What is a Dental Dam, and do people actually use them?
Dental dams. I don’t think about them that often, and neither do most people, it seems. In fact, I’ve had a conversation or three with people who’ve never even heard of ‘em. And if you’ve never heard of ‘em, I imagine a ‘dental dam’ might sound a bit like a wall built up to stop your teeth from flowing right outta your mouth, am I right?
What the F is a dental dam and why do I care?
Designed all the way back in 1864, the dental dam is a thin, 6-inch square sheet, usually in latex or polyurethane. First used in dentistry to isolate one or more teeth from the rest of the mouth, over time, dental dams were repurposed as a safer sex device, and since the 1980s have been commonplace in safer sex campaigns. These tiny latex sheets—which come in a variety of colors and flavors, and with or without lube—are intended as a physical barrier method to be used during cunnilingus and anilingus. You just lay the square overtop of the vulva or the anus and go downtown. Sounds good, right? No? Full disclosure, I’ve never been convinced either.
Is oral really that risky?
Knowledge is power, so let's break this down nice and clear. From a medical perspective, cunnilingus is considered safer than other forms of sex. Yale School of Medicine professor Mary Jane Minkin says this is likely because labia tissue is more similar to external skin than the internal tissue exposed during vaginal or anal sex, and thus less susceptible to STI transmission. While you are less likely to transmit STIs during oral, it certainly is possible. The risks of cunnilingus include herpes, syphilis, and gonorrhea, while bacteria like E. coli can be transmitted via analingus. It’s worth noting that it’s a challenge to compare the risks of cunnilingus to other types of sex because most studies that have looked at the risks of orally transmitted STIs have focused on blowjobs. Big surprise.
Nobody is using them
It’s probably not a shocker that dental dams are rarely used by women (or anyone else), in spite of the risks associated with oral sex for both giver and receiver. For a little bit of context, even penis-associated oral sex risks are scarcely acknowledged: 93% of American women who have had P in V sex have used a condom at least once, though the number of people using a condom for oral is closer to 17%. Personally, I haven't once met anyone who's used a dental dam for oral sex where a vagina was involved. But why? Does using dams suck so hard that we've all decided the health risks are worth it? This isn’t what kids are being taught in sex ed.
According to a sex-ed curriculum used by schools in San Diego, Boston, and Portland, among other places, teachers instruct students to always use dental dams when performing oral sex on women, or they’ll be at risk of transmitting STIs (unsurprisingly, analingus, which can be performed on a person of any gender, does not even figure in this conversation). The thing is, students are unlikely to ever listen to this advice and few if any of these teachers have ever used one themselves. Because nobody is using them.
Suzannnah Weiss for Glamour spoke to one woman who describes using a dental dam as “extremely awkward in terms of functionality—it definitely limits what you can do.” Sex educator Kenna Cook says it doesn't feel the same for the receiver either, though you can put lube on the inside and stretch the latex to help it feel more realistic. “You have to be more aware of what you're doing, like making sure the dam stays in place,” she says. "And you miss out on other sensory stimulation, like taste.” Weiss goes on to describe how when she finally hunted a dental dam down and brought it home to her boyfriend, “he had no idea what it was; he'd never even heard of dental dams. Once he got a sense of how it worked, he hated it with a passion. ‘I feel like I'm licking a glove,’ he said, adding that it wasn't ‘romantic.’ It felt pretty underwhelming for me too—kind of like being fingered with your underwear still on.”
The research gap is gendered
Similar to research on the risks of pussy licking, there is little research on how effective dental dams are. Sadly, this is not entirely surprising, since devices made largely for women tend to see a lot less medical research funding and attention. The “female condom” has suffered a similar fate. The general attitude has been: why devote time and money to improving a product so few people want? Indeed, low sales have hindered the very product innovation that might make them sexier, more affordable (they’re twice the price of condoms), and altogether more appealing. But I would argue that lack of research funding and innovation have contributed to these low sales. An eternally vicious cycle made up of chickens and eggs, I tell you.
Lorals, a black latex panty billed as “lingerie for oral sex” has made some strides, but haven’t yet been approved by the FDA as a viable way to prevent STIs, and their advertising campaign shames women for their natural scent. But the reality is, a better dam alone won’t suddenly change our culture’s priorities and make people want to use them. Unless we start prioritizing safer oral sex, dental dams will remain a fringe product.
As things stand now, when our culture talks safe sex, we still usually focus on pregnancy prevention more than STI prevention, in part because of the stigma. “Using a dental dam that only prevents disease comes with a subtext that the partner is diseased,” says New York clinical sexologist and professor Laurel Steinberg. “Most sexual education has to do with the male pleasure, and dental dams are the furthest thing from pleasuring men,” she says. “When we think about marketing for safe sex, it is almost always about condoms and the penis because our sexual education is rooted in the idea that sex is for reproduction and not pleasure.” To me, it’s not hard to see how our cultural priorities inform our research—and lack thereof.
Is the dental dam doomed?
Given all the bad press the dental dam has received, and how deeply unpopular it is, it’s surprising how long it has lived on as a staple of sex ed. While some think it should be cut from the curriculum, it’s worth noting that the dental dam has also become a symbol of sex positivity for queer women—whether said queer women use them or not. Some say this is due to a greater sense of social responsibility in queer communities. According to Chris Barcelos, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, many queer and transgender people who use dental dams do so because safer oral sex is “something you do to show that you care about your partners.” And really, if we care, then why not really care, am I right?
On the other hand, Jessica Halem, who does outreach for the Harvard Medical School’s Sexual and Gender Minorities Health Equity Initiative dares to ask, “If you reframe sex education [around] pleasure, a lot of this stuff just seems silly. Can people even achieve orgasm with a dental dam? I have no idea.” Halem argues that dental dams should be struck from curricula entirely. “I just really don’t want anybody not having oral sex because they can’t find a dental dam. My god, that’s a tragedy!”
The moral of today’s oral storytelling session: knowledge is power, but knowledge is rarely conclusive. Dental dams are the perfect example of this living paradox. If you’re down to try it (because what better way to find out?), be sure to consult these tips for proper dental dam use.
Here’s to safer, sexier, better-informed sex for all!