When was the last time you used a dental dam?
If your answer is "Sorry, WTF?" you're not alone. Among my friends, at least, responses to this query ranged from "Is this still a thing?" to "I've literally never seen one in my life!"
A dental or oral dam is a sheet of latex, sometimes flavored, that you hold in place over your partner's genitals while licking. If you don't engage in much cunnilingus or rimming then your need for one is probably pretty low. But even among those who do, there is little enthusiasm.
"My ex-girlfriend and I tried dams for fun once but putting a sheet of latex over your lover's bits is inherently a turn-off," says Susie. "I'd read that you could suck it to form bubbles under the latex and it kind of felt good but it was a laugh, rather than anything erotic. We never wanted to do it again."
Others were more vehement. "They squick me out!" confesses Gryph. "I generally consider myself to have good safe sex practices but dental dams is where I fall down. I can make condoms fun, gloves are hilarious, but a sliver of latex that looks like it belongs in the bin of a burns unit? No."
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This attitude come as no surprise to fourth year dentistry student Anisha Gupta at King's College London. Inspired by the work of Taiwanese artist and dentist Kuang-Yi Ku, who created an orthodontic retainer to increase pleasure during fellatio, she and classmate Carly Billing set out to design a better, sexier version of the dental dam.
"The main problem is that they are clumsy and unintuitive," she told me. "Many don't find them sexy, whether that's the taste of rubber or the texture, and you have to hold it in place so you haven't got your hands free. Having to faff about doesn't exactly get everyone in the mood."
Sex worker Lila uses dams for rimming male clients ("because I don't trust them to wash themselves properly!") but finds them tricky. "If I don't pay enough attention while pressing it down I end up with a faceful of client arse," she complains.
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Gupta and Billing looked into designing a dam that could be worn like a face mask—negating the need to hold it down—while combining textures and materials that enhance sensation.
"We wanted to make them pretty. By adding things like lace, frills, and the pink and black colour scheme it's not dissimilar to lingerie," Gupta says. "We also looked at making them pleasurable as well as functional, so for the final design we incorporated a textured rubber. It's actually cut from a pink swimming hat with bobbles on it!"
The designs are only concepts, and they are not yet useable. The next stage, Gupta explains, would be to create prototypes that could be tested for function and safety. Then they could look into designs and textures and start marketing the dams. But who would buy them? Gross-out factor aside, dams are not readily available in Boots and even sexual health clinics don't always offer them.
Lila says she's never been advised to use one. "Sex worker specific clinics give them out for free," she says. "But I don't bother with them outside of work and I don't think I've ever been offered one in a GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinic." This certainly rings true for me and to others I spoke to.
"Dental dams were a thing when I was younger," recalls one friend. "They used to give them out at Pride but I don't know anyone who has used one 'in the wild.' No one's even mentioned them for about ten years."
The risk of contracting HIV through oral sex is very low but other STDs such as genital warts, herpes and HPV (human papilloma virus) can be transmitted. Last year, a study in the JAMA Oncology medical journal showed that the presence of a certain type of HPV in the mouth makes the development of oropharyngeal (throat) cancers 22 times more likely, with oral sex (specifically cunnilingus) being the main cause of transmission. And in 2013 research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology linked a third of head and neck cancer cases to HPV.
"As dentists we advise on oral health behaviors such as alcohol use and smoking," Gupta says. "Increasingly HPV is overtaking those as the biggest risk for throat cancer, so it should be on the agenda."
Gupta's interest also comes from being a bisexual woman working in a healthcare system that often overlooks women who have sex with women. "A lot of the sexual health advice is marketed towards heterosexual couples, and the LGBT advice that does exist tends to focus on gay men," she says. "Deciding to add more feminized details [to the protoype], such as the lace, was a deliberate attempt to address that."
Sexual health nurse Emma Fletcher is on the clinical team at online sexual health service SH:24 and has worked in sexual health clinics across London. She admits advice tends to focus on penetrative sex. "The risk of transmission of STIs from oral sex is a lower than that of penetrative sex but I always reiterate that low risk does not mean no risk," she says. "I tend to talk about dams with people who have told me that cunnilingus and rimming are part of their sexual activity."
Gupta acknowledges that most people don't consider oral sex risky enough to bother with protection but she hopes that by sexing up the dam they might encourage people to use it for pleasure. "Ideally we'd like it to be a registered medical device because as healthcare professionals that's important to us," she says. "But maybe the way to break in is to market it as a sex toy."
Tempted? "I think making them cute, colorful, patterned would be a terrific idea," says Lila. "The texture is the biggest thing that needs changing in my opinion. Perhaps they could come with a sachet of lube to mimic the moisture of a tongue?"
Gryph is also enthusiastic: "These look fantastic! Wearing it like a surgeon's mask—that opens up a whole realm of possibilities and you can change position without too much trouble! But can we please come up with a different name for them? Dental Dam is horrid. How about Muff Mask?"