During sex ed in school—if you even had sex ed—there’s a good chance the big takeaway was something like this: Use condoms on penises during intercourse, or else your hookup will result in a sexually-transmitted infection and/or unplanned pregnancy and/or death. (For further reference, see Mean Girls.) The problem with this approach is that it misleads people into thinking that STIs are only spread through P-in-V intercourse, and that every other sex act is risk-free.
Incorrect. STIs can be spread through oral, anal, and vaginal sex, which is why using barrier methods during all those activities is a good idea. This is where dental dams come in. They’re latex or polyurethane barriers that provide protection for sex that doesn’t necessarily involve a penis.
The confusion surrounding these devices is born out of the name “dental dam.” Honestly, in my years as a sex educator, I’d have to say the main reason people don’t want to use dental dams during sex is because they are called dental dams. The term has to be at the top of the list for unappetizing-sounding words in the English language. “Dental dam” brings back memories of my first and only root canal. Cue full-body shudders.
Luckily, these devices have gotten a much-needed rebrand in recent years, and hopefully we’ll see them being used more widely as a result. While the term “dental dam” is still the most common, we also call them “female condoms” or simply “barrier methods.”
What exactly is a dental dam?
“A dental dam is a piece of latex or polyurethane to be placed over the vaginal area or anus,” explains Felice Gersh, M.D. OB/GYN, founder/director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, in Irvine, CA and the author of PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline To Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones and Happiness.
Dental dams are so-called because their original use was to prevent the spread of bacteria during oral surgery. These devices have since lost popularity in the dentist’s office, but have gained footing in the sex education realm. Taylor Sparks, Erotic Educator and Founder of Organic Loven, the largest BIPOC-owned online intimacy shop, explains that dental dams work “by limiting the transmission of bodily fluids” during oral sex, reducing risk of exposure to STIs. They can be used for all non-penis-centric oral activity, including going down on a person with a vulva or giving someone a rim job.
Why are dental dams so important?
Dental dams help prevent the spread of STIs. There is a commonly-held belief that STIs can only be spread through intercourse. This thinking is both false and dangerous, as it leaves people vulnerable to infection.
While condoms are useful in the prevention of STIs where a penis is involved, many STIs can still spread through skin-to-skin contact, such as the Herpes virus or human papillomavirus (HPV). Most cases of HPV are quite harmless and clear up on their own, but some aggressive strains of HPV can cause cancer. Recent data has shown that rates of HPV-related oral cancers may be rising due to due to a lack of protection during oral sex. There has never been a more critical time to become a dental dam evangelist.
Gersh says that oral sex has the potential to transmit other STIs as well, “via human saliva or blood that may be mixed in, due to inflamed gums.” Delightful.
Here’s how to use a dental dam:
When opening the latex packaging, Sparks recommends using caution, as the thin latex can tear, which defeats the purpose of using a dental dam. (The same rule of care applies to condoms. Don’t go tearing your barrier methods open with your teeth willy nilly.)
Place the dental dam carefully over the anus or vulva and double-check to be sure the skin is as covered as possible. Be wary of stretching the latex, as this can cause breakage, Gersh warns.
Once your dental dam in place, Gersh says you can proceed with oral sex as you normally would, stimulating the genital or anal region with your mouth. A reliable silicone or water-based lubricant can help increase comfort and sensation. LubriCANT? More like lubriCAN, people. (I’m so sorry).
To make the experience taste less like plastic, you can use a flavored lube. Just be sure the lube is glycerine and paraben-free. Most flavored lubes are NOT vulva-safe, but this strawberry lube from LoveHoney is an exception—and it smells and tastes lovely.
Where can I get a dental dam?
The largest hurdle to widespread dental dam use isn’t just their unsexy branding. They’re also difficult to come by. Most pharmacies don’t stock dental dams, meaning that you can usually only find them online and in adult sex shops. This hurdle is especially problematic for young people, who are engaging in oral sex but can’t enter a sex shop when they’re under 18—and, let’s be real here, they aren’t going to want a bunch of latex barriers to be sent in the mail to their parents’ house.
Anne-Hodder Shipp, a certified sex educator and founder of Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, has a very clever workaround: You can make your very own dental dam at home out of a condom or a piece of latex. Check out her video below for detailed instructions:
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