It might seem like that would spell doom for the dental dam. But it has managed to live on: first as a staple of sex education, but now as a symbol of sex positivity for queer women—whether or not anybody ever uses them.
Sanford Barnum invented the rubber dental dam in 1864 to isolate individual teeth from saliva during dental surgery. For more than a century, the product’s use seems to have been limited to dental operations. But in the late 1980s, as millions of gay men began dying of AIDS, safe-sex advocates adopted the dental dam for an entirely new purpose.
It’s not clear who initiated this reinvention, which appears in records of gay media and activism as early as 1988. Clive Woodworth, the managing director of the Australian condom-manufacturing company Glyde Health, claims he invented the modern dental dam in 1993 after lesbians asked him for their own safe-sex product.
“They didn’t understand why companies like mine were selling sexual-health products for everyone but lesbians,” Woodworth says. “They were tired of cutting up condoms and saran wrap because they didn’t like the idea of fluid being transmitted without a barrier.”
At this time, there was no scientific consensus around HIV transmission, so as the epidemic killed millions of gay men, gay women thought they might be next.
“Lesbians were like, ‘Hey, we need services too! We don’t know what we need them for, but we need them,’” says Katie Batza, the author of Before AIDS.
In the nearly four decades since, science has shown that HIV is practically impossible to transmit between women, and dental dams were more a product of AIDS panic than of genuine medical necessity. But dental dams are still around, even if not because of consumer demand.
Their potential to prevent more common STDs has gone largely unrealized. Juliet Richters, a former professor of sexual health at the University of New South Wales, is one of few researchers who have performed quantitative research on dental-dam use. In one of her studies, she found that among 330 Australian women who had sex with women, only 9.7 percent had ever used a dental dam, and just 2.1 percent used them often. In another study, Richters found that only 4 percent of women prisoners in New South Wales had used the device. For context, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 93 percent of American women who have had sexual intercourse have used a condom at least once, though just 17 percent of people had used a condom for oral sex.
Richters wasn’t surprised by the results; she had never thought that dental dams were widely used. “They used to give out dental dams at lesbian events, but nobody took them,” Richters says. “You’d find them all left on the floor.”
From a medical perspective, it makes sense that dental dams aren’t highly sought after. Cunnilingus is one of the safest forms of sex in terms of STD transmission. Minkin, the Yale School of Medicine professor, says this is likely because the labia tissue is more similar to external skin than the internal tissue exposed during anal or vaginal sex, and thus less susceptible to STD transmission.