Ask the Sexpert: Oct. 4, 2012
The other day, my girlfriend started talking about dental dams. All I know about dental dams is that they’re some kind of protection for oral sex. My high school health teacher always told us we should use them, but they seem kind of unnecessary. They sound hard to use and not very fun. Do they actually matter, or is it just one of those things you’re supposed to do but don’t really have to?— No Mouthguard, Please
Dear No Mouthguard,
You’re right — dental dams are a barrier method that protects against STIs. There’s a misconception that people only transmit and contract STIs through vaginal intercourse. In reality, however, you can transmit and contract STIs through any sexual contact, from kissing to oral sex to vaginal intercourse to anal sex. Herpes, for example, can easily be transmitted via oral-to-genital contact. If the “giver” of oral sex has an open sore on his or her mouth, he or she can transmit the herpes virus to the “receiver” of oral sex (and vice versa). Even if there are no visible sores or symptoms, herpes can be transmitted through a process called asymptomatic shedding. You can also transmit or contract HPV (which can lead to throat cancer as well as genital warts, cervical and other cancers), syphilis, gonorrhea, viral hepatitis and HIV through oral sex. If you’re engaging in oral sex, the best way to prevent transmission of STIs is by using a barrier method such as a condom or dental dam. Condoms cover the penis; dental dams cover the vulva or anus.
Contrary to what the name implies, a dental dam is not some kind of contraption that fits over your mouth or teeth during sex. It’s a rectangular sheet of latex that you stretch over your partner’s vulva or anus while performing oral sex. It provides a physical barrier between your mouth and your partner and protects against the transmission of STIs. Dental dams may sound unappealing, but they can actually be fun accessories to your sex life. Many people find it pleasurable when their partner lightly sucks, snaps or otherwise plays with the dental dam. Dental dams now come in a wide variety of flavors (including grape, strawberry and vanilla), which makes them more enjoyable for the person giving oral sex.
When using a dental dam, apply a small amount of water-based lubricant to the area the dental dam will cover. You can also use some flavored lube on the side that you or your partner will be licking. Stretch the dental dam over the vulva or anus and go to town! In order to effectively protect against STI transmission, make sure the side that contacts the vulva or anus remains the same throughout the entire act. If you switch partners or move to a different body part, get a new dental dam. When you’re finished, just throw the dental dam in the trash — not the toilet, which can clog.
If you don’t happen to have a dental dam lying around and are worried about possible transmission of STIs through oral sex, you can use a male or female condom as a substitute. Carefully use scissors to cut off the end of the condom and then cut vertically up the condom to make a rectangular sheet. Be sure not to poke holes in the condom with the scissors, since that would significantly reduce the efficacy of the dental dam. This can also be a good substitute for people with latex allergies, since female condoms and some male condoms are made out of polyurethane instead of latex.
In general, it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to STI prevention. If you and your partner are both 100 percent monogamous and have tested negatively for STIs since you’ve been together, you might not need to use a dental dam or condom when performing oral sex. If that’s not the case, however, it’s important to practice safe sex no matter what type of sex you’re engaging in. Dental dams and condoms are simple ways to do that. You can get both at University Health Services in McCosh Health Center and at the LGBT Center in Frist Campus Center, as well as from various stores and online retailers. If you’re concerned that you might have an STI, or if you simply want to get tested, you should make an appointment with UHS. Have fun, and be safe!
— The Sexpert
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