'Going Down': Oral Sex, Imaginary Bodies and HIV




From Body and Society, 1997, 2, (3) 107-124


In contemporary Western culture vaginal penetration by the penis is regarded as the most 'natural' form of sexual interaction.  The status of oral sex,[1] however, is more problematic.  In this paper we have chosen to focus on heterosexual oral sex for a number of reasons: first because it is sometimes recommended as a safe-sex alternative to vaginal or anal penetration (although, as we will argue, this recommendation is often ambiguous); second because, despite its problematic status, oral sex seems to be a very common practice; and third, because oral sex is a fascinating and exemplary site of the influence of the cultural norms and shared fantasies which go to constituting what has been called the imaginary body.  It is this notion of the imaginary body which we wish to explore here as a useful tool for the study of sexuality and sexual behaviour and thus also for social research into HIV/AIDS.  A detailed exploration of imaginary bodies, we argue, has relevance for HIV/AIDS education and prevention.


Oral Sex and HIV/AIDS


Oral sex is sometimes recommended as safe-sex practice which 'does not involve their partner putting his penis in the vagina or anus' ('Women and HIV/AIDS', undated), the two common sexual practices which are seen to hold the most danger of HIV transmission.  Oral sex, however, is also figured in some HIV/AIDS educational literature as a site of uncharted and uncertain danger, being said to carry the possibility of exchange of infected body fluids, especially if there are cuts and/or sores in the mouth or throat (Cass, 1988:82-4).  This contradiction results in half-hearted and confusing advice as to safety procedures: dental dams and condoms are recommended in a way which implicitly acknowledges the improbability of their being used.


For instance, in the Young Person's Guide to Safe Sex, a booklet approved by the New South Wales Family Planning Association, an early section on foreplay promotes oral sex for both partners without mentioning condoms or dental dams at all.  Later on, in a section on sexually transmitted diseases, the message is that safe sex (means using a condom for penetrative and oral sex (a dental dam can be used for cunnilingus)' (Young Person's Guide to Safe Sex, 1992: 26).  Not only does this sit in strange contradiction to the earlier section on oral sex, the use of the word 'can' is confusing: in what circumstance should a dental dam be used?  Are they really necessary?  On top of this, although condoms are discussed at length with pictures, instructions, recommended retail prices and advice on where to buy them, dental dams are not discussed at all.  Young people are given no information as to what they are, what they look like, how to use them, or where to get them.  The implicit message that 'this booklet gives is that dental dams are not really necessary, but no one is prepared to say so.  Similarly, despite the strong emphasis on condoms and the assertion that they should be used for oral sex, the description of how to actually use a condom only describes their use in vaginal sex.  There is no information about how to introduce or use a condom in oral sex.[2]


This contradictory positioning of oral sex as safe and yet possibly dangerous stems, to some degree, from uncertainty in the scientific and medical data: as yet there seems to be no clear decision as to the safety or otherwise of oral sex (DeVita et al., 1988; Peterman, 1990).  This lack of scientific data is particularly evident when we are looking at oral sex performed on women.  However, as Cindy Patton argues in relation to this:


There are still some questions to be asked.  For instance, if vaginal fluid is highly infected how much of it gets smeared and where does it go?  You can't use the male model of a single 'glob' of semen that moves from point A to point B. That's not how lesbians practice sex; it tends to be a lot wetter and if they're women who get very wet then vaginal fluid tends to get smeared around various places - but this isn't an issue that's been factored into any of the studies.  The assumption seems to be 'What's the concentration in X amount of whatever fluid and how long does it sit in any place?' In these kinds of calculations, lesbian sexuality simply isn't accounted for - nor, I suspect, is heterosexual oral sex.  Studies of transmission are simply based on an intercourse model.  In so far as they consider vaginal fluid, what they're interested in is how much of it might have seeped into the penis.  They don't look at how much might have got on the face or hands. (Patton in O'Sullivan, 1990: 123)


The lack of definite scientific information regarding oral sex then, is not merely a function of lack of understanding, or of the complexities of the virus, but is also tied up with particular research priorities and limiting models of sexual practice.  Perhaps the ambiguities surrounding oral sex as safe sex in fact reflect and play into the deeper cultural ambivalences and difficulties which we will discuss.


A Common Practice


Oral sex is not an unusual practice today in Western societies.  The Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex (Reinisch and Beasley, 1991) refers to studies reporting that 90 percent of heterosexual couples interviewed had engaged in oral sex.  The more recent surveys in France (Spira et al., 1994) and England (Wellings et al., 1994) have found that it is practised by the majority of people, particularly those who have had sex with more than one partner.


In Australia, of 1067 first-year university students (aged between 17 and 25) surveyed in 1990 and 1991, over half had engaged in oral sex at least once.  Of those who had been sexually active at all (had engaged in vaginal, anal or oral sex), over 80 percent had either given or received oral sex.  An interesting subgroup - 12.6 percent of sexually active subjects-had engaged only in oral sex, that is, they had not engaged in either vaginal or anal penetration (Kippax, 1992).


