I never thought I’d be writing the words “fellatio” or “cunnilingus” for an academic purpose (or frankly ever), but here I find myself exploring recent musing on the decline of the, ahem, blow job. Near the end of March, Esquire’s Geoff Dyer reported that the act has fallen on hard times: in an informal survey of 10 of his male friends, 8 preferred pleasing their partners to receiving oral sex.
It’s easy for sociologists to pooh-pooh the methodologies of this “survey,” as surveying 10 friends is hardly scientific. Further, an increase in cunnilingus does not necessarily signal a decrease in fellatio. But still, several intellectuals have recently explained why they think Dyer’s article might be on to something. In an essay on his own website, Pasadena City College history and gender studies professor Hugo Schwyzer explained,
In an era of rising male body dysmorphia, we know that more men than ever before are self-conscious about their appearance; it’s conceivable that anxiety about their size (driven by comparison to well-hung porn stars) or even how their penises’ smell has some guys anxious to avoid the intense focus that comes with a woman’s mouth on their manparts.
In essence, Schwyzer thinks that cunnilingus has become a new way for men to demonstrate sexual competence and deal with performance anxieties.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel also believes that Dyer may be on to something, though he finds some fault with an assumption in Schwyzer’s article: that giving and receiving head mean the same thing. In fact, sexuality research suggests that the meaning of the act may not be symmetrical.
When straight men describe their experiences with oral sex, they talk about power. This holds whether receiving fellatio: “I feel so powerful when I see her kneeling in front of me,” or performing cunnilingus: “Being able to get her off with my tongue makes me feel so powerful.” Heterosexual men tend to experience the giving and receiving of oral sex as an expression of their power. By contrast, straight women perceive both giving and receiving oral sex from the position of powerlessness—not necessarily because they are forced into these acts, but because “it makes him happy” to receive oral sex and to perform it. So oral sex, like intercourse, allows him to feel “like a man,” regardless of who does what to whom.
So what happens to men’s sexual experience when women desire reciprocity and actually want to perform oral sex? According to Kimmel, in a traditional sense, sex was a conquest for men. But is there still victory if women like the “conquering”?
It’s difficult to say, though if the answer is “no,” perhaps we need to rethink what sex means to straight men. Kimmel asks,
Can we both conquer and surrender to pleasure? Or can we dispense with martial metaphors… entirely, and simply pleasure and be pleasured? In other words, can heterosexual men embrace the liberatory promise of queer sex—the freeing of sexual pleasure from gender inequality?
As Kimmel puts it, can there really be anything sexier than equality?