Rubber Chickens

Thanks to Michael Douglas, it’s a Great Day for Dental Dams

Michael Douglas inadvertently gave a great boost to the lowly prophylactic when he said oral sex gave him cancer. Eliza Shapiro on why the dental dam is finally having its day.

It’s a great day to be a dental dam maker. A what maker?

Much maligned and often ignored, the dental dam is the ugly stepchild of STD prevention: a sheet of latex that’s used during oral sex to prevent the spread of diseases, including HPV.

Had Michael Douglas used one, he might never have contracted life-threatening oral cancer, which he blamed on cunnilingus (singlehandedly making the word a trending topic on Twitter).

But while Douglas grossed out the entire Internet on Monday, he may have done a great service for the lowly dental dam and the companies that toil in obscurity to bring them to market. Some kids these days haven’t even heard of the prophylactic. They’re not “in high demand,” says Claire Cavanah, co-founder of Babeland, a sex shop with retail outlets in New York and Seattle. Cavanah says that might be because “cunnilingus is generally thought to be a low-risk sexual activity.”

Babeland stocks just one brand, in vanilla flavor. (If you’re into strawberry, try this one, or go here for banana and mint.) “Does anyone actually use dental dams?” is a top Google hit for the product, and even the most liberal sex-ed message boards are filled with jokes about the “sex killers” and “mental dams.”

On a Metafilter thread, one commenter took a thoughtful approach to the question of whether to consider dental dams: “It’s possible people are weighing the risks,” she wrote, “and just happen to rank ‘choking to death on a loose sheet of latex’ a worse outcome than ‘an occasional cold sore.’” Another shared a personal experience: “I stopped halfway through. When I inhaled at the wrong time and about killed myself with a piece of latex.”

Dental dams aren’t cheap—a pack of 12 goes for about $16.99—but there are supposedly homemade alternatives, like plastic wrap. The Internet is rife with helpful guides about how to make a DIY dental dam by cutting off the tip of a condom and then slicing it lengthwise.

While Planned Parenthood, the federal government, and college health websites have explanations on how to use dental dams and where to find them, some experts say they may not even be of much use in the first place.

“When it comes to spreading HPV, which doesn’t happen via a fluid transfer like AIDS, no matter what you put on, some part is exposed,” says Brian Hill, the executive director of the Oral Cancer Foundation. “As an ultimate solution, dental dams are not the answer.”

Hill says that unlike the threat of AIDS and other STDs, the risk of getting oral cancer from HPV is relatively low. Some 42,000 Americans developed oral cancer last year, Hill says, and out of those, it’s estimated that 12,000 to 15,000 had cancer caused by HPV. That’s out of hundreds of millions of sexually active Americans, Hill says, and 99 percent of the people who come in contact with HPV 16, the strain of the virus that can cause oral cancer, are immune to it in the first place. Says Hill, “There’s an unlucky 1 percent.”