Damn! Where’s the safety?
If you’ve been part of conversations concerning gay and bi women’s sexuality you probably heard about dental dams. Sometimes called glyde dams, they are small sheets of latex which act as a barrier to infection when performing oral sex on a woman. If you’re in college, or have been in the last few years, you may have come across them at college SHAG or Pride weeks, in the real world they can sometimes be spotted at LGBT Pride events or at safe sex workshops. But have any of you actually tried to buy them?
About a year ago my girlfriend and I began to talk about safe sex. If we were going to have sex we wanted to agree on – and have provide for – any safety precautions we felt necessary. Neither of us had any sexual history, so the risk we were exposing ourselves to was close to nil, but we both wanted to be familiar with safe sexual practices, and if it wasn’t something we wanted to maintain in our relationship then we’d make that decision later.
Stay safe ladies
Having no personal experience to draw on, we looked for guidance further afield, where we found few consistent answers regarding the risks or methods of protection.
Many people genuinely believe that lesbians do not get STIs. In the last four years I have addressed the question to two GPs; the first observed that I was unlikely to get pregnant and the second compared having sex with another woman to driving without a seatbelt at 10mph on a straight, empty road. Much as I am loathe to entrust my health to people who are qualified only by their typing skills and internet access, the web became the source we relied upon most heavily for information.
With no better way to judge the quality of advice, we took the advice that was most concurrent with our own assumptions. Dental dams were a common recommendation, and so we opted to try them. I expected dental dams would be tricky to find, as they are much less mainstream than condoms or the pill, but I reckoned some bigger shops in town, especially chemists, were likely to have them. A friend suggested that I might find dams in some of the sex shops around Dublin but, she warned, they were often out of date.
To hell with shy!
We started with pharmacies, although later expanded our search to supermarkets. I was shy at first, hoping to find them on the shelf without having to engage another human being in conversation. I soon became familiar with, and frustrated by, the incredible range of condoms that are available to purchase from pharmacies, supermarkets, corner shops, petrol stations, and public bathrooms, to name but a few.
One sunny afternoon last April I discovered sunscreen was not for sale in a small paper shop off St. Stephen’s Green but, I observed, there were eight different condom options available should I require them at my picnic. Not that I have any problem with the sale of condoms, it was just mind-boggling to me how available they were in contrast to how unavailable dams were.
My girlfriend and I live on opposite sides of Dublin city and between us we must have tried about a hundred pharmacies in the space of three months. I also took to popping into any pharmacy I passed by when visiting the UK. In time I worked up the nerve to address my enquiry to shop keepers and pharmacists, only to be met by a blank, baffled stare each time. In a fit of ungrounded optimism it occurred to me that my local pharmacist, whom I have known for over ten years, might be persuaded to stock dams in her shop if I asked.
That was a fun conversation. Initially she had no idea what I was asking for and made me repeat my request several times. She asked me to explain what they were, what they were for, and who made them. After five minutes rooting around in the stock room she returned with further questions – Could I write all that down for her? Was I sure they existed? I provided the names of manufacturers and any other information that seemed relevant before she disappeared into the back of the shop again.
It was a full quarter of an hour before she returned with the news that she had searched their computer databases and phoned three seperate suppliers but found nothing helpful. If none of her suppliers could help, she concluded, the chances were it would be a similar story in any other Irish pharmacy.
On the hunt
More sensible women, my girlfriend included,would have given up long before this point but I couldn’t drop it. I was genuinely appalled by how inaccessible dams seemed to be. Oral sex isn’t the sole preserve of the LGBT community, there must be thousands of straight women who enjoy oral sex – were they not concerned about infection? Or had they too spent months hunting for dams before deciding there were better ways to spend their time?
My primary motivation to find dental dams was no longer for my own use, but a fascination with their absence. It worried me that pharmacists were unaware of them, and that other women I knew thought they were a bit of a joke. I cannot help but feel that their (lack of) availability sends a dubious message about what sort of sex is important and what sort of sex is risk-free.
I was determined to find a source from which any Irishwoman could get dental dams should she ever want to. Shops were letting me down and I disregarded special events (SHAG week in Universities, sexual health workshops etc) because they are inaccessible to so many women, so I turned once more to the internet.
There are hundreds of online shops ready and willing to sell you anything you could possibly imagine adding to your sex life, and then some. Not all sites carried dental dams, but an encouraging number did. It seemed to be only a matter of picking the site with the lowest shipping costs and in twenty minutes or so my quest would be over. If only it were so.
I found no Irish sites that stocked dental dams, not one. Next I tried the online shop of Pasante, a small UK company who retail across Ireland and the UK, but to no avail. Apparently they could not ship to an Irish address. I sent Pasante a polite but incredulous email with a screenshot of the error and expanded my search. Time and time again, site after site, my address was rejected. Why would none of these websites post things to Ireland? I live in Dublin. Sure, it’s not London or New York, but it’s not exactly remote.
In a few weeks it got to the point where I would try to order from any site that stocked them, no longer expecting a result but fascinated to watch my address be rejected yet again. Even sites that I had successfully ordered from before – Amazon for example– could not seem to ship this particular item to me. I had a mental image of some giant spectres (the ghosts of Bishops past, perhaps?) floating about the Irish sea, sinking any ships that attempted to import such heathenous goods. It might sound cracked, but it was as logical as any other explanation I could come up with.
In the frame
It ruins a good tale to tell you that eventually I did track down a website that would sell me dams and post them to Ireland. Almost six months since I began looking for dental dams I pressed‘enter’ on a website that accepted my postal address ( here in case you’re interested). There were six, which arrived just over a week later. They had cost me almost twenty euro and many months in pursuit. Six months later they are still beside my bed in pristine condition. To hell with safe sex, I intend to frame them.