»  Taki's Top Drawer

June 21st, 2001

  Playing the Flute


I have been thinking about fellatio. No, no, don't hit the back button. This is serious stuff. I have issues.

Fellatio is now, I am told, very widespread among young people. In the stairwell of your local high school, a teenage girl is fellating a teenage boy at this moment, according to Tom Wolfe. It is apparently — I am working on hearsay, here, I have no direct contacts with teenagers — very common for 17-yr-old girls to proudly consider themselves "virgins" (virginity is "in," e.g. Britney Spears) in spite of having fellated the entire school football team. The larger social acceptance of the practice is now total: on Christmas Day 1999 — Christmas Day! — viewers of British network TV were treated to a performance of Thomas Adès' fellatio-themed opera Powder Her Face.

There has been some large cultural change here. Until a generation ago, fellatio was considered an aberrant activity practiced only by fringe groups — homosexuals, bohemians and jailbirds. Fellatio was no part of my own adolescence in 1960s provincial England. Tentative enquiries among older male colleagues and friends suggest that it was not widely practiced by well-brought-up Americans either until the early 1970s. A friend who grew up in a small midwestern town in the 1940s and 1950s says he heard of the practice in adolescence, but in a context which assumed that no respectable woman would do it. A colleague — a smart, worldly & successful married man in his late 50s, reports never having been fellated. Another, aged early 60s: "I suggested it to the wife once. She said: 'You want me to put what? where? What have you been reading?'" Fellatio was actually illegal in many states until the 1970s. I cannot find the word in my complete 1971 Oxford English Dictionary (which includes an updating supplement). The worldly and depraved Humbert Humbert, in Lolita (1955), thought the practice so far beyond the pale he would refer to it only at two removes, via a French euphemism.

Fellatio's first steps towards its current universality may have come with G.I.s returning from France after WW2. It was a common saying among these servicemen that "the French f— with their mouths and fight with their feet," and "French" is to this day prostitutes' slang for fellatio. (While the longstanding French term demi-vierge prefigures the attitudes of those football-team comforters.)

Of people in past times whose sex lives we know with fair reliability, fellatio hardly seems to have figured, even when it was an obvious solution to large problems. The 18th-century biographer and diarist James Boswell, for example, was a compulsive fornicator, helping himself to street girls on his way home at night in London. This brought him numerous bouts of venereal disease, a very painful and inconvenient business in those days, and distressing to his wife, whom he adored (but who was at home in Scotland). Yet it never seems to have occurred to him to ask the street girls to fellate him.

Fellatio pops up (look, you can't avoid double-entendres when discussing this topic, and may as well just give in to them) in erotic art and literature from past ages, though of course this tells us nothing about everyday practice. The classic 16th-century Chinese erotic novel Jin Ping Mei has a character, Golden Lotus, who is especially adept at it. The term used is pin-xiao, "playing the flute." However, this expression does not appear in any of my Chinese-Chinese or Chinese-English dictionaries; and "fellatio" appears in only one — the bulkiest one — of my half-dozen English-Chinese dictionaries, where it is translated via a dogged 25-character explanation: "The behavior or action of using the tongue to rub the male organ for the purpose of stimulating sexual desire or bringing about ejaculation." It seems, therefore, that there is no commonplace Chinese term for "fellatio" in current usage, so the Chinese may be behind the curve here. Or I may just need some more up-to-date dictionaries.

One friend with whom I discussed this suggests that the recent popularity of both species of oral sex reflects improvements in indoor plumbing since 1945 and escalating standards of personal hygiene, from one bath per week to one shower per day. I am not sure this really meets the case, though. The French are not best known for dedication to personal freshness. Contrariwise, upper- and upper-middle-class English people were taking baths daily by the mid-19th century, yet fellatio does not seem to have been part of their sexual repertoire.

What does it all mean? I asked Steve Sailer, who is, as Warren G. Harding said of Herbert Hoover, "the smartest gink I know."  Steve: "It's birth control. See, a girl may really like a boy and want to keep him, but yet not want to get into the deep-emotional region of coitus. Before the pill and easy abortion, she could just say: 'Oh, no, I don't want to get pregnant.' Now she can't plausibly say that. If she doesn't want to have actual sex with him, she fellates him as a compromise."

I find Steve's thesis quite persuasive, but it can't be the whole story. The real conundrum is not: Why is there so much of it about now, it's: Why was there so little before? Why was such an obvious and harmless practice neglected for so long? Why didn't James Boswell — an extremely horny and imaginative man — or the adolescent boys I hung out with back in Northampton, whose minds could not possibly have been any filthier than they were, even think about it? The answer must be obvious, but I can't quite get at it … it's on the tip of my tongue …