Oral history: the sexual misadventures of the dental dam

Mar 20, 2014
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the sexual misadventures of the dental dam

How the surgical tool was promoted (and failed) to become the face of oral intimacy

From an interesting profile in TheVerge — 

Were it not for the three queer women who accosted him at a sexual health conference in Canberra, Australia, Clive Woodworth likely wouldn’t remember the 1993 conference at all. As the founder and CEO of Glyde Health, Woodworth attended these events to promote the company’s safe-sex products; because this conference was geared toward empowering women, it was an ideal forum to promulgate the company’s newly coined condom slogan: “If it ain’t on, it ain’t on.” But when the women approached Woodworth with a special request, the gathering suddenly took on a bigger meaning. Because, according to him, it marked the moment the dental dam was reborn.

Originally devised for use during dental procedures, the dams are used to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) acquired through vaginal or anal licking. And even though most adults are aware of the dam’s existence — especially queer women, to whom the products are aggressively marketed — mentioning this particular latex product is more likely to elicit squirming or lewd comments than its penile counterpart, the condom.

That awkwardness may be linked to the apparent unpopularity of the product. A 2010 Australian study of 330 women, for example, states that 9.7 percent of queer women — defined as women who have sex with women — use dental dams during oral sex, and only 2.1 percent do so regularly. And research on dam use among heterosexuals and gay men (trans- and cisgender alike) is practically non-existent, which is either an indication of the dam’s unpopularity, or its inability to attract the attention of scientists and funding agencies.

dental dams have symbolic purpose

According to some, dental dams do serve a clear purpose, albeit one more symbolic than practical: they give queer women something of their own in a world that tends to dismiss their sexual health. They might not use it, but the dental dam remains a product they can point to and feel acknowledged.


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