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Why Is “Going Down” Often A One-Way Street?

To write this article on cunnilingus, I created a mini-survey to get some perspectives from readers, Twitter followers, Facebook friends and a bunch of total strangers. I threw “box job”—as Dan Savage once described the act—in the title simply because, sad as it seems, I assumed that that the technical term (which is derived from the Latin words for vulva and tongue) wasn’t widely known.

The kind of human messiness that is acceptable for men is deemed unnatural and unladylike for women. The fact that we’re all made of the same stuff—skin and hair—doesn’t seem to matter.

Boy, oh boy, I did not know what I was getting into with that title! In the general comments field, about a quarter of respondents took me to task for my word choice. Hank wrote, “I think the term ‘box job’ is horrible because it takes away the slow sensuality that usually characterizes cunnilingus.” Marisa added, “I sincerely hope the term ‘box job’ does NOT catch on. I very much dislike the word Box as a euphemism for vagina because there is nothing boxy whatsoever about my vagina or any vagina.” Apologies to all, in discussing the responses, I’ll stick to cunnilingus!

What was I trying to learn by surveying friends and strangers about their oral sex opinions and hang-ups? Not technique, I promise; I leave that to each of you to perfect with your partners. In a world where Axe body spray ads stretch the definition of “innuendo” and fellatio-hinting commercials make superstars out of phallic objects, I wanted to devote a little page space to the other oral sex. I’m not suggesting that blow jobs should dominate the airwaves, but since they often do, I think it’s worth considering why cunnilingus gets such little coverage in pop culture. Are we embarrassed by it? Do we think it’s gross? Does it cross an intimacy line that culturally we’re not ready or willing to discuss?

Related: Poll: Should You Dump A Guy Who Won’t Go Down On You?

I was surprised, and I must say, disappointed, to read that most of the “that’s so gross” responses came from the ladies. Marisa is a 23-year-old who married her high school sweetheart. Even though her husband “loves performing,” Marisa thinks she’ll never be 100% comfortable with cunnilingus, “Every time before I engage, my brain has to go over this hurdle of ‘Ew, he’s putting his mouth down there?’” Other women pointed out that genitalia is associated with…teehee…waste, and that consequently putting your mouth anywhere near it is obviously disgusting. I wish I’d interviewed these women in person so I could follow up with their views on fellatio. They are aware that pee comes out of penises, too, right? The popularity of blowjob doesn’t seem to have been affected by this biological fact, so why does it deter cunnilingus?

The issue of cleanliness comes up over and over again, both in its literal meaning and in regards to hair (or the lack of it). Miranda, 33, wrote: “I’m sure many women are in the same spot as I am on this topic: am I clean enough?” As Emma points out, “Anyone who’s given a blow job knows that guys don’t always smell/look/taste so good down there, so it would be silly to think that we do.” Cultural mythology, however, tells us that guys are supposed to be a little gross; it’s what makes them so manly! Stinky, sweaty, hairy, dirty… it’s just boys being boys, right? Ladies, on the other hand, are supposed to be dainty and pristine, with nary a hair out of place. We are supposed to smell like roses, and if we sweat, it should be in cute little droplets on our brow. The kind of human messiness that is acceptable for men is deemed unnatural and unladylike for women. The fact that we’re all made of the same stuff—skin and hair—doesn’t seem to matter.

Maddy, 32 and married, wrote, “I’m typically not body conscious but I cannot stand to receive oral sex. I’m afraid I smell, I’m afraid I’ll pass gas, I’m afraid that they won’t do a good job and I won’t like it and it grosses me out to kiss afterwards.” Lady after lady responded that while they physically enjoy the sensation of cunnilingus, they are too concerned with how they look, smell, and taste to “really get into it.” Do guys worry about this stuff? You all aren’t always spotless, you know, and yet somehow it seems like you’re capable of enjoying oral sex just fine. Do guys have insecurities about the appeal of their junk (besides size, which we’ve covered)? If so, how do you put those concerns out of mind in order to enjoy the action down below? How can you teach your ladies to do the same?

Beyond aesthetics, a lot of women reported being self-conscious about all the attention they were receiving. Janet, a married 33-year-old, wrote “In a way it almost seems like a ‘luxury’ that I should be able to live without. I feel guilty that it is so ‘me’ focused.” Marisa, the newlywed, expressed anxiety about how often her husband wanted to go down on her, “Honestly, it would be a relief if my partner only wanted to do it every once in a while, because that’s about how often I’m actually into the idea. As to how I handle the imbalance that exists between my husband, who loves performing it and wants it often, and me, I’d say I usually just go with it. What can I say? I guess I’m sort of a pushover in bed.”

Related: 10 Things Men Forget To Do During Sex

Men wrote about feeling powerful when they could bring their partner to orgasm, and disappointed when they’re technique wasn’t working. 23-year-old Kevin wrote about girlfriends who weren’t comfortable with cunnilingus, “I privately felt a little guilty about getting a blow job because I hadn’t been asked to reciprocate.” And a lot of guys echoed the sentiment of Martin, “There’s the simple and selfish truth that [cunnilingus] is a relatively effective way of ensuring I’ll be on the receiving end of an oral treat myself in the near future.” Is Martin right? Survey responses would suggest yes. A lot of women wrote about “fairness” and how receiving cunnilingus felt like a pleasurable way for a boyfriend to request fellatio. Some, however, felt like boyfriends were only tolerating the “unpleasant” act in order to earn a blowjob. Nicole, 29, wrote, “In the past, I have detested cunnilingus as it felt like a reciprocal chore my past lovers were performing.”

For a lot of women, cunnilingus is on a short list of sex acts for truly special partners. 50-year-old Sandra wrote, “It is extremely intimate and something that I do with a special partner whom I am very comfortable with. I look forward to it when the passion between my partner and I is high and shared.” I do wonder if these women feel that blowjob are an equally intimate gesture. For younger women, I suspect that the preponderance of blowjob media exposure has made fellatio a routine part of hook-up culture, while cunnilingus is reserved for the “special someone.” I wouldn’t suggest that anyone should have either attitude towards oral sex—to each their own—only that the discrepancy between perceptions of male and female oral sex is problematic. When we normalize the type of sex that is male pleasure-centric and push the type of sex that is female-pleasure centric into the territory of “occasional treat,” we create a substantial imbalance.

No partner should be compelled to perform any sex act because the media says we should like doing it. Obligatory action may get the job done, but do we really want our partners suffering through something they don’t enjoy? The list of ways to be sexual is ridiculously exhaustive, and ruling one thing off the menu shouldn’t ruin anyone’s experience.

That being said, fellatio has become a mainstay of pop culture portrayals of sex and an expected part of most hetero sexual encounters. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but there is something wrong when the reciprocal act is deemed “gross,” “unclean,” or “icky.” If putting your face in someone else’s lap gives you the heebie-jeebie (for whatever reason), then don’t do it. But, if you’re expecting someone else to put his or her face in your lap, then you really need to reassess your sense of fairness. And if you’re one of the heebie-jeebie types, it’s probably worth asking yourself where those icky feelings are coming from. This is the body you’re going to have for the rest of your life, so you might as well learn to have some fun with it.

This piece originally appeared on the Good Men Project. More from GMP:

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