What Are Dental Dams, and How Do They Work?

Welcome to Lesbian Sex 101, Autostraddle’s series on how to have lesbian sex for queer women and anyone who finds this information applicable to their bodies or sexual activities.

Sex ed almost never includes queer women or our experiences, so with this series we’re exploring pleasure, safety, relationships and more to make that information more accessible. A lot of the language we’ll be using in these posts is intended to make them easy to find on search engines.

Some of the body parts we talk about will be yours or your partners’ and some won’t. Some of the pronouns will be yours or your partners’ and some won’t. Some of the sexualities will be yours or your partners’ and some won’t. Some of the language will be yours or your partners’ and some won’t. Take what you want and what applies to you or what you can make apply to you and your partners and your experiences, and leave the rest!


You know what’s awesome? Putting your mouth all over a vulva or asshole. You know what are terrifying? Drug-resistant superbugs.

Untreatable, antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is on the rise and spreading globally, according to reports from the World Health Organization. An estimated 78 million people are infected each year with the STI, with side effects that mainly affect people with uteruses. Antibiotic-resistant chlamydia and syphilis are also keeping researchers up at night. Risks for STI transmission are usually higher with penis-in-vagina or penis-in-asshole sex, but they’re still very much present for mouth-on-vulva, mouth-on-asshole, vulva-on-vulva, and fingers-or-toys-on-slash-in-vagina sex.

You already know that penis-in-vagina sex can spread STIs, but a lot of people still believe that sex between two people with vaginas, which describes most (but not all) lesbian sex as well as sex involving trans men or non-binary people with vaginas, can’t result in STI transmission.

Lesbian sex has little to no presence in most sex education (or research), which means a lot of misinformation and erasure and potential harm. So here it is: women can give each other STIs. Women can give each other HPV (which can cause cervical cancer if you have a cervix) and HSV-1 and HSV-2 (herpes), and in fact women who have sex with women might be at a greater risk for HSV-1 because of all the oral, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Women can give each other HIV, with trans women especially at risk for it. Women can also give each other syphilis (likely through oral), chlamydia and gonorrhea (more possible with mouth to penis, also possible with mouth to vulva). And bacterial vaginosis is more common among people with vaginas whose partners also have vaginas, basically because vaginal microflora Uhaul, too.

Pretty much any way two or more women can have sex is also a way they can give each other STIs. Which means that if you haven’t thought about safer oral sex with vulvas and assholes, it’s time to start. (Also go get tested. Right now. I’ll wait.) And the best way to make lesbian sex safer is a dental dam.

turquoise dental dam folded into a chevron shape

What Is A Dental Dam?

Dental dams are thin square latex, polyurethane, or nitrile barriers that stop fluid transmission during oral sex — cunnilingus or analingus. “They help create a physical barrier, similar to an external condom or an internal condom, between any bodily fluid and the mouth,” says Lilian Rogers, program director at the Centre for Sexual Pleasure and Health. They’re also — assuming you use them correctly — as effective as condoms, at a rate of 82%.

“I highly encourage dental dams as a great form of barrier,” says Rogers. “They’re one of those things that often get left behind as an important part of safer sexual health. If you’re worried about fluid contact with a partner if you’re not fluid bonded, dental dams can be really really great at facilitating awesome sexytimes without actually worrying too much about fluid transmission.”

yellow dental dam folded into a chevron shape

How Can Square Latex Oral Sex Protection Be Sexy?

Safer sex is hotter sex, period. But it’s hotter if you do it right.

Demonstrations and casual instructions for dental dams often show them stretched wide and taut, which is a great way to use them if you like feeling like you and your partner are licking each other on an alien exam table. Instead, the dam should nestle closely around the genitals. For instance, for vulvas, start by applying lube to the labia and especially around the clit, gently placing the dam over the vulva and pressing it lightly into the crevices. Treat the set-up like a tease, rather than a task. For the giving partner, this makes it feel sexier — like your mouth is against a real live person right there instead of just latex — and makes it easier to create a range of sensations. And for the receiving partner, it makes the stimulation feel far more direct. “Mak[e] sure the dental dam conforms to the person’s body to increase the amount of stimulation they’re getting. If you hold it all stretched out, you’re sort of poking with your tongue into this stretched-out piece of latex and it’s not quite as effective,” says Rogers.