Although these statistics do not tell us how often these practices occurred, we can see that oral sex is a common behaviour among sexually active heterosexuals.  Oral sex has not always been such a common behaviour, or at least has not been as commonly reported.  In a study examining surveys of (hetero)sexual conduct, Gagnon and Simon (1987) found that young adults having sex between 1928 and 1943 were less likely to have had oral sex than those having sex between 1963 and 1967, while young sexually active heterosexuals in the 1970s and 1980s were even more likely to have had oral sex.  Gagnon and Simon interpret these results with reference to the increased acceptability of oral sex within marriage and to the large shift which occurred in the late 1960s towards a greater frequency of non-marital sex.


It is interesting to note that Gagnon and Simon conclude their paper with a cautionary note that these numerical increases do not necessarily mean that oral sex has become an 'unalloyed pleasure' (Gagnon and Simon, 1987: 23).  The practice of oral sex does not become unproblematic merely because it is common.  Indeed, after citing some qualitative work on oral sex, Gagnon and Simon state, 'What is apparent ... is that at the level of both the interpersonal and the intrapsychic, particularly in the early stages of becoming the kind of person who engages in oral sex, there still remain substantial ambivalences and difficulties' (Gagnon and Simon, 1987:23-4).  That some few states in the USA have laws against oral sex and refer to it legally as a form of sodomy, attests to the existence of such ambivalences at the cultural as well as at the 'intrapsychic and interpersonal' levels (Reinisch and Beasley, 1991: 132).


The Heterosexuality and HIV/AIDS Project


This paper, which explores these ambivalences and difficulties, is part of a wider research project exploring issues of heterosexuality and HIV/AIDS.  Over five years this project has been collecting data from heterosexual people (mainly university students, but also some non-tertiary-educated young people) in a number of forms: individual interviews; focus group discussions; questionnaires; and memory-work groups (Haug et al., 1987; Crawford et al., 1992).  All of these data involve an individual 'telling' of sexuality: a written or spoken narrative of sexual practices, experiences, ideas and feelings.  What we are listening to in these data then, is not a set of 'truths' about individuals' lives, but reports of cultural assumptions, norms and stories through which people experience and make sense of their sexuality.


Here we draw on the 'talk' of 73 university students and 22 non-tertiary educated working-class young people from Sydney who were interviewed (in the form of a guided conversation) about their sexual practice and sexual lives, and on discussion which took place in five focus groups among the working-class youth and 19 university student focus groups.  The groups were all same-sex and the group facilitators and interviewers were of the same sex as the group members or the interviewees.[3]


In their talk about their sexual experience, the young people gave accounts which revealed the ways in which they understand bodies - their own and others'.  Their descriptions of their own relationships, their first sex, penetration, initiating and refusing sex, and dealing with contraception and safe sex, contain the reasons provided to explain and warrant their actions.  Such reasons typically involve claims about the validity of the act in light of a shared normative-evaluative world whereby actors consent to ideas of what is good and appropriate, right and proper.  Thus such warranting relies on cultural texts which, in turn, constitute social acts.


The common themes which emerged from the texts formed the basis of our investigation of oral sex and the quotes below exemplify these common themes.  As researchers we read the meanings of the social acts, in this case oral sex, by tacitly grasping a complex array of part-to-whole relations.  This is a hermeneutic process.  Qualitative data analysis usually entails the reconstruction of those wholes, those cultural texts, that seem to frequently constitute routine social action (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Carspecken and Cordeiro, 1995).  In our analysis, we have grouped the common themes occurring in our interviewees' talk according to the research participants' sex and whether they are talking about giving (their mouth and someone else's genitals) or receiving oral sex (their genitals and someone else's mouth).  All names have been changed to ensure anonymity.


Imaginary Bodies


As we have stated, an analysis of the statements of our research participants allows us to isolate cultural stories and ideas which structure the lived experiences of sexuality.  In this we also want to argue that these stories do not lust exist at a conscious and articulated level, but are inscribed on to th e bodies of the interviewees.  This idea rests on the notion of the imaginary body which comes out of feminist rethinkings of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic thought by such theorists as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray and, in Australia, Elizabeth Grosz and Moira Gatens.  The notion of the imaginary body argues that bodies are 'written' or formed both by the particular culture and time in which they exist and by their individual history of psychical experience, thus emphasizing the cultural and psychical meanings which constitute the experience of living in/as that body (Grosz, 1994: 39-44).  As Moira Gatens explains:


the imaginary body is socially and historically specific in that it is constructed by: a shared language; the shared psychical significance and privileging of various zones of the body (e.g. the mouth, the anus, the genitals); and the common institutional practices and discourses (e.g. medical, juridical, and educational) on and through the body. (1983:152)


Importantly, these theorists insist that imaginary bodies are always sexed: that is, they are lived as either masculine or feminine.  Social forces are applied differently to bodies according to their sex, and bodies are interpreted or 'read' differently - by both the person them-selves and others - according to whether the body is male or female.  Thus it is not surprising to find that in the narratives which make up our data we can distinguish sexually differentiated strands: there are certain ways of speaking about (and experiencing) sexuality which come more often from women, and others which come more often from men.  As the notion of the imaginary body suggests, this difference is not 'natural' or inevitable, but rather is an important artefact of the phallocentric culture in which we live.


