A History of Oral Sex, From Fellatio's Ancient Roots to the Modern Blow Job
It turns out that there are some things that we humans have basically been doing since the beginning of time — like complaining and putting weed in our vaginas — and oral sex happens to be one of those hallowed, ancient traditions.
Yup, that's right, oral sex wasn't actually popularized in the 1970s and brought into the mainstream by The Godfather and Deep Throat — it has a long, rich history that dates back thousands of years. Let's dive in, shall we?
Ancient sexy times
Art depicting sexual acts has been found around the globe, left behind by countless ancient peoples and dating back thousands of years. Author and scholar Thierry Leguay told Salon in 2000 that "the first clear real traces of fellatio are from ancient Egypt ... Osiris was killed by his brother and cut into pieces. His sister Iris put the pieces together but, by chance, the penis was missing. An artificial penis was made out of clay, and Iris 'blew' life back into Osiris by sucking it. There are explicit images of this myth."
In the city of Pompeii, which was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, archeologists uncovered ancient baths decorated with erotic frescoes, reported the Independent in 2010, including depictions of oral sex.
Antonio Varone, who helped lead the excavation of the baths, told the Independent that the frescoes include depictions of "fellatio and cunnilingus" as well as group sex. Another ancient building uncovered in Pompeii, a brothel called the Lupanare, includes similar erotic frescoes as well as a sign advertising the services of a prostitute whose speciality was oral sex.
The Moche people, who lived on the northern coast of Peru and whose civilization likely collapsed around 560 to 650 AD, made utilitarian ceramics that also happened to be depictions of fellatio (you can see some of them in person at the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru).
The Kamasutra, one of the worlds' most famous erotic texts, was created in northern India, "probably in the second century," reported the Wall Street Journal in March — and the original Sanskrit text includes descriptions of fellatio in various, sometimes complicated, positions.
It stands to reason that if oral sex was practiced around the world in Ancient times, it probably didn't fall out of favor just because the Roman Empire collapsed. But, as Smithsonian reported in 2014, any kind of sex in medieval Europe came with a whole lot of rules and baggage: "Modern-day Americans can be thankful that we are not trying to have sex in medieval Europe. Because what was allowed and what was not was, if anything, even more complicated back then."
Oral sex was among the list of forbidden acts, along with non-conventional positions and, really, any kind of sexual act that was pleasurable.
Much of O'Donnell's evidence comes in the form of penitential literature, aimed mostly at monks, that outlined the "correct penance for a variety of sinful acts," he said in an email. One medieval penitential document, from Ireland, recommended "four years penance" for cunnilingus but five for fellatio, O'Donnell said.
The industrious Industrial Age.
The Church-imposed association between sexual pleasure and sin that permeated medieval culture lasted for centuries (and is still hanging on, some might argue). "As recently as the 19th century, sexual pleasure and any relation that didn't lead directly to procreation — even within the structure of a traditional marriage — were mortal sins," Leguay told Salon. "So fellatio was, and remains to some extent, a taboo."
But, according to slang historian Jonathon Green, who created an impressive interactive timeline of slang terms for oral sex, by the 19th Century there were a host of English-language slang terms in use for both fellatio and cunnilingus, including "prick eating," "minetting" and "eating seafood."
The 20th Century
The turn of the 20th Century saw a huge jump in oral sex slang terms, according to Green's timeline, including such gems as "dickylicker," "deep sea diving," "sneezing in the cabbage" and the now familiar "blow-job," which Green cites as arriving in the 1940s.
According to research published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality in 2006, "during the course of the 20th Century, at an accelerating rate, oral sex became a possible component of 'foreplay,' which was the great sexual discovery of the early decades of the 20th Century. By the end of the century oral sex had become an essential component of the sexual repertoire of even mildly adventurous heterosexuals."
Part of this normalization of oral sex, the researchers claim, was because of "the rise of a concern for female sexual pleasure" and increasing importance placed on "the achievement of mutual orgasm."
By the end of the 20th Century, more people in the U.S. seemed to be engaging in oral sex than ever before. Slate reported that a 1994 study found that "27% of men and 19% of women have had oral sex in the past year."
Welcome to now
In 2012, a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, among people between the ages of 20 and 24, "81% of females and 80% of males had engaged in oral sex," reported ABC News.
Teenagers are also engaging in oral sex — sometimes because of the perception that it somehow "doesn't count" as sex in the same way that penetrative sex does. A CDC fact sheet published in 2009 said that "some data suggest that many adolescents who engage in oral sex do not consider it to be 'sex;' therefore they may use oral sex as an option to experience sex while still, in their minds, remaining abstinent."
Despite what the teens are saying, "most people — around 71% — consider oral sex" to be sex, reported the New York Times in April, citing information from the Kinsey Institute.
But is there a gap when it comes to who's giving and receiving oral sex nowadays? Despite a dominant cultural perception that straight men don't like going down on their female partners, the numbers actually suggest that today's young straight dudes enjoy both giving and receiving.
Debby Herbenick, a researcher and associate professor at Indiana University who helped to conduct a national survey of sexual behavior, said in September that "the vast majority" of young men are really into cunnilingus.
"In new, not-yet-published data from a recent college student survey I conducted, 64% said [they enjoyed performing oral sex] 'very much' and 24% said 'somewhat,'" Herbenick said.
We're still not free of sexual stigmas, by any means, but maybe we humans are finally in a place where we can comfortably acknowledge that oral sex is something we've been engaging in, and enjoying, for thousands of years.