Why the US is fixated on oral sex

Here I am in Florida, for the second year running, for the American tradition of the "spring break". I never dreamed I would become so Americanised. I happen to be based in a place called Hobe Sound, where the average age is about 106 - but what struck me at the airport in West Palm Beach were the huge numbers of students humping backpacks away from the luggage carousels.

Students come to Florida (or, if their parents are well-heeled, Cancun in Mexico is a more favoured destination) with just two aims in mind: to drink (illegally, because they're under 21) and to have sex, mixed in with some heat and sunshine.

But what struck me this year was the number of girls and boys travelling on their own who could not have been more than 12 or 13 - often, but not always, heading in groups to stay with unsuspecting grandparents or other relatives. I say "unsuspecting" because, if we are to believe the latest sociological surveys, even this age group in America is having sex as never before: a respectable research group called Child Trends reports that 19 per cent of all girls in the US and 21 per cent of boys have had sexual intercourse by the age of 14.

These statistics, however, specifically exclude what has always seemed to me - though I may be wrong on this - to be a peculiarly American male obsession: oral sex. The sociological surveyors say it is a given that children (is that the right word nowadays?) of that age today think nothing of having oral sex; among 14- to 15-year-olds, it is the norm rather than the exception. And this has nothing to do with Bill Clinton's well-known predilections, because the trend predates his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky ("romp", in this context, always strikes me as the wrong word).

But do these predilections, as I have always suspected, have something to do with the wimpiness of the average American male?

So many think they are ultra-masculine, full of leadership qualities, ready to kill the next guy in the boardroom or on the playing field - yet they live in an essentially matriarchal society. Is this why they prefer a fundamentally passive form of sex, while their European counterparts prefer the real thing?

I have noticed that the book that people want to be seen to be reading, among the beach-tent flappings of Hobe Sound this spring, is Ian McEwan's Atonement. With this one publication, McEwan seems to have taken a quantum leap ahead of the poseur English school of Americanised authors - the likes of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. McEwan has succeeded (it seems to me - I haven't seen any US sales figures yet) in reaching a mainstream American public in a way that no British novelist since David Cornwell [John le Carre] has done. What a pity, though, that he had to do it with a book which evokes all the latent snobbishness of so many middle-class Americans - the same types who secretly long for the British way of life depicted in Brideshead Revisited or Gosford Park. I congratulate McEwan on his success, but just hope that the settings of Atonement were not calculatedly designed to pander to this lucrative segment of the US market.

You can't help noticing on any American beach these days, meanwhile, just how fat so many Americans are becoming. Indeed, the US surgeon general now says that the greatest threat to national health comes not from smoking, but from obesity: no fewer than 120 million Americans are officially classified as significantly overweight or obese, and thus run twice the risk of developing serious diabetes. They are also 86 per cent more likely to develop cancer of the colon, to say nothing of heart problems.

What truly shocks is that the percentage of obese Americans has increased by more than 60 per cent since 1970. Schools all over the country are now sending home letters along with report cards, warning that little Johnny or Jenny is no longer as little as he or she should be.

But there is a different America I increasingly seem to see these days - that of fitness fanatics, ranging from little girls to old men, limping and often with limbs in casts. I can think of an eight-year-old girl who spent most of last autumn with her foot and ankle in a cast, apparently simply because it had taken just too much pounding. A man I also know, aged around 40, has had a leg in plaster (or whatever the doctors use now) since around Christmas; like the little girl, he broke no bones, but badly twisted ligaments in his frantic desire to be fit.

This is not just my observation, either: since 1990, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission tells me, there has been a 33 per cent increase in such "sports-related injuries" in the baby boomer age group.

I also know teenage boys who are under great peer pressure to take steroids to improve their sporting performance. (A doctor friend says he knows two words that would put them off this habit for life: "testicular atrophy", apparently a side effect of steroids.) This is to say nothing of their wish to develop bodies that attract girls.

For those middle-aged and older men, too, I am certain, the desire to be superfit is such an obsession that it is clearly some kind of substitute for lost sexual potency.

Sorry if I seem full of sex myself this week: perhaps it's being among all these 106-year-olds. Back to DC and those damned F-16s next week. Happy Easter.

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