This notion of the imaginary body is important to HIV/AIDS education and prevention because it allows an examination of sexuality at the level of 'individual' reports of feelings, ideas and experience as in our data, which can at the same time be read as explanations which go beyond the 'purely personal' or 'individual'.  Such explanations can acknowledge sexual difference and power relations and thus enable HIV/AIDS preventive education and policies to be effective.



'Going Down'


Men: Giving Oral Sex to Women


We have suggested that in our culture oral sex is surrounded by ambivalence.  Nowhere is this more clear than when our male interviewees spoke about giving oral sex to their female partners, Although giving oral sex to women was seen by the university students in particular as a required part of 'modern' and 'enlightened' sexual experience, it was never mentioned with pleasure or excitement.  It seemed rather, in many cases, to be some kind of duty.  The working-class young men seemed to be less burdened by this sense of having to 'do the right thing'.  Both groups, however, limited any obligation to give oral sex by making a distinction between giving oral sex to steady girlfriends and to casual partners.


Interviewer     Would there be any difference as to whether it was a regular girlfriend or a one night stand? ...

Dave                Yeah, it would.  One night stand I wouldn't go down on.

Interviewer     You wouldn't go down on a one night stand?  Why is that?

Dave                Don't know what's been down there.

Interviewer     Right.  What about them going down on you?

Dave                Oh, that's all right.


Interviewer     What about a steady girlfriend?

Dave                Yeah, I'd go down on her.  I know where they've been.

Interviewer     Right.  How would you work out where they've been?

Dave                Oh, see how they are.  Depends on what kind of person they are, you can see by their personality.


Clearly here there is anxiety, at least about the safety of giving oral sex to women.  That this same young man was not concerned either about receiving oral sex from women or about the dangers of unprotected vaginal penetration with a casual partner, indicates that his ideas are not based on current safe-sex information or education.  Rather, we would suggest, they are an enunciation of a historical cultural connection between women's genitals and filth and disease.


As has been argued elsewhere (Spongberg, 1992; Waldby et al., 1993) this association of filth and disease with women's genitals was a prominent feature of 19th-century discourse on syphilis, which, as a number of recent theorists have demonstrated, has 'passed on' a great deal of its iconography and social organisation to HIV/AIDS (Gilman, 1988; Showalter, 1992).  In this discourse on syphilis, the bodies and genitals of certain types of women ('unclean' or 'promiscuous' women, specifically prostitutes) were seen to be the origin and site of transmission of syphilis.  Thus the public health policies of the time ignored men's behaviour and attempted only to control the movements and activities of these 'fallen' women.  Similarly, when our male interviewees spoke about the possibility of acquiring HIV, this was seen to be limited to their coming into contact with 'sluts' or women who had slept with a large number of partners (Waldby et al., 1993).  The fact that they themselves (or their male friends) might transmit HIV to women was not considered.



Men: Receiving Oral Sex


When young men are receiving oral sex from women, their position changes.  No longer do they have to come into contact with the potentially threatening female genitalia.  Among the university students, receiving oral sex was desired and/or enjoyed almost universally.


Interviewer        What... is your favourite way of... reaching orgasm?

James                  Probably oral sex I suppose.

Interviewer        Mmhm.... Would that be your favourite -

James                  [interrupts] Yeah.

Interviewer        ... sexual activity?


The ambivalences and anxieties surrounding oral sex, however, although substantially diminished, do not disappear altogether when men receive oral sex from women.  Anxiety here creeps in with regard, not to the sexual body fluids of women which are absent, but to those of men - both their own semen and that of unknown other men, As Craig states, what he doesn't like about being given oral sex is kissing a woman after she has had his own penis in her mouth:


Craig                 Don't like head jobs, no way. 'Cause then you're supposed to kiss her. [laughs] Well

                            that's the way I see it. That's the way I feel.

Interviewer       So you wouldn't feel good kissing her after she'd kissed you?

Craig                 No. Well I knew she'd given a guy that I don't know, just don't like it.

Interviewer       Oh, I see.

Craig                 I'm pretty fussy! [laughs]


Interestingly, the way this dilemma is dealt with is by a reliance on a reversed usage of the steady girlfriend/casual partner distinction.  Thus as Craig goes on to explain, it is better to receive oral sex from a sex worker than from a girlfriend, because then you aren't expected to kiss her afterwards: 'I let a prostitute do it ... but you don't kiss her.'


