Performing oral sex on women is considered a 'bigger deal' than on men, and the act is also considered 'more distasteful' for men to perform on women than vice versa, according to the results of a new study.

The study, published online in the Journal of Sex Research, was conducted in England by University of the Pacific sociologist Dr Ruth Lewis and Dr Cicely Marston of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It involved interviews with a group of 16-18-year olds, who were interviewed again a year later. The study focused on accounts of oral sex between men and women, rather than same-sex couples.

The interviews revealed that the language young men used to talk about vulvas and vaginas was often highly negative, and that many young women were 'highly ambivalent' about receiving oral sex because of their awareness of these perceptions. Participants also said that receiving oral sex was 'easier' for men than for women.

When asked about their own sexual practices, young men were much more likely than young women to say that they simply did not perform oral sex if they didn't want to, while young women were more likely to describe strategies to make giving oral sex more palatable.

The idea that women's bodies are inherently dirty, disgusting or unclean is a deeply ingrained and old fashioned form of misogyny, so it is troubling to see that such perceptions may still exist even among today's young people. We are still battling against the idea that men's sexual pleasure is assumed, while women's is an occasional treat or afterthought; and the idea that women are expected to perform oral sex, but men are to be praised as generous and progressive when they do. All these notions belong in the distant past, yet they seem to be stubbornly persistent.

Lewis suggested that the findings pointed to the need for a greater focus on gender equality in sex in relationships education:

"Sex education should cover much more than just pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. 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."

We are still battling against the idea that men's sexual pleasure is assumed, while women's is an occasional treat or afterthought; and the idea that women are expected to perform oral sex, but men are to be praised as generous and progressive when they do.

The trends revealed by the study chime with reports to the Everyday Sexism Project, in which women often describe pressure to perform oral sex on male partners, an act that is not always reciprocated. The notion of vaginas and vulvas being 'disgusting' or off-putting also arises frequently.

One entry reads:

"A (now ex) boyfriend told me that 'the girl always gives more oral sex in a relationship than the boy, ask any of your friends' and that 'vaginas were gross, you don't really want me down there gagging do you? Pleeaasse can you give me head though because you're so good!' I'd like to point out I do not suffer from any kind of yeast infection or pH imbalance that would make me less than averagely pleasant 'down there'; even freshly showered he wouldn't go near it".

Susan Quilliam, advocate for sex and relationship health and education, and author of The New Joy of Sex, has a unique insight into the subject as she coaches, writes and trains about intimate relationships. She suggests that modern pornography is partly responsible for perpetuating old stereotypes.

She says: "I strongly suspect that a lot of it comes from the fact that there are fewer role models of a man giving a woman oral sex. We see lots of role models of a man penetrating a woman, in pornography and even written pornography. There are lots of role models of women loving giving men oral sex and loving the 'cum shot' – but far fewer role models, in both hard and soft porn, of a man delivering oral sex to a woman."

Another Everyday Sexism entry also suggests a connection between porn and sexual norms.

"One of my female friends came to me really upset once. She said that she and her boyfriend were really having issues in the bedroom area. She felt like her boyfriend was always comparing her to porn. When she told him that she felt like he expected her to give him oral sex often and it felt more like an obligation, rather than something that was intimate and in the moment, he told her that he wished she'd enjoy it, like the girls in porn. She said she always felt under pressure to perform and largely, it wasn't for her enjoyment, or even mutual enjoyment but because he had certain expectations of what a women should be like in the bedroom. He didn't perform oral sex on her."

In Hollywood films, too, we are much more used to seeing women performing oral sex on men, while it is still considered a risqué rarity to see women receiving oral sex. It has often been suggested by film makers that movies depicting the latter receive higher age ratings than those portraying the former.

Talking to young women suggests that stereotypical notions about oral sex don't necessarily always come directly from male partners themselves.

Jane*, a 29-year old from London, says:

"Society has made me feel like my vagina is a dirty thing and it's less nice for men to give oral sex. I don't think this idea has come from any specific man I have been involved with so much as a general feeling – I'm not sure where it comes from."

Quilliam agrees – she is quick to note that when she worked as an agony aunt for a men's magazine a lot of the letters she received were from readers who wanted tips on giving oral sex and how best to please their girlfriends: "What I'm seeing is a wave of young men who are taking their responsibilities more seriously."

She doesn't believe, however, that equality has yet been achieved, and fears that generational problems may be repeating themselves.

So how do we solve the problem? Moving towards more equality of representation would be a positive step, Quilliam suggests. She thinks we need to be "talking about it and writing about it – I'm a great believer in normalisation. Allowing the free speech of artists, allowing women's empowerment." She refers to examples of works that have busted stigma around vulvas and vaginas, like Jamie McCartney's Great Wall of Vagina.

But progress is disappointingly slow, Quilliam says.

"When I was growing up I firmly believed that in the generations to come women would be much more empowered – I wrote a book in 1992 called Women on Sex where I thought in 20 years women would be completely empowered. Unfortunately it was rubbish."


Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project


*Name changed for anonymity.