Reading Time: 3 minutes An image of a latex dental dam, from Wikimedia under Creative Commons license.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Maybe it’s because my sex education wasn’t as comprehensive as I’d thought (despite growing up in California). Maybe it just wasn’t discussed in the circles where I sexually came of age. Maybe there’s just no way to make it sound cool or sexy.

An image of a latex dental dam, from Wikimedia under Creative Commons license.
An image of a latex dental dam, from Wikimedia under Creative Commons license.

What’s the topic – teen pregnancy, or HIV, or…? Nope. Barriers for oral sex.

I won’t pester you overly much with the horrifying info about antibiotic resistant gonorrhea, which can infect your throat, or the data about how widespread cold sores (evidence of oral herpes) are, infecting up to 90% of the world’s adult population, according to the Mayo Clinic. There are very real risks to one’s health that come from mashing your face into another’s person’s body, whether it’s lip-to-lip contact, mouth-to-genitals, or what have you. Additionally, I don’t want to stigmatize STIs more than other transmissible things like the flu or mono.

Rather, the point of this post is to remind everyone that one way to have safer sex is to use barriers for oral sex. Hopefully everyone’s already making informed choices about whether and what kind of barriers to use for other kinds of sex (condoms or internal condoms for penetrative sex; gloves for putting your fingers inside someone vaginally or anally, and so on).

SexEtc. has a good run-down on why to use barriers for oral sex, noting that some viruses are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, not necessarily fluid-into-mouth contact, which might be good to know for folks who think “I can just go down on someone and disengage before they ejaculate in my mouth and be totally risk-free.” BlogHer has a good guide on how to use a dental dam, including a tip on making your own from a condom.

For performing oral sex on a penis, there are more flavored condoms available than ever before, and they don’t even all taste bad! For performing oral sex on a vulva, dental dams exist, but as my sex educator colleague Chris Pent has noted, they’re generally a pain (e.g. they’re liable to stick to your face and get inhaled when you breathe). The good news is, there’s a consensus among scientists and sex educators that saran wrap is a workable substitute. Check out the Youtube video in Pent’s post for a demonstration of just how non-porous saran wrap is.

So when are some times when you might want to use barriers for oral sex?

  • If you’re with a new partner and one or both of you doesn’t have recent STI results
  • If you think you might have a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, or something similar, and you want to protect your partner (as happened to me one time!)
  • If you’re in a fluid bond with a partner, which can include limiting not just genital-to-genital contact (e.g. wear a condom before penetrating someone) but also getting genital fluids in/on/around your mouth
  • If the person giving oral sex has what might be a cold sore or a bug bite or a pimple or a pimple that got cut while shaving and feels it’s better to be safe than sorry

Remember, casual sex doesn’t make you a bad person. But if you’re going to engage in it, you should be aware of and weigh the risks of STI transmission. And that might mean it’s worth adding oral barriers to your repertoire!

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Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...