Problematic Perceptions of Oral Sex: The Stigmatization and Marginalization of Female Pleasure
A gendered narrative of oral-sex is being written that is affecting how women view their genitalia and their pleasure.
Studies show that oral sex encounters are rising in adolescents and young adults. Still, these numbers are singular in scope, providing no evidence on the reality of gendered and cultural experiences and perceptions of this practice.² ³ ⁸
The studies that report on oral sex engagement by men and women often don’t distinguish between receiving and giving, making the results easily misinterpreted and inappropriately applied.⁸ Moreover, these reports and studies tend to focus on fellatio, and the ones that pay attention to cunnilingus aren’t reassuring.⁸
A 2010 U.S. national study found that fellatio was more prevalent, despite the fact that other studies have indicated that many adolescent and adult women find cunnilingus to be the most pleasurable sexual act.⁴
In their article “Young Women’s Experiences and Perceptions of Cunnilingus during Adolescence,” Bay-Cheng and Fava make a crucial point: fellatio has been normalized in the media and pop culture while the sparse depictions of cunnilingus are “often framed in the context of a man’s sexual interests and ulterior motives: to show off his own sexual prowess.” ³
The marginalization of female pleasure in the media and sexual discourse has spread into bedrooms worldwide. Bay-Cheng and Fava point out that while young women’s sexual voracity may point to a separation from traditional gendered sexual norms, studies argue that this sexual awakening is rooted in conformation to social norms.³
Furthermore, when female pleasure and perceptions are marginalized, female genitalia gets stigmatized too. This stigmatization ultimately creates a feedback loop of inequality in society’s sexual encounters and sexual perceptions.
For example, feminine hygiene products and procedures are continually being thrown in our faces: soaps, sprays, even deodorants and aesthetic plastic surgery for your vagina. There is arguably a place for these products and services in society, but their purposes are presented as dangerously general and necessary for the average person.
These products send a message to healthy women, and men, that the way a vagina naturally smells, tastes, and looks is something to be corrected. I started using feminine wash when I was 15, not for health and hygiene purposes but because I thought my vagina was offensive to boys, so I wanted it to smell like flowers, not a vagina.
All of these perceptions and ideals of oral sex and genitalia are being spooned into the brains of adolescents and young adults, shaping the next generation of sexual pleasure givers and receivers.
Quotes from young men and women in studies and reports are disturbing. Young men tend to describe cunnilingus as “nasty.” ³ On the other hand, here’s a quote from an adolescent woman that was echoed over 50 times in Ariel Levy’s book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture: ⁶
“A lot of guys expect oral sex. Not girls…people would think they were weird if they did.”
Similar sentiments were reflected in a study by Lewis and Marston, which found that cunnilingus was seen as a “bigger deal” than fellatio by both men and women.⁷ These perceptions have limited the experiences of women and their pleasure when the encounters do arrive.
The Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality found that women have overall negative perceptions of their genitals and shameful notions of having a man’s face so close to them, leading to fewer orgasms cunnilingus due to embarrassment and self-consciousness.⁵ In a similar study, Reinholtz and Muehlenhard found that “women expressed a greater sense of feeling degraded by performing and receiving oral sex.” ⁹ Why is it that women have to feel shame receiving the same act that men so openly and proudly accept from their female counterparts?
Bay-Cheng and Fava found that a greater number of cunnilingus experiences and partners was associated with assertiveness.³ Moreover, studies are uncovering a narrative in which a woman’s entitlement to pleasure is only prioritized in relationships, not hookups, which ultimately requires a high level of assertiveness to receive cunnilingus outside of a formal relationship.¹ ²
This opens the door to another troubling conversation surrounding perceptions of reciprocity. The desirability of mutually reciprocal orgasms and the problematized nature of non-reciprocal sex can create false notions of equality and consensus, which can dangerously distract from the trouble with reciprocation due to a feeling of obligation, not desire, from either gender.⁷
Nevertheless, based on the evidence, I would assert that a greater number of oral sex experiences and partners is likely associated with the privilege of having a penis.
I sound resentful because I am.
Not everyone’s experience with oral-sex has been the same. There are plenty of people out there that don’t fit these statistics, and that’s amazing. But I’m sure many people relate to these studies’ findings and have had experiences similar to mine.
The ideas and studies I’ve uncovered unknowingly helped shape my perceptions of sexual encounters and my vagina as a young and impressionable teenager. When I finally met a guy who told me he loves performing cunnilingus, I was shocked.
My current partner worships every aspect of my vagina. He doesn’t understand how I or anyone else could have ever felt anything other than love for my vagina. I had a pretty sheltered childhood, so the media content available to me was void of any sexual content. That being said, the sexual dialogue around me gave me insight into what people thought about vagina and penises and sex.
