(CBS News) Fewer teens and young adults are having oral sex compared to previous rates, according to a new statistical study from the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention. However more teens are still engaging in oral sex than vaginal intercourse, which health officials say is not as safe as some young adults may think.
The CDC's National Health Statistics Reports, published August 16 on its website, tracks sex trends among teens and young adults in an effort to help the government agency better understand current behaviors and design potential awareness interventions.
The report's authors say some adolescents have oral sex prior to vaginal intercourse to maintain virginity or avoid pregnancy or risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Other adolescents however have oral sex and rapidly have their first intercourse experience shortly thereafter, they say. The authors also cite research that suggests teens perceive oral sex to be safer with fewer health-related risks.
"However, young people, particularly those who have oral sex before their first vaginal intercourse, may still be placing themselves at risk of STIs or HIV before they are ever at risk of pregnancy," the researchers wrote, adding untreated STIs may also one day lead to infertility. "Given the higher rates of STIs among some groups of young people, it is important to understand the prevalence and correlates of various types of sexual behaviors, coital and noncoital, in this age group."
The study was based on 6,346 computerized interview questionnaires that were given to men and women ages 15 to 24 from July 2007 to June 2010 to form a nationally representative sample of U.S. teens and young adults.
Among teen and adolescent girls ages 15 to 19, rates were similar between those who had vaginal intercourse (47 percent) and those who had oral sex (48 percent) with a member of the opposite sex. For teen males, 44 percent said they had vaginal intercourse, and 49 percent reported oral sex.
"It certainly would suggest that the gender differences found previously no longer exist," Terri Fisher, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University who was not involved in the new report, told USA Today.
A higher percentage of boys aged 15-19 years reported receiving oral sex (47 percent) than giving oral sex (35 percent). For girls of this age group, the rates were about even around 40 percent.
For young adults, 87 percent of females ages 20 to 24 said they had vaginal intercourse, while 85 percent said they had oral sex. By age 20-24 years, 85 percent of males had vaginal intercourse and 82 percent had any oral sex.
Overall, the results showed that two-thirds of males and females between the ages of 15 and 24 had ever had oral sex. Among young females surveyed, 26 percent had oral sex prior to vaginal intercourse, 27 percent had oral sex after their first time having vaginal sex, 7.4 percent had oral sex on the same occasion as their first time having intercourse, and 5.1 percent had oral sex but no intercourse during the survey period.
For males ages 15 to 24, 24 percent had first oral sex before having intercourse, 24 had oral sex after first intercourse, 12 percent had oral sex on same occasion as first intercourse, and 6.5 percent had oral sex but no vaginal intercourse at the time they were surveyed.
"There's been a perception for many years that there's some kind of epidemic of oral sex among teens," Leslie Kantor, vice president for education of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who was not involved in the research, told The New York Times. "If nothing else, this data provides a realistic sense of the numbers."
There were also some differences seen among different ethnic groups. Non-Hispanic black females ages 15 to 24 had the highest percentage who ever had had vaginal intercourse at 74 percent, followed by 68 percent of Hispanic females 66 percent of non-Hispanic white females.
Non-Hispanic white females were most likely to report oral sex (69 percent) than non-Hispanic black females (63 percent) and Hispanic females (59 percent).
For males, 71 percent of non-Hispanic black men and 69 percent of Hispanic men surveyed said they had vaginal intercourse, while 63 percent of non-Hispanic white males said they had. Non-Hispanic black males (44 percent) had a lower percentage (44 percent) of responders who reported giving oral sex to a female compared with Hispanic males (51 percent) and non-Hispanic white males between 15 and 24 (60 percent).
The findings may help the CDC design better education programs for teens and young adults, specifically when it comes to oral sex. While risk for transmitting HIV through oral sex is low, the CDC said several studies have found that oral sex can lead to sexually transmitted diseases including Chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhea and syphilis.
"I would say that the risk of STD transmission through oral sex is underappreciated and underestimated," added Dr. Christopher Hurt, a clinical assistant professor in the division of infectious disease at the University of North Carolina who was not involved in the new report, commented to HealthDay. "As part of sex education programs, kids need to be made aware of that fact: that oral sex is not a completely risk-free activity."
Other studies have tied oral sex to a rise in rates of the oral human papillomavirus (HPV). The first nationwide estimate of how many people have oral HPV found that 7 percent of American adults may have oral HPV - about 16 million people, mostly men.
Fueled by HPV transmission, oral sex has also been tied to an increase in orpharyngeal cancer rates among men. One study last October found oral sex may account for an additional 10,000 cases of this cancer of the upper throat in men each year.
Heather Eastman-Mueller, a sexuality educator at the University of Missouri, told USA Today that parents should have an ongoing conversation with their children about these topics, rather than focusing on "the talk."
"It should be a conversation you have all the time," Eastman-Mueller said.