Humans are so creative when it comes to sex. We use just about every part of our body to pleasure ourselves or our partners, including our mouths. Mouths are already sexy, they play the starring role in giving consent, dirty talking, and kissing. But, we’ve also found ways of using our mouths to reach climax. Unfortunately, even in the sweet, heady realm of oral sex, gender norms prevail.
Before we dive deep into the analysis, let’s clarify a few terms. Unlike Bill Clinton asserted in 1998, oral sex very much qualifies as sex. Oral sex is a coverall for many more specific types of stimulation. You’ve probably heard of ‘blow jobs’, a colloquial term for the more scientific act of ‘fellatio,’ namely stimulating a penis using the mouth, also known as ‘cock-sucking’, or ‘giving head’. ‘Cunnilingus’ is the stimulation of the clitoris, or vulva, using the mouth, and is also known as ‘eating out,’ or the gender-neutral ‘going down on’. Oral sex of the anus is known as ‘rimming’ or ‘anilingus’. In a consensual setting, all of these are fun and creative ways to get intimate.
So where does gender come into this? Well, to start, blow jobs are much more common than cunnilingus. Research shows that (in this case heterosexual) couples talk the talk but don’t walk the walk when it comes to oral sex. In the study, ‘oral sex on women’ was often described as ‘distasteful’ and a ‘bigger deal’ than ‘oral sex on men’. Receiving oral sex was also considered easier for men participants than women participants. This is one of many studies that highlight this gap. Some reasons for this include the vast negative language used to describe the vagina, which makes women feel uncomfortable asking for oral sex. As well as this, misinformation and a lack of comprehensive sex education lead to unhelpful myths about STIs and hygiene. There are particular stigmas around the size, shape, and scent of the vagina that do not need to be faced in other forms of sex.
Similarly, blow jobs, and men’s pleasure in general, take centre stage in commercial porn, making them seem commonplace in sex. Cunnilingus, and indeed women’s pleasure, are deprioritised. Pornography may also be said to reinforce violent fantasies around oral sex; practices like ‘face-fucking’ or ‘aggressive/forced deepthroating’ have become their own categories. Once again, it seems like the act of (penal) penetration has been associated with dominance, virility, power, and at times violence. The same cannot be said about cunnilingus aside from more BDSM play.
Oral sex is usually parked into the queerphobic ‘foreplay’ category used to sideline everything that isn’t penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. Our obsession with PIV sex comes from a long history of seeking to understand, and control, sexual pleasure. Although times are changing, society has long viewed PIC sex as the ‘true’ form of sex, so much so that it takes the title ‘sex’ in day-to-day conversation. Other forms of sex are viewed as unsatisfactory or a build-up to the main thing, or indeed as a shameful act (such as masturbation). There are many reasons for this: mainstream religions dictate that sex should be for procreation and there is only one form of sex that (reliably) leads to pregnancy, and it involves a male sex organ and a female sex organ. Similarly, this holy union takes place inside a marriage, also limited, in many contexts, to one penis and one vagina. Pleasure does not play a role in this traditional view of sex (other than the necessary man’s orgasm) which invalidates other forms of intimacy, including oral sex.
Studies show that most heterosexual cis couples prioritise PIV, whether or not the woman achieves orgasm. In fact, men are about 45% more likely to orgasm during PIV sex than women, a phenomenon known as the ‘orgasm gap’. Studies show that couples that engage in oral sex are closing the orgasm gap. There is a belief in society that men and women have sex for different reasons; where women seek intimacy and romance, men seek physical release. If we follow the essentialist line of reasoning, women don’t have sex to orgasm, they have it for emotional connection. And, although this is true for some women (and notably some men), it is definitely not the case for all of them. Similarly, you can have an emotional connection and an orgasm (we love to multitask). Older couples who engage in other forms of sex, particularly oral sex, are more likely to have a ‘higher quality relationship’ and ‘psychological vibrancy’ later in life.
A short note on rimming; as one article puts it ‘everyone has a butt(hole)’. We have a long way to go in society to understand and appreciate the queering of sex, and indeed every area of our society. There is a lack of comprehensive research on sex practices, and when studies do exist, they tend to focus solely on biological factors or have queerphobic undertones. This means that studies exploring oral sex often exclude rimming, despite its rising popularity. Rimming is often viewed as an activity that occurs between two men, partially because of its links to penetrative anal sex, and partly because of the media around it. However, in a consensual environment, many couples find anilingus to be a uniquely stimulating experience.
In conclusion, gender norms still prevail in the realm of oral sex. Blow jobs are more common than cunnilingus, and commercial porn often prioritises men’s pleasure over women’s pleasure. Society still has a long way to go in understanding and appreciating diverse sexual practices, and more comprehensive research is needed to understand better and promote healthy sexual practices.
Although these studies focus on heterosexual cis couples, the conclusions can be applied to all people: you don’t need a penis and/or a vagina to have pleasurable sex. Heck, you don’t even need another person to have pleasurable sex. As in all things, if you feel safe and are giving (and receiving!) enthusiastic consent, oral sex is a great way to explore your body and desires.