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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011

Is Oral Sex a Non-Negotiable?

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The September issue of Glamour magazine has a cover article with the prominently placed teaser headline, "The #1 Thing He Craves In Bed Tonight Is...". The answer is oral sex, and the article goes on to talk about how much more common oral sex is now than it was years ago and how many women find it both empowering and enjoyable to go down on their partners (with, of course, the requisite women's-mag sidebar containing "how to please your man" tips). I have no idea whether men's magazines contain similar cover stories, but I do know that bloggers have recently expressed their disapproval of men who won't perform oral sex on their female partners, especially when those men expect some BJ action themselves. Dan Savage, author of the weekly syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love," has stated on several occasions (one example here) that he considers oral sex to be a non-negotiable sexual act—that in this day and age, a person of any gender who refuses to perform oral sex on his or her partner deserves to be kicked swiftly to the curb.

It's good that oral sex is now considered something fun and powerful, not shameful and degrading, and it's also good that we expect partners in a sexual relationship to equally give and receive pleasure. However, I've become more and more uneasy with the negative assumptions that seem to go along with this "sex-positive" outlook: that people who do not enjoy performing oral sex are prudish, selfish and not worthy of love or affection.

I don't believe that there's any sexual act that anyone should feel obligated to perform simply because it's common, expected or enjoyed by the majority of folks out there. I know too many people who survived childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault as adults that included some kind of forced oral sex, greatly impacting their ability to participate in this activity later in life. I also know people who just don't enjoy giving oral sex, for whatever reason. I think that these people have a right to set their own boundaries about what they will and won't do, without apology and without being shamed by others.

This boundary-setting also applies to vaginal sex, which is still considered to be the definition of "sex" by many people in the world. Some heterosexual folks might find the idea of taking vaginal penetration off the menu to be laughable, but in queer and trans communities, it's widely understood that not everyone who has a vagina enjoys this particular type of sex, and that people's boundaries around being penetrated should be discussed and respected. I think there are many heterosexually identified women who would like to have this kind of freedom (I'm remembering especially all of the people I've talked to who wrestle with vulvodynia and other kinds of painful intercourse).

Any sexual relationship is a dance where partners try to get their needs met and satisfy their partners, while also establishing comfortable boundaries. Oral sex is something that the majority of people like and expect other people to like, which makes it difficult to tell a partner that you're not into this "normal" activity. For some people, "no oral sex" might be a relationship deal-breaker. Other couples might negotiate non-monogamous relationships that allow a partner who enjoys receiving oral sex to get it elsewhere. Others might decide that oral sex is something they can live without. All of these options can be viable and healthy only if all partners are allowed to say what they do and don't like without being judged.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.


Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.