In recent years the principle of sexual equality and reciprocity during intercourse has become more and more accepted. Yet, when it comes to heterosexual oral sex, significant differences still remain between men and women, scientists have said.

A study, published in the Journal of Sex Research, investigated how young people talk about oral sex. First findings suggested that most are in favour of a "give and take" strategy, where both partners would perform and receive oral sex equally. This allows both men and women to appear in a positive light: women are seen as demanding equal treatment in the relationship, while men seem to support reciprocity.

However, when the authors, from the University of the Pacific (California) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, explored the issue, and asked the participants more in-depth questions, they discovered that perceptions of oral sex sometimes went against this dominant narrative of reciprocity.

Oral sex on women "a bigger deal"

In 2010, the researchers interviewed a diverse group of 71 heterosexual young men and women, aged between 16 and 18. They conducted a follow up interview a year later, and also organised group discussions. Analysing the interview transcripts, the scientists came across two different, contradicting discourses regarding heterosexual oral sex.

Though a majority of participants advocated a "give and take" approach to make sure both partners were treated in the same way, the scientists also found that oral sex on women was often considered to be "a bigger deal". This was not just an idea developed by men: both genders said giving oral sex was more distasteful for men than women, and receiving was "easier" for men than women.

Additionally, the researchers noted that men often used a negative language to describe women's genitals. Perhaps because of this, they described feeling uncomfortable about receiving oral sex.

Male participants were also more likely than female participants to say that they did not perform oral sex unless they wanted to. In contrast, a number of women described strategies to make oral sex more appealing, even when they didn't really want to do it.

Sex education a priority

These results lead the researchers to advocate for wider, more comprehensive sex education to address these conflicting perceptions of oral sex.

"Sex education should cover much more than just pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections" Lewis said. "It's clear that we also need to be encouraging young people to think critically about how women's and men's bodies are talked about in society, the nuances of consent and coercion, and how gender equity might be negotiated in practice."