This anxiety about the men's own semen is also suggested on a wider scale by those men who say that they don't like to accept oral sex from their girlfriends because it indicates a lack of respect on their own behalf.  This notion of respect seems to stem from an idea of oral sex as 'dirty'.


Interviewer           Okay, so you don't like going down on the girl?

Matt                       Yeah.

Interviewer           Do you like girls going down on you?

Matt                       Yeah.

Interviewer           Any girls?  I mean would it be something that would be part of the one night stand, or a

                                steady girlfriend, or -

Matt                       I'd rather a one night stand do it.

Interviewer           Why is that?

Matt                       Cause steady girlfriends, you got ... more respect.  That's what I mean, but a one night

                                stand, you know, you see them, that's it.  Don't worry about it.  Feels more irrespectable



These attitudes towards semen are linked in a number of interesting ways to the concept of imaginary bodies and to the previously mentioned historical connection between women's genitals and disease and dirt.  The issue of how men (and women) feel about their own sexual body fluids and those of others also obviously has important ramifications for HIV/AIDS research and education: after all it is body fluids which are the mode of transmission for the virus, and which HIV/AIDS preventive education exhorts people to make informed decisions about.


The imaginary bodies of our male interviewees involve an anxious and ambivalent attitude towards sexual body fluids.  In regard to the vaginal fluids of women, there seems to be an attitude of disgust and fear of contamination.  In regard to their own semen and that of other men, there is simultaneously an attitude of disgust and fear and a celebratory pleasure.  This celebratory pleasure arose in our data when, for instance, a group of young men laughed and joked about 'coming all over the ceiling' during sex.[4] Here semen is fantasised as a symbol of masculine virility.  On the other hand, as we have seen, men talk with disgust about the possibility of coming into contact with the semen of other men, at least via the body of a 'shared' woman (see also Waldby et al., 1993).


This ambivalent attitude seems to have at its base certain assumptions about the 'appropriateness' of various repositories for semen.  A woman's body is clearly seen to be the most 'natural' and 'appropriate' place for semen to be deposited: thus for example, the young men we spoke to preferred to ejaculate inside their female partners' bodies rather than to withdraw - in so doing their semen is not seen or 'wasted'.  Similarly, when men receive oral sex they prefer to ejaculate inside women's mouths - again, the semen is not 'wasted' but put neatly inside an appropriate receptacle.  Light is also thrown on the common dislike of condoms: when men use condoms they not only see their semen (and what a small amount of liquid it really is) but have to throw it out!  Of course, there are also a number of 'inappropriate' repositories for semen, the bodies of other men being the most obvious example, Thus Craig's anxiety in the earlier quotation: if he kisses the woman who gave him oral sex he might receive the semen of another man inside his own body, which would be extremely inappropriate.[5]


The placing of body fluids in 'appropriate' receptacles is also extremely important at the level of subjectivity. Julia Kristeva, in her work on subjectivity and psychoanalysis, theorises body fluids as the abject - as something which must be expelled from the body and dissociated from for subjectivity to exist.  As the abject, body fluids are associated with disgust and repulsion as they threaten the coherent bodily boundaries which make up the imaginary body.  Body fluids are threatening to these boundaries because they blur the distinction between inside and outside, between self and other (Kristeva, 1982).  Thus the ability to control body fluids, to put body fluids in 'appropriate' places, is integral to being a subject in our culture.[6]


Kristeva's work is heavily influenced by that of anthropologist Mary Douglas in her well-known book Purity and Danger (Douglas, 1989).  In this book, Douglas examines sexual body fluids in relation to notions of the pollution of one sex by the other, and the threat this poses to social and individual systems.  Elizabeth Grosz, in Volatile Bodies, criticises both Kristeva and Douglas however, for their adherence to traditional Western notions of female sexual body fluids and genitals as inherently more disgusting and/or polluting than those of men (Grosz, 1994:192-208).  This adherence, she argues, flies in the face of Douglas's central argument that nothing is in itself dirty, an argument that Kristeva's notion of the abject apparently accepts.


In contrast to this, Grosz argues that although, as Douglas and Kristeva describe, women's vaginal fluids and menstrual blood are seen as more polluting or abject, this is only because of the nature of contemporary Western culture.  For example, Grosz criticises Douglas's description of viscous fluids (connected with vaginal fluids) as 'naturally' repulsive, arguing:


It is not that female sexuality is like, resembles, an inherently horrifying viscosity [as Douglas seems to argue].  Rather, it is the production of an order that renders female sexuality and corporeality marginal, indeterminate, and viscous that constitutes the sticky and the viscous with their disgusting, horrifying connotations. (Grosz, 1994: 195)


Similarly, in relation to Kristeva's notion of semen as non-polluting in contrast to menstrual blood as very polluting, Grosz argues that this distinction can only ultimately be based on a cultural privileging of male sexuality over female sexuality (Grosz, 1994:205-6).


In our data then, it is not surprising to find that the sexual body fluids of women are considered to be more distasteful and repellent than those of men.  The sexual body fluids of women positioned as 'casual partners' are deemed particularly dangerous because, it seems, these women have known other men.  This positioning is an artefact of the phallocentric and patriarchal culture in which we live, but is not an unchangeable or inevitable fact.[7]


Women: Giving Oral Sex to Men


So how do our women interviewees feel about giving oral sex to men?  Women appear not to enjoy giving oral sex to men and, unlike men, they make little distinction between their casual and regular partners in this regard.  These following statements reflect common attitudes and experiences:


Interviewer     Do you enjoy it?  Giving it?

Kate                 Mm. It doesn't give me a major thrill or anything like that, but I like pleasing someone else.


Interviewer     Do you ever feel anxious about your ability to please your partner?

Julie                 Sometimes, I do, yeah.  Well, I don't like sucking penises.  Well, I don't mind it, but then I don't like

                          ... the semen, I don't like the orgasm in my mouth, I just want to throw up.  So sometimes I think my

                          husband would really love that ... I'd performed [it] with my four-year ... relationship ... and hated it,

                          but he really wanted it, so I did it. But in this relationship I don't.  I do it, but it's not the whole way

                          through and I think he would really like it ... if I did it the whole way through and I sort of think well

                          maybe one day I can stomach it again.


Like the men then, women seem to give oral sex to satisfy their partners' desires.  Giving oral sex in most cases is not experienced as sexually exciting or enjoyable, but rather as something which is pleasing only because it gives others pleasure.[8] As we have argued previously, the women we interviewed tended to talk about their sexual experiences within a narrative of romance and relationships (Kippax et al., 1990; Roberts et al., 1995).  Within this narrative women put the stability and happiness of their relationship above their own sexual pleasure.  Thus, as we argued in a paper on faking orgasm, these women believed it was quite reasonable to sacrifice their own pleasure to please their male partners (Roberts et al., 1995).  Their attitudes towards oral sex then, are no exception to this general perspective.


Unlike the men interviewed, women did not draw a comparison between their male casual and regular partners.  In general women did not like giving men oral sex but, unlike our male interviewees, their reasons for not liking it were not associated with pollution or dirt: their casual male partners' semen or sexual body fluids were not considered any more or less dangerous than those of their regular male partners.


In speaking about giving oral sex to men, the women also told us of experiences that were unpleasant, rather than merely burdensome.  Most of these experiences were reports of having their heads pushed down on to men's penises which made them gag.  This was discussed in one group of women students:


Jane       Have you ever had someone pulling your head down?  And you're going [Imitates choking].  You're

                supposed to be enjoying it [imitates choking]. [laughter]

Lisa        Yes, I've had that.  It's like, 'Don't get too carried away!'[Laughter]

Sally       It's true though ... you're there and they just keep pushing it down your throat and like you're nearly

                choking.  It's sort of like 'My throat's only this long, [laugh] you have to not go all the way down.'

Lisa        'Or I'll choke.'

Sally       And have you ever gagged ... ?

Jane       I have, like you're going [Imitates gagging] ...


Despite this hilarity, such experiences are obviously unpleasant, and reinforce and extend negative feelings about giving oral sex to men.  These complaints also demonstrate the circumstances under which heterosexual oral sex takes place.  The romance/relationships narrative, where women sacrifice their own pleasure to please men, shows its more bleak side here - this narrative allows men to be inconsiderate and even forceful, and means that women tolerate unpleasant situations, often because they are too afraid to risk angering their partner.[9]


This point is also made by F. Scott Christopher (1988) in his study of premarital sexual pressure.  After surveying 275 undergraduate unmarried women, Christopher found that 38.2 percent stated that they had been pressured into oral manipulation of male genitals, while 33.1 percent had been pressured into oral manipulation of male genitals to ejaculation (Christopher, 1988:259).  The forms of pressure that had been used varied.  In both cases physical attempts (such as continuous body contacts and roving hands) were the most common, followed closely by positive statements (such as promises and statements of affection).  Actual force (such as hitting and arm twisting) had been experienced by 3.8 percent of those pressured into giving oral sex, and by 7.7 percent of those pressured into giving oral sex to ejaculation.  Perhaps the most interesting result here, is that although Christopher states that the women's responses to being pressured into sexual activities 'were overwhelmingly negative' (Christopher, 1988:263), the women who were in a relationship with the man who had pressured them did not state, when asked, that the pressure had affected the status of the ' relationship.  In fact, 'the largest group of the participants (40% or more) indicated that their relationships did not change when they had been pressured into oral manipulation of their partner's genitals.... This also held true ... when oral manipulation resulted in orgasms' (Christopher, 1988: 263).  Christopher explains this result in much the same terms as we explain our data: 'What may occur in these situations is that the women were willing to give in to sexual pressures while seriously dating because they felt that if they did not, it would result in the man terminating the relationship, an outcome the women may not have wanted' (Christopher, 1988: 264).


