy. Kanter calls what’s going on among Jewish teens an “oral sex epidemic.”
What Girls Need Now
“I went to a PTA meeting three years ago at the high school here and somebody brought up oral sex and that it’s going on at the bar mitzvah buses, and since that time, I’ve been keeping my ears open,” said Gail Squires, a Jewish mother in Great Neck, New York.
But experts in this area say that most parents do not know what their children are doing when no one is supervising them.
Lilith’s exploration of this admittedly upsetting subject has convinced us that kids today are not getting adequate guidance on sex. It’s treated, as sex educator Gelperin put it, like a plumbing lesson. “But teens are telling us they want to talk about love, the feelings, the difficult issues, and how to ask someone out.” When Myra Greenberg Classman, who chaperoned the Jewish teen trip to Europe, tried to discuss the back-of-the bus situation with parents, many insisted that their kids were not involved. Yet she was surprised to hear from her own teenage daughter how frequently oral sex was a subject of conversation among the bat mitzvah crowd. Parents need to get beyond their own denial and talk to their kids, says Barbara Victor, not only about sex, but about its implications. “We have to begin to talk about what it means to be sexual. This is the piece that sex ed programs are lacking,” she says.
Planned Parenthood educator Heather Samel, of Nassau County, Long Island, explains precisely where schools many be going wrong. Many schools, Samel says, still use fear-based tactics which promote abstinence-only education. “Abstinence only programs exaggerate consequences, saying you will die because of HIV. While it may delay the onset of sex, these programs are not talking oral and anal sex, so kids think, ok, I’m not gonna get pregnant or HIV from oral or anal sex. They don’t think of oral and anal sex as sex even though that is what it is. And since the subject of oral sex is not discussed in schools, many early teens are unaware of STIs such as herpes, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, of which Samel reports they get many cases.
Some Jewish educators are now thinking about sexed in a new light. Rabbi Andrew Davids, director of the Reform Movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), and his staff have created two single-sex groups, Nashim (females) and G’varim (males), focusing on gender identity. Ultimately, Davids says, “The Jewish response to teen sexuality is not just to say no, but we want them to be responsible for it, we want them to own the choices they make, that what they do is appropriate for them.”
Long-time sex educators Amy and Charles Miron are the authors of the book How to Talk with Teens About Love, Relationships, and S-E-X. They also run a sexuality retreat for the ninth-graders at Washington Hebrew Congregation, in Washington, D.C., in which they teach everything from Jewish values and the holiness of the body to the proper use of dental dams and what to expect at your first gynecological appointment [“Jewish Sex-Ed,” Winter 2002-03]. The Mirons say that “The Jewish community as a whole is not responsive to this [oral sex among teens]. They tend to focus on reproduction, but they don’t get into the exchange of values, such as when is the right time for sex and with the right person.” In fact, claims Amy Miron, “The more sexual information you give a kid, the later their sexual debut and the more conservative they are.”
It’s time to shift some of the focus away from grades and to realize that middle school is a crucial time when girls are forging attitudes—and having experiences—of which their parents are often totally unaware. And it’s time that teen girls had an opportunity to discuss and maybe even refuse these intimate behaviors.
Some thoughts for adults who care about teens.
LILITH suggests that, for all the complex issues driving young teen girls to engage in oral sex with boys, there are steps adults can take to intervene, or at least to inform themselves.
- Suggest that youth groups and schools bring in health practitioners to talk to middle schoolers about the fact that even these non-intercourse practices are both sexual and risky. In Jewish schools and youth programs, the focus can be on how strongly the tradition emphasizes that one must take good care of one’s body; there is no mind-body split in Judaism. It’s OK, and very “Jewish” to talk about health (But remember that scare tactics alone have little credibility.)
- Be clear about mutual pleasure in sex. Jewish sources have lots to say here, including the Talmudic injunction that a man must pleasure his wife first. Teens need to hear that sex is neither about controlling nor servicing the “other.”
- In practical terms, parents can use young adult chaperones to be the heavies at bar and bat mitzvah parties. “I was just at a bar mitzvah last month,” said Rabbi Joui Hessel of the Washington Hebrew Congregation. “The family hired two college age kids to watch the kids, who walked around the party, in the bathrooms. I don’t even think the kids noticed the chaperones were there because they were young adults.”
- Parents and camp counselors can meet before the summer season for discussions on sexual behavior and how to educate their campers. “We’ve entrusted an enormous amount of responsibility to young adult counselors without much training,” Barbara Victor worries, “Parents are giving kids over to16-year-old counselors for two months and those 16-year olds must be equipped to know what age appropriate behavior is.”
- Put forward the idea to youth group leaders that sexual behaviors are appropriate topics for discussion in girls’ groups.
- The school nurse at Manhattan’s Hunter High School told the New York Times this spring that she keeps boxes of mint-flavored condoms in her office for the students, and marks the box “for oral sex only.” Is it farfetched to imagine that nurses at Jewish day school sand camps can be trained to talk to girls? Then the young teens considering this behavior have a chance not only to protect themselves but—importantly—to be reminded that, yes, oral sex is sex.
- Check out some websites that address teen sexuality, often with frankness and tenderness too: