Perhaps you have come across a dental dam during a dental procedure? It’s a rectangular latex membrane, about the size of a folded sheet of letter paper, used to isolate the tooth within the operative site. (They also come in latex-free polyurethane for those with allergies.) If you’re anything like me, your first and only encounter with a dental dam may have been in the context of safer sex procedures instead. Or if you’re like the majority of the population, you may have never come across one. Unlike condoms, dental dams are not necessarily a part of basic Sex Ed, and frequently, they are not even available at most sex toy stores or drug stores. Consequently, one’s first sexual encounter with one may be a little bit mystifying and feel a bit foreign. However, when used correctly, they can be an effective safer sex barrier method toward protecting one from HPV, herpes, parasites, and other infections. (Operative word being “safer”. There is always a degree of risk involved, regardless of safer sex method.)
So when does one use dental dams?
Anytime one engages in cunnilingus (oral sex performed on the vulva and parts of the vagina- aka “licking pussy”) or anilingus (oral sex performed on the anus – aka “rimming”). This is especially true for non-fluid bonded partners (partners who have not already been regularly exchanging bodily fluids), but it is also true for many fluid bonded partners if there is a concern about contracting parasitic infections via anilingus.
How does one use dental dams?
1- Remove from package!
2- Some dental dams are lightly coated with a flavored dust, and even some of the unflavored ones are lightly dusted to prevent too much clinginess. It’s not a bad idea to rinse off this starchy dust just in case you or your partner may be sensitive and prone to yeast infections.
3- It’s also a good idea to mark the corner of one side of the dental dam with a letter like “L” or “P” (for pussy!) or anything else that does not look the same when flipped over. That is, don’t mark it with an “X” or “A” (for ass!) because you won’t necessarily be able to tell which side of the dam you have marked. The convenience of this little trick will become apparent the first time you set aside a used dental dam to pursue other sexual activities only to pick it up later in order to resume oral sex. It is important to remember what side of the dam was against your lover’s flesh and what side of the dam was against your mouth because if you flip it over, that does defeat the whole purpose of this exercise in safer sex. Alternatively, you can keep a little stack of dental dams ready and on hand (that’s my method).
4- Apply ample lube to the area being orally pleasured. Don’t be stingy! The wetter the better! This will make it feel much slicker, squishier, and generally nicer for the receiver instead of feeling like being licked by rubber. Also, the dental dam will mold much more nicely against the surface as the lube will attract the thin membrane of the dam, suctioning it against all the delightful nooks, crannies, and crevasses, so that the giver can also get a much nicer view of the layout of the land. Otherwise, sometimes air pockets will prevent the dam from that wonderful form fitting suction and it may look more just like a square piece of rubber instead. FYI, the latex dams mold much more nicely than the polyurethane ones.
5- Spread the outer labial lips or butt cheeks, and lay the dental dam against the vulva or anus. And here is also where practice makes perfect. Expect it to be a little awkward the first time. Depending on your learning curve, perhaps it will be awkward the first few times! It can be tricky holding the membrane in place while licking, nibbling, and sucking. Another challenge you may encounter is breathing. Of course, this can be a challenge while engaging in oral sex even without a dental dam! Until you figure out the perfect positioning, though, with every inhale, you may find a sheet of latex suctioned to your nostrils preventing the oxygen intake that you desire. Nay! Require. Sometimes sliding or folding the dam down just below your nose can help.
6- Something else that can help with some of these challenges is creating a “harness” for the dam. One method is using a garter belt and fastening the front two garter straps to the top of the dam, and the back two garter straps in through your thighs to attach to the bottom of the dam.
7- Regardless of what you do, sex is messy. It is difficult to contain all those bodily fluids, especially if one is a squirter, gusher, or otherwise ample in their love juices! You do the best you can, though! And really, every little bit does help!
Where does one get dental dams and what can one use as an alternative or in a pinch?
As mentioned earlier, dental dams can be difficult to find as they are not a very popular safer sex tool, and so most sex toy stores and drugstores simply don’t bother stocking them. However, many of the smaller and more progressive women and GLBTQI-friendly sexuality shops do carry them (like Jellywink!). Call ahead if you want to be sure. Furthermore, most Planned Parenthoods and local GLBTQI health, wellness, and community centers have free safer sex supplies, including dental dams.
But it’s the middle of the night, the moment is hot, and you’ve found yourself without them. Or perhaps there is simply nowhere in your town that carries them. Fret not! There are many alternatives and sometimes these alternatives are actually preferred methods.
1- Cut apart a latex or nitrile glove. Do this by cutting off all the long fingers (leave the thumb), cut up along the pinky side of the glove, and then unfold it to lay flat. The thumb that you have left intact, can serve as a nice pocket for the tongue to do some internal exploring.
2- Plastic cling wrap! Not only is this an option as an oral sex barrier, but you can do other fun things with it as well! A cling wrap bikini! Clink wrap bondage!
Honestly, there is no definitive research regarding cling wrap as an effective barrier for oral sex. However, I am putting it in this list as it still is better than using absolutely nothing. The reason the jury is out is because technically, plastic wrap is a semi-permeable material. Many sex educators will tell you that you need to use non-microwavable plastic wrap. Frankly, I have no idea what they’re talking about. You will not be able to find a non-microwavable plastic wrap in any typical grocery store. However, there are two basic kinds of plastic wrap: PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and LDPE (low density polyethylene). PVC is clingier and more toxic (leaches BPA and chlorine). This was the material that was most commonly used until about 10 years ago, but is still often used in commercial kitchens. This material is more permeable to oxygen. LDPE is what you will now typically find in the grocery store brand cling wraps. This material is not quite as clingy and is technically more permeable to water and oil molecules. The operative word is molecules. Is this enough to carry with it any virus or other infection? According to the Center for Disease Control, plastic wrap is an effective barrier against HIV but it is undetermined how effective it is against the herpes virus. Lack of research does not mean that it is ineffective. And if your other option is using nothing, plastic wrap is guaranteed to be more effective! Regardless, it is wise to visually scan an area for any sign of herpes outbreak or any other outbreak, and make your decisions accordingly from there.
3- Again, in sex educator circles, you will hear that cutting apart a condom can make an effective dental dam. I call B.S. Too small! Unless you’re okay with a little runway for your tongue. However, cutting up a female or “innie” condom will do in a pinch because it’s larger. Part of me believes that if you have a female condom handy, though, you likely already have a dental dam handy. I could be wrong.
In conclusion, free dental dams!
So now you know so much more about dental dams. If you’d like to put your knowledge to practice, Jellywink Boutique is offering free dental dams for a limited time.
Ally Booker is a pleasure activist. She is passionate about educating herself and others on cool sexuality related things like communication skills, creating and respecting boundaries, sexual self-determination, destigmatization, gender and sexual expressions, sex toy use and safety, and all the other mechanics of pleasure. You can often find her milling around her Tucson shop, Jellywink Boutique, 418 E. 7th St., (888) 874-6588.