As we have argued previously, the underlying issue in these sorts of examples is one of power (Kippax et al., 1990; Waldby et al., 1991).  That women do not feel able to resist pressure from their male partners (and indeed that these men feel that it is acceptable to use such pressure) is not only a result of many women's lesser physical power, but is also clearly related to the less powerful position women occupy in Western culture generally, and particularly in heterosexual relationships.  These examples show that power writes bodies: the different positionings of men's and women's bodies in these oral sex scenarios are embodiments of power relations.


Women: Receiving Oral Sex


Not surprisingly, the lack of emphasis on women's pleasure we have outlined has a significant effect on women's enjoyment of receiving oral sex from men.  Oral sex is figured in these women's talk as an unusually intense focus on their own pleasure.  This focus causes anxiety for many women: although many of our interviewees said that they liked receiving oral sex, almost all of them placed some sort of restriction on their statements of enjoyment.


Interviewer     What about oral sex, when he's doing it to you? ...

Jane                 Do I find that personal as well?

Interviewer     Yeah, or -

Jane                 Yeah, I do.

Interviewer     Or do you find it, I mean, it's something you like doing, or whatever?

Jane                 Yeah, I do.  I mean yeah, I like it, really enjoy it.  But yeah, I find it personal as well.... Like I

                          wouldn't let just any guy do it.  Although I don't think any guy would just do it.


Interviewer     Do you like ... having it done to you?

Cathy               Yeah.

Interviewer     It doesn't bother you, like, is it the same thing, like a guy you didn't know, you wouldn't let him do it,

                           or -

Cathy           No way!  But ... with someone that I knew really well and everything, then I really like them, and was

                          comfortable with them and that'd be fine, only at certain times, like not all the time.  Like only if I felt

                          clean and stuff.... So, yeah, that was all right.  As long as he didn't mind, like I'd never say 'Can you

                          do it?' . . . Like he would have told me and stuff.


As is evident in these quotes, the casual partner/regular boyfriend distinction is again used to restrict sexual activity, The most common explanation for this restriction was a reference to the intimacy of oral sex.


Kylie                  I don't think I could have that [receiving oral sex] with a guy if it was just like a one-off thing.  It's a

                            bit too, I don't know, to me, it's not personal, and it's sort of abusing... my opinion of what sex

                            should be like.  And it should be special.  It shouldn't just be... given out.


It became clear that this sense of oral sex as an intimate practice was closely linked to women's feelings about their own bodies.  It has been well documented that women in our culture often feel uncomfortable about their bodies (Bartky, 1990; Bordo, 1990): most of our interviewees had some complaints about the way their bodies looked.  All sexual activity then, involves for these women a revealing of perceived imperfection and an exposure to possible censure or ridicule.


Simone            Oral sex involves taking off a lot of clothes. And if you don't know someone very well, you don't feel

                          comfortable about them seeing your body.  But if you have sex you leave clothes on, sort of thing.


This attitude of dislike and unease which women hold towards their own bodies is also affected by the cultural figurations of women's genitals and sexual body fluids discussed earlier.  Thus the perceived intimacy of oral sex is intensified because the practice involves exposure of the genitals, a site of the feminine imaginary body which is intensely inscribed with negative meanings.  In our phallocentric culture women's genitals are seen to be the site of women's essential 'lack' - the lack of a penis - and also are figured as gaping 'holes' through which fluids flow uncontrollably (Grosz, 1994: 60, 202-8).  If our female interviewees live these cultural meanings in their embodiment then, it is not surprising to find they experience anxiety and vulnerability during oral sex:


Rachel             And you're so vulnerable! [when you are being given oral sex.]

Interviewer     To what?

Rachel             I don't know, just really vulnerable.  If ... you're lying there and someone's giving you oral sex ...

                          you're just there and you're so vulnerable!

Belinda           Yeah, you can do nothing sort of thing. [laugh] ...

Interviewer     But ... you're actually less vulnerable in a way, I mean as far as catching diseases or getting pregnant

                          or anything like that.

Vickie              Yeah.

Interviewer     I mean it's safer.

Vickie              In that sense you are....

Rachel             But I don't, you just, disease-wise you're safer, but, I don't know.

Belinda           Mentally I think.

Joanna            Yeah, mentally ... more vulnerable.

Belinda           Someone down in your private, you know, in your private area.


This particular lived imaginary anatomy is further evidenced by a number of women who said that they would only have oral sex if they have just stepped out of a bath or shower-.


Interviewer     So you think it's more intimate do you,

Jessica             Yes.  I've never had oral sex in a casual relationship.  It's always been in a serious, I've always

                          instigated the thing.  I'll perform it on him, and it has to be, like with both my partners, it's been

                          months and months [into the relationship] before I'll let it happen to me, 'cause I'm really, really.  And

                          even now, Bill will say, 'Would you like that?' And I've got to be have been straight out of the bath or,

                          I really have to be clean for it to happen, 'cause I'm so self-conscious about it.  Because you bear

                          jokes and bad things about women.