During oral sex, someone has to keep the dental dam in place. If it’s the giving partner, make sure to find a position where your head, neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists will all be comfortable for a long time. On a bed, angle your partner’s hips up toward you using pillows or sex furniture like the foam Liberator wedge. But your partner sitting on a desk or table while you sit in a low chair; your partner sitting on (or for anal play, bending over) the edge of the bed while you sit or kneel on the floor; and your partner sitting on your face while you lie comfortably on a bed are all positions that can make keeping a dental dam in place easier. The receiving partner can also hold it in place, as long as you don’t get too distracted to keep it there. And if everyone’s feeling too distracted or wants to use their hands for other things, strap-on harnesses without a strap-on, particularly those with straps that fork open around the crotch, can help.

magenta and coral dental dam folded into a chevron shape

Where To Buy Dental Dams

Dental dams are single-use barriers and not commonly sold in drug stores, so they can be kind of a pain to find. In my experience, even sex shops are often sold out, or only have latex or flavoured options. If latex plays nice with your and your partners’ bodies, try Glyde (unflavored) latex dental dams and Glyde flavoured latex dental dams, both of which are vegan, or Trust Dam, which also has flavoured latex options.

But what if you’re cringing at the flavoring because it seems to play into a history of shaming vulvas for tasting and smelling like vulvas? What if you love the taste of fake strawberries but are prone to yeast infections, bacterial vagisnosis or UTIs, making flavored or scented barriers a bad option? What if you have a latex allergy and need something a little more nitrile? What if your partner is coming over in a few hours and the sex shop is sold out and closed and you don’t have whatever delivery options are faster even than Amazon Prime and all you both want is oral and things are getting real?

You can make your own dental dams out of safer sex items that are much easier to find. To turn a condom into a dental dam, snip off the tip, make a full cut lengthwise, and unfold it into a sheet. With internal condoms, cut off the top and remove the top plastic ring, remove the bottom plastic ring, make a cut lengthwise, and unfold. And with gloves, cut off the top with the fingers and make another cut lengthwise — if you leave the thumb, you can use it to help you hold the dental dam in place.

The main things to pay attention to with condoms is the material — latex, nitrile, or polyurethane? — whether they have spermicide — avoid it, it tastes gross and will make your mouth numb and ineffective — and size — because bigger condoms make bigger dental dams. Skyn condoms are latex-free, and Glyde condoms are vegan.

You can also make DIY dental dams out of plastic wrap, as long as it’s not microwaveable. “Microwaveable plastic wrap is meant to be porous, so it doesn’t protect quite as well — really not at all — against STIs,” says Rogers.

magenta dental dam folded into a chevron shape

Okay, But Seriously, Does Anyone Really Use Dental Dams? They Still Seem Kinda Weird

Honestly? It’s hard to say. I, personally, use them when I have oral with partners to whom I’m not fluid bonded, which also isn’t very often. Rogers tells me that “they go really quickly when we bring them to tabling. People are excited to see them and they do go fast, so there are definitely people out there using dental dams.”

But according to Autostraddle’s 2015 Ultimate Lesbian Sex Survey open to queer women and people who identified with that experience, less than 6% of respondents reported using dental dams (and 73% just didn’t use protection at all), while 87% reported giving and 82% reported receiving oral sex with unspecific genitals. A few people expanded, noting, “I’ve asked about dental dams at the doctor’s and they looked at me like I was insane,” “I tried to use a dental dam once” and “I have used dental dams in past relationships, but not recently.”

But do you really want to stay on a sinking safety ship just because everyone else at the orgy is doing it?

Dental dams are part of queer safer sex, easy to make yourself for babe points and — when used correctly — super hot. If you’re not using them to protect yourself and your non-fluid-bonded partners, it’s time to start.


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Profile gravatar of Carolyn Yates

Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Editor and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com. Her writing has appeared in Bitch, Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 804 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. I’ve read (but haven’t had the chance to try) in Trans Bodies, Trans Selves that using a dental dam (or plastic wrap) can be a good option when going down on trans women, both ’cause it’s a way to flatten outtie bits onto the body to stimulate them in different ways and ’cause it can be gender-affirming. Maybe other folks can comment more about that but it seemed worth mentioning!

  2. Thank you for this. I am someone who’s always been very paranoid when it comes to stds and therefore very strict about taking necessary precautions, and although I do stress out more about it if I am having sex with a man, having sex with a woman is not a reason to completely throw safe sex out the window! But whenever I mention it with women (whether it be dental dam or another method) they look at me like I’m an alien haha.

  3. Do these tips also apply to anilingus?

    Also, reminded of this article from a few years ago going into the history of dental dams and why it’s not used or as common as it should be(author is a queer woman fyi and now works for Vice on HBO last I checked).

  4. This is a great article! I should really be using them (if I ever try to date again)

    I’ve never heard the words “fluid bonded” before. I get what it means but I just feel like it’s taken from some omegaverse fanfic… (I’m hyper-associative, don’t mind me)

  5. I have a question! Why are dental dams called that? I feel like teeth aren’t something you particularly want involved in oral sex. Why aren’t they called oral dams or buccal dams or something more accurate?

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