I heard guys at my school talk about how they didn’t like performing oral-sex because it tasted weird or smelled bad. I saw girls in highschool absolutely destroyed by the gossip surrounding their ‘fishy’ or ‘loose’ vaginas.
When I finally caught a glimpse of mature media, the dialogue surrounding female genitalia only supported these preferences. Shaming the vagina has become normalized and accepted. I’m sure you can think of slang specially curated to describe a vagina, savory or otherwise. Do you remember when Lamar Odom publically compared the smell of Khloe Kardashian’s vagina to earring backs in court? When looking for an article to link to, I found this thread on NikeTalk, and the first comment so appropriately reads, “Why torture your manhood in a sewer smelling headlock?” I digress.
I was concerned about this stuff before a guy even came close to my vagina. I hadn’t seen a lot of vaginas, so I wasn’t sure if mine smelled right or if my labia was too long, or if I was ‘tight enough.’
When I did become sexually active, I gave a lot more oral-sex than I received. There were a few reasons for this. One was that my partners didn’t prioritize it and most likely weren’t even thinking about it (we were young, which shouldn’t be an excuse).
If I did receive oral-sex, it was only for a minute or two to get me wet enough for penetration. When I didn’t receive oral-sex, I was relieved because I felt like I’d dodged a bullet of embarrassment and shame. And when I did want it, I wouldn’t dare ask someone to put their face between my legs. I was uncomfortable enough with myself, even if the cunnilingus only lasted for a few minutes.
Guys also seemed to have no fear of asking for it. It didn’t matter if this was someone I had just met or someone I was really close with: if a guy wanted his dick sucked, he would ask. It felt so normal; I thought that was the way the world worked. If a girl told us about how a guy had gone down on her, it was front-page news. We all wanted to know about it because it was such a rare and coveted event.
Like most troubling paradigms I ponder, education and young adult-focused media representations seem like crucial leverage-points.
Think about the last time you saw hetero-normative penetrative sex in a movie or tv show. Now think about the last time you saw cunnilingus being performed as the sex act, not a segway to penetration.
What vaginal ideals are being glorified in explicit song lyrics, and which actually normal characteristics of a healthy vagina are being used as a weapon to shame and degrade undesirable women? (Obviously, symptoms of an STI or other medical condition shouldn’t be ignored, but a healthy vagina is supposed to have a smell and taste, and all vaginas are supposed to look different and unique).
Lastly, close your eyes and picture your sex-education experience throughout grade school. My experience was factually and medically based. Anything outside of procreation wasn’t mentioned. Not orgasms, not oral, not anal, not masturbation, not intimacy. What was a healthy sex life? I had no clue. The media and my inexperienced and immature peers were my teachers on that topic.
Youth and young adults take in immense amounts of information every day through social media, television, film, and music. This demographic’s impressionability leaves them vulnerable to damaging, stereotyped, and discriminatory ideas about society, female sexuality, and pleasure. Many of the conceptions they form about culture and themselves come from these sources, which often facilitate the generalization and marginalization of certain groups and ideas.
This generation is the one that is going to lead representations of society for the generation that follows them. How are we going to choose to teach them?
- Armstrong, E. A., England, P., & Fogarty, A. C. K. (2012). Accounting for women’s orgasm and sexual enjoyment in college hookups and relationships. American Sociological Review, 77(3), 435–462. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122412445802
- Backstrom, L., Armstrong, E. A., & Puentes, J. (2012). Women’s negotiation of cunnilingus in college hookups and relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 49(1), 1–12. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/23248991
- Bay-Cheng, L., & Fava, N. M. (2010). Young women’s experiences and perceptions of cunnilingus during adolescence. The Journal of Sex Research, 48, 1–12. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2010.535221
- Fortenberry, J. D., Schick, V., Herbenick, D., Sanders, S. A., Dodge, B., & Reece, M. (2010). The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(5), 305–314. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21029387/
- Hite, S. (2003). The Hite Report: A national study of female sexuality. Seven Stories Press.
- Levy, A. (2006). Female chauvinist pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture. Free Press.
- Lewis, R., & Marston, C. (2016). Oral sex, young people, and gendered narrative of reciprocity. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(7), 776–787. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499/2015.1117564
- Petersen, J. L., & Hyde, J. S. (2011). Gender differences in sexual attitudes and behaviors: A review of meta-analytic results and large datasets. The Journal of Sex Research, 48(2/3), 149–165. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/29779465
- Reinholtz, R. K., & Muehlenhard, C. L. (1995). Genital perceptions and sexual activity in a college population. The Journal of Sex Research, 32(2), 155–165. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/3812967