Look, I know. I know that no one wants to use dental dams; no one even wants to talk about using dental dams. And it’s understandable—to the uninitiated, they can seem cumbersome, awkward, hard to use or just plain silly.
For those of us who received really basic, hetero-centric sex ed in our school days, dental dams were so far on the periphery that we didn’t even learn what they were, let alone how important they are for safe sex. Like a condom, dental dams put a barrier between partners, preventing the exchange of bodily fluids and, potentially, sexually transmitted infections. That’s important, because STIs can spread via oral/genital or oral/anal contact just as readily as via standard sexual intercourse.
So let’s learn more about dental dams!
I tried to do a lot of research for this piece, but ran into trouble because within most sexual communities, there just isn’t that much. Dental dam use among opposite-sex partners, for example, hasn’t really been studied—nor is it really talked about. Often lumped in with information about condoms, dental dams seem like a sexual afterthought. But they aren’t. They exist for a specific and important reason.
To get some real, pragmatic and helpful information, I asked the incredible author and activist, and Heather Corinna, who is also the executive director of sex-positive education site Scarleteen. Here’s what Corinna thinks Blisstree readers should know about dental dams and how/why to use them.
Why do you think dental dams are important?
Dams are important because they’re really the only barrier we have that can offer protection from infections with cunnilingus or analingus. The latter poses higher risks of infection, but the former can still pose some, namely HPV, herpes and chlamydia. And one of the coolest things about dams, which condoms can’t offer in regard to those first two infections, is that dams cover much more surface of the genitals, so in that way, they offer better protection from those infections than condom can when we’re using them for other activities that pose the same risks.
What about talking about dams with a partner who may be hesitant? They aren’t nearly as common as condoms—what’s the best way to bring it up with a partner without freaking them out?
Like with most safer sex barriers, I think if you have to really sell a partner on it, probably you and that partner need to go back to the start and talk more about safer sex, period, and STI risks, period. They may need more general education.
But, on the whole—and accounting for, particularly, a longstanding and false belief in some lesbian communities that there are no STI risks among women—all you really should need to say is that dams are the tool we’ve got to provide protection against infection with a couple sexual activities where other barriers, like condoms or gloves, can’t work (however, you can make a dam out of a glove, too: if you cut the fingers off a glove, but leave the thumb, it’ll open up into a dam that has a very convenient compartment for your tongue!).
Like with other barriers, you want to use it so you can reduce the risk of infections, to best protect everyone’s health, but also so that one extra thing you’d worry about gets to be sorted so that everyone can just better enjoy themselves!
There are latex dams, but there are also non-latex dams. And you can make a dam out of any condom by just cutting it lengthwise and then opening it, so if there’s a condom material or texture you like, well, voila! It can become a dam. There are also—like with condoms—flavored dams or unflavored dams.
One of the biggest complaints (at least, among my female friends who swear up and down that they’ve tried to use them in their own sexual encounters) is that dams can be kind of…cumbersome. Do you have any tips on how to make them more user-friendly?
Really, I don’t think of them as not being user-friendly. I think that’s more a misconception that probably, mostly comes from never playing with them. I mean, sure, we usually have to hold them in place with our hands. But during the activities we use them for, it’s not atypical for us to be using our hands to, for example, massage the insides of a partner’s thighs, or their outer labia, or their buttocks anyway. So, our hands are often already in the place they need to be to hold a dam in place.
I think making them more user-friendly is just about giving yourself permission and room to experiment with them to learn how to use them. And really, people do this with condoms, too; it’s not just something folks do with dams. I think that with condoms, it’s just more often something where only one partner is the person mostly learning and experimenting, you know?
You can also buy or make a harness to use with dams. One of our volunteers posted instructions about a decade ago, which I included in my book. Someone just recently put it on a Tumblr feed.
Anything else we should know?
If your partners have penises, bringing dams into the picture provides some nifty hidden bonuses. Like, for instance, giving a dude a chance to not be the only one wearing latex and experiencing a barrier on a sensitive part of the body. It can help everyone to better share that experience, and also better understand the pros and cons from a first-person place. When you actually have the experience of having a thin sheet of latex over your clitoral glans—a part as or more sensitive than the most sensitive parts of the penis—you also get to know and experience how much it does NOT do things like take away all ability to feel and enjoy sex. That can make someone who might otherwise be less resilient with partners who refuse condoms (with lines like saying they can’t feel anything with one on) more resilient.
Top photo via Tumblr