Imaginary Bodies: Heads, Faces, Mouths


We have discussed various elements of both masculine and feminine imaginary bodies which affect the experience of oral sex for our interviewees.  What remains unexplained is the particular meanings which are associated with oral sex because of its very orality: that is, those meanings specific to the head, face and mouth.


The head is an extremely important site in the imaginary body.  Iris Young cites Erwin Strauss who locates the self as consciousness phenomenologically in the head (Young, 1990:206).[10] Thus culturally, for example,- we look into people's eyes to see their 'true' self and to some extent judge people's characters at first meeting by their faces.  This centring of subjectivity in the head is part of the well-criticised mind/body split, which locates the self in the mind (and thus in the head) and represents the body as a mere appendage.  A further extension of this cultural siting of the self in the head is the emphasis placed in our culture on the face.  The face's importance comes from its involvement with vision with the eyes, speech and eating with the mouth, emotion with facial expressions, smell with the nose.  Given this psychical importance of the face and head, the anxiety and ambivalence surrounding oral sex becomes more understandable.  Oral sex is an encounter of two of the most intensely inscribed and invested areas of the body in our culture: an encounter of the most public site, the face/head, with the most private, the genitals.


Moira Gatens uses, as one example of the particular form of the culturally constructed imaginary body, Freud's famous patient Dora and her hysterical symptom of Tussis nervosa or dry throat.  This symptom, she suggests, demonstrates that 'there is intimate relation of equivalence between the mouth and the vagina' (Gatens, 1983:151).  In further explaining the vagina-mouth equivalence, she adds in a footnote: 'This unconscious equation is the inverse of Freud's breast = faeces = penis = baby, that is, mouth = anus = vagina.  This fantasy is revealed in the pornographic films of Linda Lovelace where she has a clitoris at the back of her throat' (Gatens, 1983: 159).


If we accept this equivalence, our understanding of female interviewees' uneasiness about giving oral sex to men is further increased.  For if both men and women recognise, at least unconsciously, this equivalence between the mouth and the vagina, then at some level oral sex takes on a meaning where the mouth poses as an 'understudy' vagina.  This unconscious equation seems to go to explaining why men push their penises too far into women's throats as our women interviewees reported.  As we argued earlier, this occurrence is fundamentally linked to questions of power and sexual difference in embodiment.  For presumably, it is only women's mouths which are seen to be equivalent to vaginas and it is only women who experience their mouths being used as vaginas.  In a culture where women are generally disempowered relative to men, an experience of oral sex which renders their mouths - the site of their ability to speak, to complain and to fight - into stand-in sex organs is not surprisingly experienced with, at the very least, ambivalence.[11]


Conclusion: Oral Sex as Safe Sex


So what can be said about oral sex in relation to HIV/AIDS?  We stated earlier that oral sex is sometimes recommended as a safe sex practice (or at least as one involving little risk) as it does not involve vaginal or anal penetration.  But we have seen that oral sex is a highly complex and overwritten practice, one which involves many ambivalences.  Clearly then, the suggestion of safe sex as an alternative to other forms of sex is not simple.


Beyond these complexities, there is a further complication which is closely linked to the valorisation of vaginal penetration by the penis in Western culture as the most 'natural' expression of sexuality.  For all of our interviewees oral sex is figured as only 'foreplay' to this 'natural' culmination.  The only other status to which oral sex is occasionally assigned is as a substitute for 'real' sex when for some reason this is not available.


The ambivalence we have shown to be associated with oral sex is increased because of this positioning of oral sex.  Receiving oral sex is pleasurable for many people and thus could possibly displace vaginal penetration - oral sex does in some way suggest that penetration could be unnecessary for the sexual pleasure of both sexes.  In regard to women's pleasure in particular, oral sex shows that pleasure is not necessarily dependent on the penis - a fact which is fundamentally threatening to our patriarchal culture.


In conclusion then, we would like to state that any suggestion of oral sex as a (comparatively) safe sex alternative needs to be aware of the ambivalences and difficulties we have outlined.  As we have argued in our previous work, and as other feminists have pointed out, changing sexual practices and encouraging heterosexuals to take on safe sex practices requires significant cultural change of deeply entrenched and embodied meanings, significances and experiences.  What are required are changes to imaginary bodies, new experiences of embodied subjectivity.  Such changes cannot take place in some kind of revolutionary way.  What people such as HIV/AIDS educators can do is to offer destabilising alternatives and to critique, from an informed position, the hierarchies and norms which currently prevail.  If oral sex is suggested as an alternative to penetration, this suggestion must be done in a way which both acknowledges and attempts to destabilise the cultural position which oral sex currently occupies, and the masculine and feminine imaginary bodies which affirm and reinstate this position.




