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Why Are Young Men in the UK So Scared of Cunnilingus?

We asked an expert, and a few people in their early 20s, whether they think there's truth to the theory that men expect oral sex without wanting to lick back.

by Morgan Harries
25 September 2016, 5:00am

Ten years ago, a bunch of researchers exploring condom use in the UK stumbled across something more interesting. Their study uncovered that British teens agreed that women expected oral sex much less than men – 20 percent of women, versus 43 percent of men. Earlier this year, researchers Ruth Lewis and Cicely Marston found that things were more complex – and contradictory – when they interviewed 16- to 18-year-olds for a study of their own, to find out their attitudes.

It turns out the teens already shared the idea that male and female pleasure is equivalent. "It's give and take," said one. But when compared to the realities of their actual sexual encounters, the boys reported being much more likely to receive head than the girls.

"Our analysis," wrote Marston and Lewis, "revealed two seemingly competing constructions of oral sex in circulation in young people's accounts: oral sex on men and women as equivalent and – sometimes simultaneously – oral sex on women as 'a bigger deal' than oral sex on men.

There's clearly a conflict there. Basically, the report found that while the teens interviewed said they were all for genital fun equality, blowjobs were seen as more of a given. But going down on women was seen as more significant – and, hint hint, may have meant that the guys weren't getting as much practice or learning how to actually find the clit. But why would cunnilingus be a bigger deal in the first place?

"There was definitely a sense that oral sex on women in a relationship was something you did to further the relationship or get something else," Marston says, speaking over the phone. "If it's just a one night stand, you don't necessarily have that incentive." The interviews in the report emphasised the prevailing idea among the teen boys that vulvas were "dirty", "disgusting", "nasty", "droopy", – come on, lads – "messy" and "stinking". That meant, therefore, that oral sex on women was undesirable work. By only resorting to them in relationships, hook-ups provided an acceptable escape route out of equivocal pleasure.

"When I was in school," says Angelo, a 22-year-old student, "a lot of my peers did think that it was pretty gross. I think there's less stigma attached now. Most guys I know would only do it to someone they were seeing and not on a one night stand." There it is again: the girlfriend exception rule.

This idea of vulvas as gross wasn't just echoed by guys interviewed in the study. Take Becky, a 17-year-old girl. "I think all males really like it being done to them but, um ... a lot of girls say, like, the same. It's just ... they don't really like it. They feel uncomfortable." When asked what some women's concerns might be, she went on: "I guess it's like, generally an area you're not very confident ... well, I'm not."

Mostly though, as Marston explains, the stigma against female genitalia provides an easy narrative frame for boys to explain why they'd refuse to engage in oral sex. Londoners in the study in particular referred to eating girls out as a reputational risk, with Malik, an 18-year-old, explaining that the derogatory term "bocat" refers to when "a guy does it to a girl. Boy, that is his life over because everyone knows about it."

I definitely gave more head than I received as a teen. It was like head for a dude was standard foreplay and head for me was a treat — Miranda, 21

Tom, a 21-year-old shop worker, remembers the same thing. "Yeah there was loads of stigma when I was younger, my friends at college used to call me a "motter".' Obviously, not all straight guys who eat women out have been called names for it. But there's still a sense that guys get an extra clap on the back for doing what's one of the most basic sexual acts. And the existence of this generally accepted tradition of viewing men who go down on women as an exception means that men can easily explain their personal objections as just conforming to the norm.

While "mostly for boys they get thumbs up from their friends for just about anything, [giving head to a girl] is the only thing that was a bit more ambivalent," Marston says. "We were speculating whether that's because it steps out of that narrative of women's bodies being for men's pleasure. That's possibly a reason why the men who did like doing it really emphasised how much pleasure they got from it, because it helps to explain it. It's like 'obviously I'm doing it because I get off on it', and that's the only explanation that's acceptable."

Funnily enough, people of all genders can find each other's genitals gross or lovely or a bit of both. "It wasn't that [girls] were necessarily different in their feelings of disgust," Marston says, "it was just that what they did after with those feelings was different – they'd still do it, whereas the young men wouldn't. They weren't like, 'ew, that's disgusting I won't do it', they were like, 'ew that's disgusting – I'll use strawberry lube.'"

Girls are just expected to get on with it. "I definitely gave more head than I received at that age," says Miranda, a 21-year-old bisexual arts student, remembering her teen years. "It was like head for a dude was standard foreplay and head for me was a treat. So oral sex when I was around the age of 16, 17 was very much about sucking dick."

So what now? A combination of normalising oral sex, for everyone, and moving beyond myths of "perfect-looking labia" boosted by porn and sniggering sex-ed classes would be a good place to start. Of course, you could always take the practical route, too. "Now that I am older and have eaten out a couple of girls," Miranda says, "I've seen other vaginas in real life – and I guess this makes me more comfortable with my own."

(Photo: Jason Pratt via)

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