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Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009

Dam It, Janet

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What’s the current stand on plastic wrap as a dental dam? There's the “non-microwavable” thing [using non-microwavable plastic wrap instead of microwavable], which I thought referred to the days of yore when plastic wrap that was microwavable had visible perforations in it. Non-microwavable plastic wrap doesn’t even exist anymore, does it? I still see legit sex ed Web sites referencing it, though. Also, I'm finding mixed info on whether viruses are small enough to pass through plastic wrap. Any thoughts?

For those unfamiliar with "dental" dams (so called because they were originally used during dental work), they are rectangles of latex or polyurethane that can be held against the vulva during cunnilingus or against the anus during analingus or rimming. They act as a barrier to the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Many sexuality educators also say that common household plastic wrap can be used for the same purpose, or that you can cut open a condom to make a rectangle and use that.

Dental dams have been a frequent topic of discussion in my life recently, because my peer health educators believe that they're not commonly used or well-known, especially outside of the lesbian or queer communities. We just changed the safer sex kits that we distribute to include flavored condoms, flavored lubricant, instructions for cutting a condom into a dam, and information about STIs that can be transmitted during oral sex. We also stepped up our efforts to have dams available for free during our outreach events. Our hope is that the more people learn and hear about them, the more "normal" they'll seem, and it'll be less awkward to whip out that latex square when you're about to go down on someone.

The standard caution about not using "microwavable" plastic wrap as a safer sex barrier has almost reached urban legend status at this point. As I mentioned in last week's column about HIV prevention, safer sex messages have gone through many iterations over the past couple of decades. When dental dams were first re-purposed from the dentist's office by enterprising sex educators, there was indeed a brand of plastic wrap that was marketed as "microwavable" and that actually had visible perforations in it to allow steam to escape while food was cooking. Nowadays, plastic wrap that is labeled as microwavable is designed to withstand high heat and not melt if it comes into contact with hot food, but it is not any more porous than other plastic wrap. Most people probably don't even remember the perforated kind, but everyone's afraid to stop putting in that caveat about avoiding microwavable wrap in case they're wrong.

In terms of the efficacy of plastic wrap in preventing STIs, the only dam on the market that has actually been tested in this regard is the Glyde brand latex dam. This is why Glyde dams have clear instructions for use on them and are allowed to be labeled as a device that reduces the risk of STI transmission. Everything else, including polyurethane dams such as Hot Dam and Lixx as well as plastic wrap, is basically predicated on the common-sense idea that a nonporous plastic or latex barrier will prevent STIs, but there's been no scientific research to prove this, with the exception of Glyde.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns theTool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.

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