Does Anyone Use Condoms For Oral Sex?
Unprotected oral sex is safer than anal or vaginal sex, but have we become complacent because it’s so much less-scary?
June 26, 2013 |
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I remember my 27th birthday party better than I remember most parties, mostly because of a guy who wasn’t even there. That week’s New Yorker included a feature by Jerome Groopman, who warned of a new antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea colonizing the throats of hosts from Japan to Sweden: “the harbinger of a sexually transmitted global epidemic.” Everyone was talking about it. Couples clung tighter, singles tried to shrug it off, silently praying they could pair off before this latest nastiness hit our shores. The rueful consensus was that no one in attendance—no matter their gender, race, sexual proclivities, or relationship status—regularly used condoms for oral sex.
Earlier this month Michael Douglas told the Guardian that his throat cancer was “caused by something called HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus.” The dangers associated with the terrifying new strain of gonorrhea are greatest for those who give oral sex to men, but the risk of HPV-related oral cancers seems higher for those who go down on women. A 2012 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 10 percent of men and 3.6 percent of women have HPV in their throats. (It should be noted that the virus’ presence is not a guarantee of cancer.) Along with these sexually-transmitted infections, pretty much everything else is transmittable through oral sex: Standard-issue gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, hepatitis B, and chlamydia, the second easiest-to-catch STI in America after HPV.
With gossipy stories about a celebrity’s cunnilingus-induced cancer sprouting from every corner of the Internet, the time seemed ripe for a more thorough, if still completely unscientific, poll of my friends. My inquiry—“Have you ever used a condom or dental dam during oral sex?”—was met with a resounding negative. Responses ranged from “Haha, I don’t think anyone actually ever does that” to “Well, no, but it’s not so dangerous as other kinds of sex” to “Blech. Rubber.”
According to scientists, my friends aren’t necessarily a pack of deviant outliers. Unprotected oral sex is inarguably safer than unsheathed anal or vaginal sex, especially in regards to HIV, and it has no reproductive repercussions. But as Tracy Clark-Flory reported in Salon last year, we’ve become complacent because it’s so much less-scary than other common forms of raw carnality. Sure, even the vast majority of 9th graders admit that while oral sex is safer it still includes some risk of contracting chlamydia and HIV. (Only 14 and 13 percent, respectively, thought that there was zero chance of infection.) But while we claim to know there is danger, we’ve shown our priorities with our genitalia: Everyone from U.S. teens (70 percent) to adults (82 percent) to British teens (80 percent) forgoes condoms every time they have oral sex.
Sexual and public health organizations haven’t been particularly rigorous in focusing on the issue, either. With limited resources and facing widespread sex-ed dysfunction, it makes sense to focus on the types of intercourse with the highest potential for damage. It is the norm, in many contexts, to use condoms for penetrative sex, but in 2004 the American Social Health Association (ASHA) found that about one-fourth of single adults never use condoms during vaginal sex. Other sources are even less sanguine. The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior only found one-fourth of vaginal intercourse protected (one-third among singles) and the numbers drop dramatically for every age bracket all the way up from 14-to-17 to 61-plus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows condom use on the rise between 2002 and 2006-to-2010, both “at first sex” and among unmarried people between the ages of 15 and 44 who had sex in the last four weeks. In the latter group 68.3 percent of men and 71.6 of women still reported “never” using condoms. (These CDC numbers refer to vaginal sex; anal or oral sexual practices were not tracked.) With numbers like those, it’s no wonder I haven’t found a single organization prioritizing safer oral sex.