Blowjobs: Why Can't Americans Be More Like the French?

"What is it about Americans and la pipe?" asked my Parisian friend Anne* in between puffs of Marlboro. I stopped and looked at her, perplexed. La pipe is French slang for "fellatio."

"You're going to have to be a little more specific," I said.

Anne, who was born and raised in Paris, went on to ask why it is that so many young Americans don't consider oral sex to be "real" sex. "It's like a stop gap measure on the way to intercourse," she observed, "and people in America don't think it's intimate the way we do in France. But it's so intimate! Parce que c'est" -– and here she switched from French to English so she could use an utterly apt turn of English phrase –- "in your face!"

Anne, who observed this phenomenon during her study abroad at a large Midwestern university a few years ago, was right, of course. In American culture, we don't count oral sex as "real" sex. The "base" system, which was also the dominant framework when I was a teenager in Australia, privileges vaginal intercourse (I have never understood why Australians use the base system when they don't even play baseball. Why wouldn't we come up with our own cricket-based analogy?). In the bases framework, oral sex happens before intercourse, and it's simply a stop on the way to the main event. It's foreplay, not sex. And it's good, but it's not as good as "stealing home."

Among young people in France, on the other hand, oral sex counts as real sex. While every individual is different –- and that applies in the US as much as in France -– the sense I get when I talk to French people about sex is that to them, oral sex and intercourse are by and large equal. "For us, it's really the same thing, which is to say, it's a sexual act of the same seriousness as penetration. Maybe even more intimate," says Johanna Luyssen, assistant editor of the French feminist magazine Causette. "When you go to bed with a guy for the first time, you don't necessarily give him a blow job. That can even often come later, after intercourse." Another young French woman agreed with Johanna, saying that this order of sexual behaviour makes sense because of the French perception that oral sex is far more intimate than intercourse. "I'll have sex with someone I don't know very well," one young woman told me. "But [oral sex] I only do with people I really like. But if I did it, I would still say that we had sex."

I'll be the first to say that in many respects, the French attitude to sex is far from perfect. But in this regard, I think Americans could benefit by taking a page out of the French book. If America could work toward a new sexual framework, a way of thinking about sex that doesn't treat intercourse as the be all and end all, we'd be a healthier, more equitable, and I dare say more sexually satisfied people.

It's crucial to note that in a country of 66 million people, there will of course be great diversity of attitudes and behaviours around sex. It will vary widely by age, ethnicity, religion, and by many other factors. Some of the French people I spoke to were of two different minds even over the course of one meal, so really we're talking about more than 66 million attitudes. The same goes for the US, too, which has a larger population and greater racial and ethnic diversity than France does.

Generally speaking, though, among young people in the US, the base system reigns. The details of the sexual diamond vary from place to place, but the general framework is consistent: first mouths on mouths, then hands on genitals, then mouths on genitals, then vaginal intercourse. And only this last one is "real" sex. Debra Herbenick, a sex researcher and a sexual health educator at the Indiana University's Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, believes that the separation of oral and vaginal sex is the prevailing attitude among people under forty in the US. But the base system leaves an awful lot to be desired.

For one thing, it all but ignores gay and lesbian sex. Under the current framework, it's impossible for a lesbian, no matter how many same-sex hook ups she has, to really truly lose her virginity. The same goes for gay men: if the only real way to have sex in America is to stick your penis in a vagina, then there are lots of very sexually active gay men out there who are still technically virgins. The privileging of heterosexuality, and of vaginal intercourse above all other kinds of sex, shuts them out and invalidates the sex that they have. Which, you know, seems pretty damn unfair, and like the kind of arrangement that equality-minded folk should be interested in fixing.

A majority of women –- something like 75% -– don't orgasm during intercourse. They come instead from the kind stimulation that, in the current framework, isn't considered "real sex," like oral or digital stimulation. The privileging of vaginal intercourse as the sexual be all and end all, the "home run" of sex, means that for a lot of women, orgasm happens outside of "real" sex. Intercourse is still pleasurable for them, of course, but in a less extreme and discriminatory way than gays and lesbians, they too are shut out of "real" sex.

It's true that oral sex, and gay and lesbian sex, can't result in a baby. For some people, the possibility of procreation might be reason enough to hold intercourse up above all other forms of sex. But most of the time, intercourse doesn't result in a baby, and a lot of the time, that is deliberate: straight people have a lot of intercourse purely for pleasure. If the possibility of procreation is what makes sex real, does that disqualify intercourse that's had using the IUD, which has a failure rate that is statistically minuscule?

Finally, there's the public health argument. You can catch STIs from oral sex. Chlamydia and herpes can all be transmitted through cunnilingus and fellatio. But it becomes awfully hard to prevent sexually transmitted diseases if lots of Americans don't classify some of their sexual behaviour as "sex." You can catch gonorrhea by having sex with someone who has it? That's fine, says the young American who got little to no sex education in high school, I'll just do oral. Except, yikes, you can absolutely catch gonorrhea from oral sex. A new sexual framework, one in which oral sex "counts," would make it easier to prevent the spread of STIs in America.

However, when it comes to public health, the case for that new framework is a complicated. Herbenick warns that given the shoddy quality of sex education in this country, and the comparatively poor availability of contraception, the oral sex-real sex distinction might serve a purpose. "We're just not equipped," she says, to re-classify oral sex as real sex, because we don't yet have the education or healthcare policies that would have to accompany it to prevent further spread of STIs and unwanted pregnancies. "I think it's healthy to think about all of these things as being on the table," she says. "At the same time, when people think, ‘well, I don't know this person very well, so I'll have oral sex with them but not intercourse,' that probably does prevent an awful lot of pregnancies and infections." So if we want a more inclusive and egalitarian vision of sex –- and why wouldn't we? –- it'll have to come with more inclusive and egalitarian education and healthcare policies.

In other words, we're looking at a huge overhaul here. We're looking at a radical re-thinking of sex, not just a re-classification of the blow job. But I think the French have got this one right. Oral sex is real sex, and here in America it ought to be thought of as such. We need to do away with the base system, or at least with the idea that intercourse is the most superior form of sex, the "home run," the ultimate way to score. Done right, it's the kind of shift that could make America a healthier place. It would certainly make it a more equitable place. We already French kiss: why shouldn't the rest of our sex lives be à la française?

*not her real name. She's named for a different Brontë sister.


Chloe Angyal is an editor at Feministing. She is working on her doctoral thesis on romantic comedies, and on a book on the same topic.