November 02, 2012

Safer Sex: What the Hell is a Dental Dam?

Have you seen the movie Knocked Up? Do you remember the scene where Allison tells Ben that she's pregnant? As he, flabbergasted, searches desperately for some explanation as to how he could have possibly gotten her pregnant (sex sometimes leads to pregnancy, by the way, in case some of you are as clueless as he is), one bit of this conversation struck me as particularly bothersome:
Ben: I assumed you were wearing a patch, or like a -- like a dental dam, or one of those fuckin' butterfly clips or something.
Alison: What the hell is a dental dam?
Ben: It's like Saran Wrap. It's disgusting, but I thought you had one!
That right there. No one knows what the hell a dental dam is. They might have some vague notion, but nothing more than "disgusting Saran Wrap". Awesome. Not to mention that dental dams aren't even a contraceptive (birth control) device! Seems like a lot of people are confused about what these are, how they work, and why they should use them, so let's try to clear a few things up.

So -- what is it?  

A Dental Dam is a (usually latex, but silicone alternatives do exist for those with allergies) barrier, to be used between one partner's vagina or anus and the other's mouth. It is not unlike a condom -- in fact, many people fashion their own dental dam out of a condom -- and it can be used to prevent the spread of STIs through oral sex. It does this by preventing both fluid-exchange and skin-to-skin contact. 

How do you use them?

Spread a water-based lubricant on one side, and put that side against the vagina/anus of the person receiving oral sex. Then, one person must hold it in place. Usually the person giving oral sex is the one who does this, but either will do. That's it! Pretty simple.

What if I don't have one/can't find them in any stores?

Unfortunately, since so many people have no clue they can get STIs from oral sex, many shops don't bother carrying dental dams. But don't fret! You have other options! You can:
  • Make one out of a condom (video). If you prefer diagrams over videos, this one is pretty helpful.
  • Make one out of a latex glove. Cut off the finger and cut down one side.
  • Make one out of non-microwaveable Saran Wrap. The non-microwaveable part is crucial!  The pores in microwaveable saran wrap are large enough to allow viruses and bacteria to pass through, leaving you and your partner open to infections
There are a few things that are important to note while using a dental dam:
  • Like condoms, they're not effective if they're broken. To be extra safe, stretch the dental dam out and hold it up to a light to check for any holes. 
  • Also like condoms, a dental dam can only be used once. After that, it must be thrown away.
  • Do not use the same dental dam for different areas of the body. Doing this could risk passing bacteria from the anus to the vagina, which can cause infection. 
  • If you're performing oral sex on more than one partner at a time, you have to switch it out between them. 
  • Do not flip it over and try to use the other side! If you do that, you're putting your mouth all over the fluids you were trying to avoid! Kind of defeats the purpose, right?
A lot of people like to make jokes about the use of a dental dam, because a lot of people like to think that oral sex carries no risk. Maybe they think it's silly to use one because the odds of them catching any STIs are low. Well, it might change their mind to know that about one out of six people aged 14-49 years have genital herpes, and that most people display no symptoms for years. Herpes can also spread when the carrier isn't having an "outbreak", too -- meaning, their skin currently has no sores on it. Basically what I'm getting at here is that it's better to be safe than sorry, yeah?

Always remember that if you're sexually active and have had multiple partners, you should get tested regularly to keep yourself and your partners healthy. Many people think stopping in the heat of the moment to grab protection is a "mood killer", but what's worse: pausing the action for a second or catching an STI? And besides, being safe and educated is pretty sexy; I've always been able to enjoy myself much more when I know I'm protected. Not having any lurking fears in the back of your head will help you focus on all the fun. 

As always, be sure to check out Planned Parenthood's comprehensive safer-sex page. 

Have fun and play safely, guys!


  1. Thank you so much for this article! When I asked my doctor about protection for oral sex, he told me that you couldn't protect yourself from STIs when two folks with vaginas were involved and implied that you couldn't get/ pass anything. Once again, thank you!

    1. OH my goodness, your doctor needs to brush up on their sex ed. I'm glad you found the article informative!

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