This just in: Blowjobs are out.
That news is via Esquire, which should be an authoritative voice on the subject. In the current issue, British author Geoff Dyer reports that in an informal survey of ten of his male friends, 80 percent preferred cunnilingus to fellatio–that is, they preferred going down on their female partners to having oral sex performed on them. That’s right, 8 of his 10 friends. And the other two? They’re gay, of course.
Now it’s easy for a social scientist to decry the methodology. If I “surveyed” the first ten male names that come up as friends on my Facebook page, for example, I’d find that 50 percent of American males are heterosexual, 80 percent are Jewish, and 100 percent went to Ivy League colleges. OK, bad sampling.
Most serious researchers–as well as legions of commenters on blog sites reporting the piece–have refuted Dyer’s “findings.” After all, a quick “survey” of heterosexual porn sites suggest the blow job is alive and well.
By contrast, in a post on Jezebel.com, self-identified feminist writer Hugo Schwyzer suggests that while the sample leaves a lot to be desired–and a rise in cunnilingus is not necessarily synonymous with an active avoidance of fellatio–there may be some truth to Dyer’s “trend.” Schwyzer argues that a preference for cunnilingus may be due to men’s performance anxieties: The dramatic increase in women’s sense of sexual entitlement often leaves men worried about their own performance. Being “done” may carry little cachet in the sexual competence department; if a guy is going to boast about what a great lover he is, he actually has to do something, and do it well. And he can train his tongue to perform more adequately than he can control the size and response of his penis.
I think Schwyzer is on to something, but his argument rests on a false equivalence. It assumes that giving and receiving head mean the same thing.
In fact, sexuality research suggests that what we might call the phenomenology of oral sex–the meaning of the act from the point of view of the actor–is not in the least symmetrical. When straight men describe their experiences with oral sex, they talk about power. This holds whether receiving fellatio: “I feel so powerful when I see her kneeling in front of me,” or performing cunnilingus: “Being able to get her off with my tongue makes me feel so powerful.” Heterosexual men tend to experience the giving and receiving of oral sex as an expression of their power. By contrast, straight women perceive both giving and receiving oral sex from the position of powerlessness–not necessarily because they are forced into these acts, but because “it makes him happy” to receive oral sex and to perform it. So oral sex, like intercourse, allows him to feel “like a man,” regardless of who does what to whom.
This old, sexist model offered a tidy symmetry: He felt powerful whether or not he was giving or receiving, and she felt pretty powerless whether she was giving or receiving. Fellatio was sort of a gift women gave to men–and so much the better if the gift needn’t be reciprocated. In their classic research on sexuality, sociologists Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein interviewed one woman who said:
I like going down on him. It makes him feel good, truly good. I don’t find it unpleasant. I don’t say I wish I could do it all the time. I don’t equate it with a sale at Bloomingdale’s. That I could do all the time. But it’s not like going to the dentist either. It’s between two extremes. Closer to Bloomingdale’s than to the dentist.
What happens to men’s experience when (a) women want some reciprocity, and, even more, (b) they actually want to perform oral sex, actually get off on it? In that traditional masculine phenomenology, could there be anything more detumescent than women’s active desire for oral sex?
Historically, sex was conquest, his victory over her resistance. She gave, he got. If women actively like it, where’s the victory? Where’s the conquest?
Consider these tidbits: Contemporary heterosexual porn certainly makes it evident that men like oral sex, but the thing they seem to like even more is coming on the woman’s face. They assume–rightly in most cases (though certainly not all)–that women’s sexual pleasure is not addressed by ejaculating on their faces. Indeed, it’s seen as a form of humiliation, of punishment, as many of the variations on the practice in porn might suggest. (And let’s be clear: Those same men who profess not to like fellatio anymore are watching facials in great number.)
And remember that disgusting fraternity prank at Yale a couple of years ago? (To refresh: Pledges marched around the first-year students’ dorms shouting “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal.”) At the time, I argued that while the first part of the chant was noteworthy for sanctioning sexual assault, the second part was equally revealing because it indicated that when women say “yes” to sex they must be humiliated and subordinated. The frat boys clearly think that anal sex is akin to rape, and certainly not pleasurable for women. That is, women’s sexual agency–or even their consent–is a threat, and that they must therefore be subordinated.
Could the real story be that heterosexual men are primed to like fellatio as long as women don’t?
If that’s true, then perhaps the current moment gives us an opportunity to rethink what sex means to us as straight men. Can we both conquer and surrender to pleasure? Or can we dispense with martial metaphors (conquest and surrender) entirely, and simply pleasure and be pleasured? In other words, can heterosexual men embrace the liberatory promise of queer sex–the freeing of sexual pleasure from gender inequality?
So here it is, my defense of the “egalitarian blowjob.” If we can like fellatio because women like it, we’re going to have a lot more fun. Because really, can there be anything sexier than equality, a desire that gives as good as it gets?