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Condoms are one product in a family of products called Barrier Methods or Safer Sex Barriers...or, my personal favorite, Sex Shields! I like to use the term ‘sex shield’ largely because I like the way it sounds and the image it evokes for me. Every time I hear the phrase, I imagine a band of superheroes, standing in “V” formation, staring assuredly ahead, hair slightly blowing by way of some unseen heroic breeze. On their chests is emblazoned, “Team Safety!”
Proudly positioned at the head of our formation, hands on hips, cape fluttering in the breeze stands Captain Condom (oh yes, I am absolutely taking this superhero thing to its bitter, nerdy end...). This well-known, often-used, and much-loved safer sex barrier is an obvious choice for the leader of our fearless pack. I’m sure you could have guessed condoms would head up this small but formidable team! But what about the rest of the squad? Who are these other heroes of safe sexy times? They are definitely methods you want to get to know and have in your bedside drawer, but first, let’s make sure we really know the varied personalities of our fearless leader, Captain Condom.
Condoms have been around for centuries protecting against pregnancies and eventually, against sexually transmitted infections. While long ago they used to be made from a range of unusual animal parts, it’s very likely that the first condom you laid your hands on was made of latex. That’s because latex condoms are the most common, the least expensive, and the easiest to procure. Go into any drug store, gas station or supermarket and there you’ll find latex condoms. That’s not where the condom game ends though. Condoms are also available in a variety of other materials. Polyurethane condoms are made from a type of plastic that is stronger and thinner than latex. Polyurethane also transfers heat more effectively than latex. For some people, this equates to feeling like there is less of a barrier between them and their partner. More ‘natural’ sensation, if you will. Polyisoprene condoms are a newer alternative to latex condoms. They can be summed up as ‘synthetic latex’-- they look and feel almost the same but polyisoprene condoms have a reputation of being slightly more comfortable for some folks. If you have a latex allergy, these two alternatives are great options. Lambskin condoms also still exist but they’re harder to find these days and much more expensive. They also do not, I repeat, DO NOT protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). They are great at preventing babies though, so if that’s all you’re worried about, they’re an option.
Never knew condoms had so many faces, did you?! There are actually so many types of condoms, one of them has its own spot in my superhero lineup. Just behind Captain Condom, standing slightly to his right is his female counterpart, the internal condom (also sometimes called the female condom or receptive condom). Calling the internal condom the “female counterpart” to Captain Condom is somewhat misleading because I am gendering something that doesn’t need to be gendered. Female condoms are more inclusively called receptive or internal condoms because that is their purpose, which has nothing to do with being female. Case in point, everyone has a butt and anal sex is one great use for female condoms. Similarly, male condoms are more inclusively called “external condoms” because they can be used by anyone, not just men. So, as you can see, both can be used by someone of any gender on any number of body parts and toys. In any case, internal condoms are often marketed as female condoms, so it’s good to be aware of. Tangent aside, let’s meet the internal condom.
Made of nitrile, which is a synthetic rubber, these condoms are designed to be inserted into the vagina where they create a lining that keeps semen and STIs out. This condom’s special superhero talent lies in its ability to provide more protection against STIs than external, or male condoms. Once inserted into the vagina, the female condom extends outside the body and also covers the vulva, or external lady-parts. Because some STIs are spread through skin to skin contact and external condoms only cover the shaft of the penis, the fact that this condom covers more exposed skin is a major plus.
Another major plus? Extra pleasure! Internal condoms have an inner ring that helps with insertion and an outer ring that helps the condom stay in place. During vaginal sex, that outer ring can be positioned to rub against the clitoris while the inner ring provides extra stimulation to the head of the penis. The internal condom also has a reputation for feeling better than traditional condoms. Nitrile has been said to be superior to latex for its softness and ability to transmit body heat. It’s also more puncture resistant. And if all that wasn’t enough to convince you they’re great, female condoms can be inserted up to 8 hours before sex. A condom that doesn’t have to cause a pause in the action is a major hero in my book. Maybe internal condoms should be standing at the head of my imaginary sexual health superheroes squad...
Next up in our troop of sex shields superheroes…dental dams! I know, I know…unsexy name but an important member of Team Safety. If you’re someone who is performing cunnilingus (mouth to vulva oral sex) or analingus (mouth to anus oral sex) dental dams are something you should have on hand.
A lot of people falsely believe that STIs cannot be transmitted through oral sex. This erroneous idea holds even more weight when it’s oral sex on a vulva. Unfortunately, that’s not true. While it’s more likely for STIs to be transmitted through penetrative sex, if there are fluids and genitals involved, STI transmission is possible. And no need to take the risk with this friendly little safer sex barrier available for your use!
So what is a dental dam and how is it used?
Dental dams are small rectangles of latex (there are also non-latex options, just like with condoms) that are spread over the area that will be receiving oral stimulation. They are held in place with hands—either yours or your partners. Some are colored and flavored; others are not. Either way they keep your partners skin covered and their sexual fluids away from your mouth reducing the transmission of STIs. As with other sex shields, dental dams are for one time use only. Once you’re done, just throw it away.
Dental dams are a little harder to find which, coupled with the myth that STIs can’t be transmitted orally, makes for the fact that many of you might never seen one or even heard of them. Your best bet for finding dams is either online or at a local sexual health clinic in your community. Same thing goes for internal condoms, the other unsung hero of the sexual health world.
Having a hard time finding dental dams? Don’t have one on hand? Don’t want to spend the money on them? Fear not! Our troop of superheros like to stand in for one another when the going gets tough.
Condoms can easily be turned into a dam if you just have a pair of scissors. Simply unroll the condom just far enough to cut off the tip. Then, cut through the ring and unroll. Voila! You should have a rectangle of latex to use as a dental dam. If that was confusing, there are a plethora of videos on YouTube that can help you with visuals.
Finally, proudly standing its ground near the back of our heroic group is the oft-forgotten latex glove. Gloves, you say? Gloves! Gloves like the kind your doctor or dentist use when you go in for a visit. Don’t let their seemingly pedestrian image mislead you. Gloves can Get-It-ON!
Well known and loved in kink communities, gloves are used to reduce the risk of infection with manual sex (using your hands for sex). I will give you this one – it’s MUCH less likely that an STI will be transmitted through manual play but any good sex educator will tell you, if there are fluids involved, there’s risk of contracting an STI. So, put that in your back pocket...but put gloves in your front pocket because they are much more fun than just STI prevention. Let’s focus again on pleasure!
Latex or nitrile gloves are the go-to gloves for sexual play. Slip on a glove, add some water-based or silicone lube and think of all the slippery, silky pleasure you can impart on your partner (or partners). One of the reasons that they are loved in the kink community is that they make play with multiple partners easy and safe. Slip on a glove to pleasure one partner and then when you’re ready to play with someone else, simply toss the first glove, grab a new one and you’re off! No need to get up and wash your hands. This can also be useful if you’re going from anal to anything else. If you’re using a glove, you can avoid the part of the night where you have to jump up and scrub your hands with soapy water before touching your partner with that hand again. It eases the transition between sex acts and/or partners...again, anything that makes sex easier, sexier, and safer is a serious superhero in my book.
External condoms, internal condoms, dental dams and latex gloves – you’ve met the entire Team Safety squad. While condoms may always be the popular leader of the pack, remember that you’ve got a whole team of superhero methods waiting to protect you while keeping sex fun and interesting.