Sexual education classes drill the importance of condom use into the heads of teenagers, yet much less is said for the sole product used to make oral sex safer: the dental dam. Oral sex: everybody’s doing it – or, at least 80 percent of adults, according to recent polls.
Oral sex carries a lower risk of STI transmission, but preventative dams have never been widely adopted.
Dental dams were originally designed for dentists to use – and they look like it.
After more than a century, efforts are finally being made to elevate the art of going down and bring some sexiness back to safe oral sex for women.
Dental dams to protect against STIs from oral sex are made in much the same way as the ones used in a dentist’s office – and they look like it, despite coming in flavors like grape
Dental dams were designed as a sort of painter’s tape for dental work.
The thin squares of latex are sterile, stretchy, and block of the gums, throat tongue and any part of the mouth you might not want to subject to a dentist’s tools and products.
Dams also keep the area a dentist is working in from the interference of your own saliva.
Sometime between the invention of the product in 1864 and today, the dental dam made its way out from the dental chair to the bedroom, where it makes oral sex safer – and a lot less sexy.
Though oral sex is considered a lot lower-risk than vaginal or anal sex, it still involved the possibility of fluid exchanges and, therefore, sexually transmitted infections and diseases (STIs and STDs).
Every year, 20 million new STIs are diagnosed in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There is no real way to calculate how many of those are passed through oral sex, but about 80 percent of people have oral sex with at least one partner over the course of their lives, so it is bound to happen.
Gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, HIV and human papillomavirus (HPV) can all be transmitted orally and so can giardia and hepatitis A, which are not considered a typical risk from vaginal sex.
Michael Douglas developed throat cancer after contracting HPV through oral sex
The consequences can be dire, as they were for Michael Douglas who developed throat cancer after he contracted HPV through oral sex in 2013.
Bacteria thrive in moist warm places, and the mouth fits that description.
But STI transmission is less likely through oral because the mouth is a harsher environment and self-cleaning machine.
Enzymes in saliva aggressively break down a great deal of bacteria, but that doesn’t mean STIs can’t make it past this line of defense.
Some pathogens can survive well in the throat, while others tend to perish there before they multiply and work their way into the rest of the system.
When a man is on the receiving end of oral sex – via fellatio – the recommended protection is familiar and simple: use a condom.
But we haven’t come up with such an elegant solution for women who want to safely receive oral pleasure.
According to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), if you want to be covered during cunnilingus or analingus, you can use a dental dam or ‘cut open a condom to make a square and put it between the mouth and the partner’s vagina or anus.’
Dental dams are around five or six square inches, and very thin, but thicker than, say, Saran Wrap (which some have suggested as an in-a-pinch replacement).
It’s this flappy rubber sheet, and it doesn’t feel like it’s the appropriate level of sexiness for while you’re doing something so intimate
Melanie Cristol, founder and CEO of ‘lingerie for oral sex’ company, Lorals
A pack of 52, mint green safety sheets goes for $21 on Amazon.
Latex might not be the tastiest thing you and your partner share, but you can get a pack of five (more obviously designed for use during sex) for about $7, in flavors like banana, strawberry and vanilla.
Using the dam is fairly straight forward at its face. You simply lay it over your partner’s vulva, and perform oral sex through the the thin barrier.
The Teen Health Source offers some more nuanced coaching for making protected oral sex more enjoyable.
‘Before you lay down the dam, you may want to add some water-based lubricant to the other person’s skin. This will make the dam feel more natural,’ according to the site.
Dental dams were originally designed for dentists to use to work on patients teeth while protecting their gums and oral cavities. The kind used for oral sex are little different
To really get artful with the dam, ‘it will feel better if you take some time to mold the dental dam to the shape of the body part it is covering before starting (for example, tuck it into the folds of the vulva),’ the resource suggests.
The global condom industry is set to surpass $11 million by 2023, and some small fraction of those condoms might be made into dental dams, but dams themselves are a meager business.
Online sex store The Pleasure Chest stocks just two brands of dental dams, as compared to about 20 condoms.
Whether you love or hate the idea of a dental dam, there simply aren’t many options or alternatives for safer oral sex for women.
Sex therapist Amanda Pasciucco says that based on her clientele, she estimates that less than five percent of the time when a woman is receiving oral sex.
Recommendations for using dental dams from Teen Health Source
She says that dental dams are rarely used in part because ‘they are not a contraceptive, therefore there is less research and money put into creating them and less money being made off of this product.’
Furthermore, Pasciucco says that a stigma remains around the un-sexy protective sheets, and they are not accessible in the same way that condoms are.
‘Dental dams are not found in the aisle next to the condoms and lubricants. They are not marketed or spoken about unless it is in sexual education curses,’ she says.
And even if they were, there are plenty of reasons people may still not want to adopt dental dams.
‘It’s this flappy rubber sheet, and it doesn’t feel like it’s the appropriate level of sexiness for while you’re doing something so intimate,’ says Melanie Cristol.
Cristol is the founder and CEO of Lorals, which is trying to change that with their new line of ultra-thin latex panties.
She says that whether you’re using a dental dam out of shyness, for safety or both, the sheet is awkward and poses logistical issues.
Either the giver or the receiver has to hold the sheet in place and ‘if you’re trying to hold it to make sure it doesn’t move from back to front – which can cause a UTI – it can be really distracting and decrease the experience,’ she says.
This is especially true for women, for whom there is ‘a big mental component to sexuality.’
There are $52 harnesses for dental dams, which have a rather bondage-y look and feel, and ‘are pretty impractical because it takes time to buckle it into place,’ Cristol says.
Instead, she set out to redesign the dam.
The underwear provide a barrier to fluids in the same way as a dental dam, without the potential awkwardness of laying, lubing and tucking a sheet.
But for now, Lorals are marketed as being a way to help women overcome shyness over oral sex, as they are not FDA-approved to protect against STIs, and probably won’t reach that stage for some time.