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Celia Roberts was a Research Assistant at the National Centre in HIV Social Research working on the Heterosexuality Project at the time this article was written.  She is now a PhD student in Women's Studies at Sydney University, writing about hormones and sexual difference.  Her publications include 'Faking It: The Story of 'OHH!", Women's Studies International Forum (1995), which was written with Susan Kippax, Cathy Waldby and June Crawford.


Susan Kippax is an Associate Professor in the School of Behavioural Sciences and the Director of the National Centre in HIV Social Research at Macquarie University.  She has been working in the area of HIV and AIDS for some time and has published widely on the subject.  Her publications include 'Heterosexuality, Masculinity and HIV', AIDS (1994), which was written with June Crawford and Cathy Waldby.


Mary Spongberg was, at the time that this article was written, a Research Assistant at the National Centre in HIV Social Research working on the Heterosexuality Project.  She is now a Lecturer in History at Macquarie University.  Her interests are in the areas of HIV; the history of sexually transmitted diseases; and the construction of sexuality.  She is the author of a book Feminising Syphilis to be published this year by New York University Press and is currently working on a book about women's sexuality and culture.


June Crawford is a consultant working at the National Centre in HIV Social Research.  She has particular interests in heterosexuality and HIV/AIDS prevention; male bisexuality; and women and HIV, and she has published in these areas.  Her recent publications include 'Not Gay, Not Bisexual, but Polymorphously Sexually Active', a chapter in the book Bisexualities and HIV/AIDS edited by Peter Aggleton and published by Taylor and Francis (1996), which was written with Susan Kippax.



[1] The term 'oral sex' will be used in this paper to refer to oral-genital sex, that is, to fellatio and cunnilingus.


[2] This is not an isolated case.  In a booklet aimed at heterosexuals produced by the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, the message about oral sex is similarly confusing.  The booklet states 'Oral sex is thought to be safe provided that semen, blood and vaginal fluids do not enter the mouth.' Clearly this sort of oral sex would not be possible without the use of condoms and dental dams.  However, in the section on condoms, condoms are only recommended for vaginal and anal sex, while dental dams are not mentioned (Straight Answers about AIDS: Are You at Risk? undated).


[3] For a full and detailed description of the method please see Roberts et al, (1995).


[4]This joke is reminiscent of the 'money shot' in pornography where a shot of male ejaculation stands in for the orgasm of both male and female partners (see Williams, 1989).


[5] Paula Treichler examines scientific analyses of HIV/AIDS transmission and notes a strand of argument which followed this line of thinking about 'appropriate' and 'Inappropriate' repositories of semen, In this way of thinking, the fact that gay men constituted the predominant group of HIV infected people was explained by the fact that anal sex between men involved the placing of semen in an 'inappropriate' or 'unnatural' place.  Thus while vaginas were seen to be 'rugged' and able to deal with semen, anuses were seen to be 'fragile' and liable to generate disease if semen was put inside them (Treichler, 1988).


[6] Thus, for example, people who cannot or do not control their body flulds, such as some particularly mentally disabled people and some very old people, are usually institutionalised and not allowed to be in the public domain as are 'normal' or 'proper' subjects.


[7] 'Casual' partners as opposed to steady or regular/permanent partners are defined as those who have had many sexual partners.  'Casual' and 'steady', however, may not be defined the same way by men and women.  Women who are categorised as casual female partners are viewed as dirty and therefore dangerous, whereas casual male partners are viewed by women as experienced lovers.


[8] One or two of the older women we interviewed did say that they enjoyed giving men oral sex. This is probably because, in contrast to the younger women, these older women may have achieved some level of power in their sexual lives which allows them to reconceptualise oral sex in a more empowering way.  This issue of power is discussed later in the paper.


[9] It is important to note that this sort of behaviour can he taken to extremes.  Catherine MacKinnon writes that following the first exhibition of Linda Lovelace's famous film, Deep Throat, in which she has a clitoris at the back of her throat and enjoys having men's penises put as far down her throat as is physically possible for the men, there were increased reports of throat rape in emergency rooms in US hospitals.  Some women were fatally suffocated by men forcing them to practice 'deep throat' (MacKinnon, 1987:286).


[10] Iris Young's argument in this article focuses on the importance of the chest: as she notes, when we point to ourselves we point to the chest.  However, we suggest that this does not disprove the assertion that we locate our consciousness in the head.


[11] There is an interesting point of comparison to be made here with sex between men.  According to the equation Gatens describes the mouth is also in some ways approximate to the anus.  Thus perhaps we could expect that gay men also experience their mouths being used by other men as 'deep' orifices for penetrative sex.  However, as is argued in the text, the issues of power and sexual difference are also important.  Thus for gay men, whose sexual relationships do not take place in a context of sexual difference and the entrenched concomitant power relations, the issue would presumably not arise in the same way.