BY HEATHER DOCKRAY
Warning: the following post is NSFW. Unless everyone at your work is wasted.
The dental dam is dead, but it never really lived.
For many queer women, there's little to grieve. Although known, informally, as the "lesbian condom," a 2010 study found estimated that less than 10% of lesbian women have ever used them, and less than 2% regularly use them. The dental dam is designed to serve as a barrier during cunnilingus and analingus. But many people — straight and queer — don't even know what a dam is, forget how to use it.
SEE ALSO: Lesbians speculate wildly about straight sex
The dam may be dead, but there are real reasons why.
To start with, for many users, the product itself felt far too cumbersome, uncool, and unsexy. Dental dams are thin sheets, typically of rubber latex, sized 10" by 6." To wear it properly, a person needs to hold the dam firmly over their vulva or anus. Lube is recommended, but not required. “It's like a tablecloth for your vagina,” as one person described it to me. And most tablecloths don’t exactly scream “sex appeal” (sorry tablecloths).
“I’d rather get an STD than ever use a dental dam,” Stacey B. told Mashable.
Other users felt similarly.
“Why use dental dams when you can use saran wrap?”
“I tried using one once and I nearly choked to death.”
“Honestly, why don’t you use saran wrap.”
“I haven’t used a dental dam but I know someone who had one tattooed to her arm—do you want to speak with her?”
Dental dams were initially designed to protect people during dental procedures. But during the 1990's, companies like Glyde Health reinvented the dam, and began to target a newly emerging demographic: queer women. Though dental dams could be used by anyone, queer women were the product's primary audience. After all, gay men and straight couples had so much to chose from — condoms, ‘female condoms,’ diaphragms. Lesbians were at disproportionately low risk for certain kinds of STIs, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have needs. Straight, queer, everyone had to use protection. There just had to be a product for them to buy.
It’s not just the construction of the dam itself that stops people from using them – it’s the (perceived) nature of lesbian sex itself. Lesbian sex is commonly portrayed as "low-risk" — and not without reason. It’s much harder, though clearly not impossible, to transmit STIs oral or digital-vaginal sex. More than 5 billion condoms are bought worldwide every year, but many queer women forego dental dams altogether. The expenditure doesn’t seem worth it, because the risk doesn't appear to be there.
Of course, “low-risk” doesn’t mean no risk. To say, as my gynecologist once did, that lesbian sex poses “little danger,” relies on gross generalizations and outdated assumptions –- some more pernicious than others.
IMAGE: TAYLOR JONES/MASHABLE
Aimee Uchytil is a nurse practitioner at Callen-Lorde, one of New York City’s top healthcare providers for the LGBTQI population. For Uchytil, oral sex might have less risk than certain types of penetrative sex, but that doesn't mean it's without consequences.
“During oral sex, things can be contracted like herpes and human papilloma virus,” Uchyital said. “If the integrity of the skin is a little bit more open, oral sex can be more dangerous.”
Many providers, Uchytil added, make assumptions about who lesbian sex involves and what exactly happens. Not all lesbians are cis women, not all relationships are monogamous, and not all lesbians have strictly oral sex (in fact, most don’t). Diseases can be still be transmitted orally, anally, and by sharing an infected sex toy. But some medical intake forms only ask about heterosexual sex, or sex between gay men. Gynecologists aren't always prepared to treat queer women, and some feel uncomfortable asking for help or testing. That actually puts the population at a higher risk.
“I think that assumptions can be really detrimental for healthcare. Someone who identifies as queer and has a bad experience might not go back or routine follow-up … They might lie or leave,” Uchytil told Mashable.
There's so much room for improvement. As you can tell from the three women in the video above, dental dams aren't exactly the prophylactic panacea queer women dream of. To make the video above, I had to go shopping at four separate locations (CVS, a medical clinic, and two sex stores). I only found about 10 dental dams, each covered in an ancient layer of dust. Some queer women prefer to use reconfigured condoms, or even saran wrap.
So talk to your partner(s). Get tested regularly. Dental dams may not be pretty (correction: they are definitely not pretty). But you should never protect yourself from protection.