Today’s blog explores safer sex options for women who have sex with women, how practical they are and potential future innovations to better address this need.
While it’s true that sex between women carries a lower risk of contracting an STI than other types of sex, that doesn’t mean it’s risk free. Stonewall research (2008) reported that less than half of women who have sex with women had been tested for STIs, but of those that had been tested, half had been diagnosed with an STI. Latest PHE data showed that in 2014 bisexual and lesbian women account for only 6% of overall LGBT visits to sexual health clinics. Conversely, 40% of women who had exclusively female partners had an STI diagnosis in clinics, in contrast to only 18% of heterosexual women (PHE, 2013).
There’s a clear advantage for women who have sex with women to practise safe sex, particularly if they are with a new partner and haven’t both recently been tested.
While the the risk of contracting HIV from oral sex is very low, there are a number of STIs which are known to be transmitted through oral sex. These include bacterial vaginosis, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, herpes and HPV.
Cancers of the throat are on the increase and these are more likely to be caused by HPV, which is transmitted sexually. Oral dams are a piece of latex that is placed between the mouth of the person giving oral sex and the genitals of the person receiving. They give either partner protection from STIs. If you aren’t able to buy an oral dam (and not all pharmacies stock them!), a condom can be cut up and used instead, however, they may not be as effective this way. We checked out a couple of Reddit threads and overwhelmingly women who have sex with women say dental dams can be tricky or less pleasurable to use and many don’t bother.
Another way STIs can be spread through sexual contact is via digital penetration. First up, give your hands a good wash before you put them near someone’s bits. Keeping nails shorter will also reduce the risk of scratching or tearing a partner. It’s also a good idea to wear latex gloves (or look for a non latex option if you’re allergic) to avoid transmitting STIs, particularly where practices like fisting are involved as they can create greater risk of tears.
If you are sharing sex toys with a partner it’s not only hygienic to give them a good clean in between uses, but can help reduce the risk of STI transmission. Hot water is a given, but do check the instructions that come with the toy - you may also be able to use a sex toy cleaning spray.
A brighter future for the oral dam?
We talked to Anisha Gupta, a fourth year dentistry student at King’s College on a mission to make an improved oral dam. She hopes to make protected oral sex an easier and more pleasurable experience. She got interested in oral prophylactics as dentists began to see an increase in oral cancers in their practices.
Building on the standard oral dam, Gupta and fellow student, Carly Billing created three new designs for the dental dam. Two of the designs modified a latex dam to create a wearable single use mask. The third got a bit more experimental, hacking a textured swimming cap to explore how different materials could promote greater pleasure and sensation.
Anisha and Carly have also considered other modifications that could improve the dental dam. For example, lubricants could be added or the dam could administer a lip plumping treatment or even antiviral medication. Gupta said:
“We wanted to show that an oral dam didn’t just have to be utilitarian product but something that could enhance your sex life”
The dams look great - with a cheekier lip shape design and then a more feminine lace frilled version - you could see them both on the shelves at Boots and alongside sex toys in erotic and adult stores.
Where can I get one?
Well, you can’t. Yet. The next steps for the new dental dam will be to create a better prototype. The originals were handmade by Billing and Gupta so creating something on scale would be a bigger challenge. They’d then want to test the dams with real users so that they can modify and adapt feedback to improve the experience. While the dams will be single use, Gupta does have some ideas about how these could be modular, so that the mask can be washed and reused while the dam itself is replaced. These would need to be tested to ensure materials and design meet hygiene and safety requirements.
We're really excited about this innovation, especially plans to test with users and adapt - until then you can use the methods we described as well as testing for STIs at least once a year or whenever you change partners.