Oral sex is real sex, and there's a lot more to know about it than you might think.

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Generations ago, oral sex was considered taboo. Now it's a pretty mainstream type of sexual activity for all kinds of couples. How common is it? One 2020 survey found that on average, people perform oral sex 5.3 times each month, and they receive oral sex 5.2 times per month. Oral sex has benefits that go beyond physical pleasure: Research from 2018 suggests that couples who engaged in oral sex were more satisfied with the quality of their relationship than those who did not.

Still, not everyone understands the full range of what oral sex is, how it's done, and the variety of positions that can make it more exciting and novel. Here's everything you need to know.

What oral sex is

Basically, oral sex is when you stimulate your partner's genitals with your mouth, lips, or tongue, or they stimulate your genitals using these body parts. This might involve fellatio (sucking or licking the penis), cunnilingus (sucking or licking the vagina, vulva, or clitoris, or anilingus (sucking or licking the anus).

Oral sex is often thought of as foreplay, meaning it happens before penetration with a penis or sex toy. It might also occur after intercourse, or it could replace intercourse entirely. Everyone has their own preferences, and there are no rules, provided both parties consent to the activity.

Oral sex counts as "real" sex

Just because oral sex doesn't lead to pregnancy doesn't mean it's not sex. Like other kinds of sex, oral sex can feel super pleasurable; a Canadian study found that 69% of women described being on the receiving end as "very pleasurable." Oral sex can keep couples feeling emotionally connected, and it can result in an orgasm (or multiple orgasms). It's not a lesser form of sex just because it's not penis-in-vagina sex. Some couples exclusively have oral sex, while others do it only occasionally or never. It's all up to your own personal preference.

Oral sex has STI risks

While oral sex can offer deep physical and emotional pleasure, it also has one of the same dangers as intercourse. Oral sex can spread sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and HPV. "Many people are surprised to learn how dangerous it can be to have oral sex when it comes to STIs," Sherry A. Ross, MD, ob-gyn and women's health expert in Santa Monica, California and author of she-ology and she-ology. the she-quel, tells Health.

Whether you're the giver or receiver of oral sex, you can contract and/or spread STIs. An HPV infection of the throat can even lead to throat cancer, the same way HPV can lead to cervical cancer. To protect yourself, make sure you and your partner are STI-tested; if you're not sure about your partner's status, experts advise using condoms or a dental dam, which is a thin piece of latex that covers the vulva.

How to get started having oral sex

There's no one way to have oral sex, but a good place to start is by asking your partner for their consent to kiss, lick, nibble, or stroke their genitals with your mouth, lips, or tongue. If you get the go-ahead, start slowly and experiment with different moves, such as soft kisses or firmer tongue swirls.

Pay attention to their response. If your partner is becoming more aroused and doesn't ask you to stop, keep going. If you get the sense that a move you're doing isn't having the desired effect, switch it up and try something else. As long as it feels good to give and receive, you're doing it right.

Oral sex is very personal, so ask your partner what they like

Great sex is all about communication, and that goes for oral sex as well. So don't hesitate to ask your partner what they like and what you can do to make them feel good. "This is especially helpful with a new partner," SKYN sex and intimacy expert, certified sex coach, sexologist, and author Gigi Engle tells Health. "Something that worked with one woman may not work with another. The vulva is as unique as a snowflake and no two are the same." Same goes with the penis.

What exactly should you ask? Here's a few questions to throw out: Does she like internal stimulation while she receives oral sex? Does she enjoy having her labia licked? Is her vaginal opening particularly sensitive? "Being able to communicate with your partner is extremely hot," Engle says. "She'll appreciate that you care enough to find out what brings her pleasure." This tip works for sexual partners of all genders, of course.

Popular oral sex positions

There are as many positions for oral sex as there are for intercourse (more on these later). But often the most comfortable way to do it is for the receiver to lie back with their legs open either a little bit or all the way, and for the giver to sit or stretch out over them.

Propping a pillow or two under your partner's hips can give you better access to their genitals, though not everyone enjoys this because it makes them feel more exposed. Oral sex can also be performed from behind, with the receiver in the doggie style position. Another popular oral sex style is 69: when both partners lie down so their bodies form a 69 shape and they can give and receive oral sex simultaneously.

Other positions and ways to make oral sex even better

Stock up on flavored lube

“Let’s be honest, the taste of a penis is not exactly like chocolate cake,” says Engle. If you're not into your partner's taste or want to taste something more fun, flavored lube is the way to go. “Adding a little tasty lubricant changes the whole game,” she says.

Problem is, a lot of flavored lubes are too sweet, too minty, or taste too much like cough syrup. So experiment with different flavors to find one you like. However, it’s important to remember that flavored lube is not necessarily good for vaginas, since many are made with artificial ingredients and sugar. This means if you use it on a penis, be sure to rinse it off thoroughly before having penetrative sex.

Don't ignore the testicles

oral sex positions
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Testicles can be very sexually sensitive, so to get them in on the oral action, a vibrator is your best sex accessory. "Sex toys aren't just for clit stimulation," Engle explains. Grab a vibrator and hold it in your hand to massage the balls. You can also press a vibe into the perineum, the patch of skin between the balls and anus or anus and vagina, which is a nerve-rich pleasure center. "Sex toys up the sense of eroticism during oral sex; it can be extremely intense—in a good way," she adds. Just make sure to ask your partner if they like what you're doing.

Make sure the clitoris is involved

A study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that 37% of women need clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm. Another 36% said that clitoral stimulation isn't necessary to have an orgasm, but it makes the experience better.

Still, for many women, direct clitoral stimulation can be too intense, especially at the onset of oral sex. Engle suggests touching it through the clitoral hood; another idea is to perform oral sex with a thin piece of fabric, like underwear, between your tongue and your partner's body. "This will provide just the right amount of pleasure without causing discomfort," she says. Another trick is to blow gently on her clitoris before making contact with your tongue, which can increase arousal.

Try G-spot stimulation

oral sex positions
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

If your female partner enjoys internal stimulation during oral sex, use your finger or a vibrator to play with her G-spot while kissing, licking, or sucking the vulva. How do you know when you've found the G-spot? Work your finger an inch or two inside the vagina along the front wall, and feel around for an area that can be slightly spongier than the rest of the vagina. "When stimulated, you're accessing the root of the clitoris, the back end that you can't see externally," says Engle.

Press around the area to offer pressure-based stimulation, or move your fingers in a grounded, circular motion. "Don't forget to pay attention," Engle says. "G-spot stimulation isn't every woman's cup of tea. Experimenting is great, but be willing to learn and hone your skills with each new partner."

oral sex positions
Credit: Emma Darvick

Face-sitting is an empowering oral sex style

Face-sitting is an oral sex position that has the receiver sitting on or straddling the giver's face. The close contact makes this a very intimate position, and it's not something everyone is comfortable with. But it allows for deeper access to your partner's vulva and vagina, and in heterosexual relationships, it's typically female dominant, putting the woman in control.

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