Question: My boyfriend and I really want to have sex, but we don’t think we should yet. Can oral sex lead to infection or disease?
Answer: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but yup, it can. People often think that oral sex is risk free. Others have heard that while infections like herpes can be passed through oral sex, more serious ones, like HIV, cannot.
That was the message I got 15 years ago as a Nirvana loving teenager. Though I can’t remember a time before AIDS, I can remember a time when the education surrounding it was different. In elementary school, we learned that as long as you weren’t a gay man and didn’t share needles, then you were in the clear. By high school, we were hearing that like anal sex, vaginal sex was a risk, and that women were just as likely to catch the virus as men. But it wasn’t until 2000 that anyone started mentioning that oral sex wasn’t a freebie.
The Adolescent AIDS clinic website explains it like this: “Some studies suggest that HIV is unlikely to spread through oral sex. Swallowing does not appear to increase the risk. But it’s not impossible, especially if the person giving oral sex has cuts or sores in their mouth. It’s also worth remembering that other STDs, like gonorrhea, syphilis and herpes, can be spread by oral sex…”
So what’s a teen to do? I figured my friend Bronwen Pardes might have some thoughts on the subject. She works as an HIV counselor, and wrote one of my favorite books for teens called, Doing It Right: Making Smart Safe and Satisfying Choices About Sex. Here’s her take: “It’s always important to use barrier methods (condoms, and dental dams) when you have oral sex. Not only do you want to protect your partner from any STD you might have, but you want to protect yourself, too. You can never tell if someone has an STD by looking at them, and it’s possible for someone to have one without knowing it themselves. So for your sake and your partner’s, it’s always better to play it safe.”
So there you go. Experts across the board seem to agree that oral sex can pose some risk, and to reduce it, you should practice safer sex.