Teens believe oral sex is less risky to their health and emotions than regular sex, and they think it is more acceptable among their peers.

Not surprisingly, they also are more likely to try oral sex.

This view comes from a new survey of 580 ethnically diverse Northern California ninth-graders reported in the April issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The students in general thought oral sex was less likely to have negative social and emotional consequences, such as creating bad reputation or feelings of guilt. Oral sex is also seen as less threatening to their values and beliefs.

Among the findings:

  • 19.5 percent of the ninth-graders surveyed said they had tried oral sex
  • 13.5 percent have had vaginal sex
  • 31.5 percent intend to have oral sex within the next six months
  • 26.2 percent intend to have vaginal sex in the next six months

"These findings suggest that adults should discuss more than one type of sexual practice when they counsel teens," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, associate professor of adolescent medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "When we counsel adolescents about the risks and benefits associated with sex, we need to understand how they perceive it among themselves."

Most of the participants recognized that there is some risk of infection with sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and HIV, and accurately ranked this risk less than with vaginal sex.

Yet one in seven incorrectly thought that the risk of STDs from oral sex would be zero.

"There is not much data about the chances of sexually transmitted infections due to oral sex, but there is a real risk," Halpern-Felsher said. "When teens are engaging in or considering oral sex, they need to know about methods to keep themselves safe from physical as well as emotional risks."