September 6, 2023

SEX ON THURSDAY | The Paradox of Reciprocal Head

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In honor of September being “Pleasure Your Mate” month (and my inaugural article), I’d like to discuss cunnilingus. I’ve been thinking for a while about what expectations exist for pleasuring your mate or partner or however else you describe who you’re having sex with. I call it the paradox of reciprocal head.

It’s one I’ve heard plenty of times before: “I won’t give head. But, obviously, I expect a guy to go down on me.” Plenty of women I know, myself included, don’t really want to give oral sex. Of course, societally, the opposite problem is true: A 2016 survey of 900 college students found that 60 percent of women give oral sex and 52 percent of men give oral sex. While we can talk all day about the pleasure and orgasm gap between (heterosexual) men and women, I want to focus on a reverse phenomenon. For whatever reason a woman doesn’t want to give a blowjob, is it an appropriate subversion of the patriarchy to take but not give?

I want to start this with a baseline of consent: Nobody should have to do anything they don’t want to do without affirmation and enthusiasm. Nor should anyone feel guilted into giving head just because they received it; there is no sexual scorecard. I’m talking here about an active belief that a man should go down on you, whether you plan to return the favor or not.

Reciprocity is an easy rule, but an unfair one. The power dynamics at play in heterosexual sex also make oral sex more complicated; giving head puts one in a potentially uncomfortable submissive position and may only bring physical pleasure to one party involved. The notorious “head pusher” designation that exists for straight men shows just how often women feel pressured to give head. The stereotype that vaginas are smelly or fishy also demonstrates the stigma surrounding female cunnilingus, one that many women have even negatively internalized.

Can you be a feminist and still give blowjobs? I’m kidding, mostly.

In one recent study, researchers analyzed women’s reports of their recent sexual experiences in relation to their feminist identity and found a significant difference between the two. Feminist women are more likely to report receiving oral sex than non-feminist women. There was no evidence, however, that feminists gave oral sex less than non-feminists. Another study examined similar trends with regard to men. Men who identify as feminists (a minority, by the way), are significantly more likely to both give and receive oral sex.

So, based on these stats, why do I feel like I know so many women who refuse to give men head? My friends who fall into this category are certainly feminists, though I cannot speak with any certainty about the men whose dicks they are not sucking. Perhaps I live in a bubble, or Cornell has unknowingly accepted a disproportionate number of women who hate giving oral sex.

Last year, I hooked up with a guy for the first time. He went down on me and then asked if I would reciprocate, to which I responded, “Nah, I don’t like doing it.” His response — a hasty “oh ok, totally cool, totally respect that” — made me laugh. His surprise, but full acceptance, made me feel a bit powerful. Generally, I prefer my mouth to stay above the belly button, though I do find satisfaction in the occasional blow job. Fully realizing the ease at which I could just tell a guy that I didn’t like it was a powerful feeling — and maybe that’s why it seems many women feel the same.

In the patriarchy, a sense of power, even individually, over a man, can feel great. Sex is a particularly hard ground to navigate, and having sex in a way that feels empowering, communicative and totally pleasurable is difficult. It is hard to find meaningful ways to subvert the patriarchy and perhaps refusing to give head is one little way we may try. Based on the evidence, it seems the best way for all participants to get the most pleasure is to make sure that everyone involved is a feminist. After all, a guy’s got to be down with feminism if I’m going to go down on him.

Give head. Or don’t. Of all the ways to make a feminist statement, there are certainly more effective approaches. Though it may take some adjusting, I’m going to try to be more conscious about my oral sex motivations, especially during this auspicious month. Work on pleasuring your mate in the bubble of your bedroom, in whatever way seems right (and there is no shortage of inspirations and innovations possible). Pleasure is personal and understanding your own body, let alone somebody else’s, isn’t an easy task. This September, let’s all try something new, totally removed from any outside influence or internalized inhibitions. 

Whorat is a student at Cornell University. Her fortnightly column Cowgirl Chronicles is a discussion and exploration of sexual norms and cultural quirks with a dash of feminist theory. 

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