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.
“Their concerns were that there was nothing for women, particularly for lesbian woman who wanted to perform sexual acts on each other,” Woodworth recalls of the 1993 trio, “other than cut-up condoms, or what you Americans refer to as ‘Saran wrap.’” They were also dissatisfied substituting with dams that dentists used, because they were “too small, too thick, and not very sensual.” These women, Woodworth says, were “understandably annoyed.”
After the encounter, Woodworth set out to design a better dental dam, one larger and thinner than those used by dentists. In 1994, the first Sheer Glyde Dams hit the Australian market — one year before Line One Laboratories, a US-based condom company, completed its own version. “I went to the dentist and he put a dental dam into my mouth,” says Budiman Lee, founder of Line One Laboratories. “And because I had been making condoms since 1990, I thought you could come up with a bigger condom shape and cut it into a square” that could be used for oral sex.
Lee’s experience points to an important fact: the dam was never intended to be used during oral sex. Originally invented by Sanford Barnum in 1864, the "rubber dam" was built to isolate a tooth from the rest of the oral cavity. But that didn’t stop people from co-opting the device for oral sex more than a century later, during the HIV epidemic of the 1980s. During that period, the New York Times made brief mention of dental dams for oral sex in an article called "Women and AIDS: Discussing Precautions." Two decades later, the paper of record referred to the product as the "unimaginably awkward dental dam."
Clearly, redesigning the dental dam specifically for oral sex hasn’t done much for the product’s image. In New York, it’s rarely mentioned by patients at Planned Parenthood: requests for dental dams occur about five times a month, says spokesperson Adrienne Verrilli, compared to the almost daily requests for condoms. Even queer women seem to prefer cheerleading the dam’s existence to actually purchasing it. "We started distributing dental dams in 2003 at places like parties," says Annaliese Constable, a coordinator for the Lesbian and Same-Sex Attracted Women’s Sexual Health Project at ACON, an Australian health organization. But it soon became clear that "the dams were not being used." So, in 2006, after spending about $1,500 a year to buy 3,000 dental dams, the project stopped including them in safe-sex packs.
Today, the project distributes a mere 400 dams each year. Women ask coordinators about dams, Constable says, but seldom take them home. "They just want to know there is a service that has something for them and represents them," she says, even if they don’t actually want to use the product.
redesigning the dental dam hasn't done much for the product's image
Yet of all examples of the dam’s meager acceptance, its use in Australian women’s prisons might be the most telling. In a rare instance, prisons in New South Wales started stocking dental dams after a local court ruled that men’s prisons had to be supplied with condoms. But a study found that only 4 percent of incarcerated women use the dams during oral sex with other inmates. "Women use them as little mats in their rooms," says Juliet Richters, a sexual health researcher at the University of New South Wales and co-author of the study. "They are having no effect in terms of prevention for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)."
If women who are incarcerated don’t use them, and Planned Parenthood can’t give them away for free, then it shouldn’t be surprising that major US drugstores don’t carry dental dams at all. But that doesn’t mean dam companies haven’t tried: in 1998, Glyde’s US representative, Barbara Lippert, pitched the dams to multiple companies, including CVS and Walgreens. "The drugstores won’t pick ‘em up and that’s really the shame of it," she says. Lippert recalls one representative saying "never in his lifetime" in reaction to stocking the dams, while another said "they can cut up a condom if they want.’" She sent him a box of condoms and a pair of scissors in response, along with a note saying "you try it."
Representatives from CVS and Walgreens couldn’t confirm these 1998 interactions, but Phil Caruso, a representative at Walgreens, said that "at this time, we do not carry the Sheer Glyde Dam throughout our chain," and that the decision is "based on a number of factors including customer demand."
Demand might be low because medical experts still aren’t sure how well the dams actually work. "Usually when people start doing promotion for a health-prevention product, it’s because there is something to prevent," Richters says. But there have been few reported cases of female-to-female transmission of HIV — the latest of which was announced by the CDC last week — meaning there isn’t much "evidence of need" for queer women.
Of course, a number of STIs can be acquired through oral sex, including herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and gonorrhea. But because dental dams are marketed largely to queer women, Richters says, researchers have failed to look at its effectiveness as a safe-sex barrier. The threat posed by these STIs, in this population, simply isn’t high enough to prompt a thorough investigation. Even Richters questions whether the dental dam is actually worth the trouble. "Why you would use dental dams instead of cling wrap is unclear to me."
Although the Sheer Glyde Dam has never undergone a controlled clinical trial, it was submitted to several tests before being sold in the US. According to Morgan Liscinsky, an FDA spokesperson, these tests included biocompatibility along with mechanical and viral penetration studies. But none of these were done with human subjects, largely because dental dams were able to piggyback off of the condom’s previous approval to gain FDA clearance. Currently, the FDA’s position on dental dams is that although they "may help prevent the transmission of STIs" when used correctly, "they do not eliminate the risk."
"why you would use dental dams instead of cling wrap is unclear to me."
The FDA’s uncertainty hints at the difficulties inherent in studying a product designed for oral sex. For an experiment to work, Richters explains, you would need a very large number of monogamous couples in which one partner has an STI. These couples would also need to limit their sexual activities to oral sex alone for long periods. Richters also blames a lack of funding for the insufficient knowledge regarding the risks of STI transmission between queer women. "It’s hard to get grant money when people don’t die of being lesbians," she says.
According to Lee and Woodworth, the dental dam business is increasingly lucrative. Line One Laboratories is selling up to 300,000 dams a month, Lee says, while Woodworth notes that Glyde sells close to 100,000. Moreover, Woodworth says that the dams are now entering new markets. "We just shipped 460,000 dams to El Salvador," he says. "It’s a staunchly Catholic country, so it’s pretty surprising."
Other data isn’t so promising. At notorious New York sex shop Babeland, dental dams represent only 2 percent of the store’s 2013 safe-sex inventory, according to co-founder Claire Cavanah. The company currently sells them for $1.75 each — more than twice the price of a single condom in their online store. And many sex shops don’t stock dams at all.
dental dams do serve a purpose, albeit one more symbolic than practical.
If Glyde really was the first company to produce a sex-specific dental dam, then the latex square is turning 20 this year. So despite its limited availability, image problem, and unknown effectiveness, the dam probably isn’t going anywhere.
And that may be a good thing. 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. All too often, says ACON coordinator Constable, services aren’t adequately informed to deal with lesbian sexual health, "or lesbians in general." They might not use it, but the dental dam remains a product they can point to and feel acknowledged. As Constable puts it, "it’s about wanting to be reassured that we are worth something."