On a recent Saturday, Stacey Roberts was hanging out at District lesbian club Lace when a guy came over and shoved a couple dozen condoms into her purse. “I don’t need these,” Roberts told the man. He insisted that she take them. She refused. He reiterated the importance of safe sex.
“Do you have any dental dams?” Roberts said finally. “I’m a lesbian.”
The safer-sex pusher greeted the request “with this look of astonishment,” Roberts says. “It took a second for him to actually respond.” Instead of providing Roberts with a dental dam—a latex sheet used as a barrier method during oral sex—the distributor told her to just keep the condoms. They're still sitting on her coffee table.
The District of Columbia recently redoubled its condom distribution efforts with a campaign that focuses on protected sex for both heterosexual couples and gay men. The District also funds an aggressive condom-and-lube distribution program, FUK!T, targeted specifically at men who have sex with men. But safe sex handouts for women can be hard to come by, even in a lesbian bar.
“These campaigns are targeted at people engaging in sex with hetero and gay men, and do not provide protection supplies for women,” Roberts says. “Even at ladies nights, I just see condoms.”
D.C.'s safe sex initiatives are largely targeted at addressing the city's HIV epidemic and its inflated unplanned pregnancy rate. Since the HIV virus is unlikely to spread between women—the same goes for fetuses—government protection efforts rarely address safe sex among lesbians, who have more specialized concerns. "I don’t think they are considering the possibility that woman-to-woman contact can also spread STDs," Roberts says. "Regardless of the risk assessment, they’re providing unequal access to protection based on gender and sexual orientation. They’re trying to protect men and not women in this regard.”
A brief survey of dental dam availability across the District:
* The government fund: The D.C. Department of Health receives a limited amount of funds to distribute dental dams every year. This year, that money dried up “months ago,” a DOH rep told me, and dams are unlikely to return to the District before 2011. "Mainly, we distribute male and female condoms"—both devices designed for sex involving a penis—but the dental dam distribution is "not really constant," the rep tells me. "It’s sort of sporadic."
* The token dam: LGBT community center the DC Center is one public health-minded organization that distributes the D.C. government's dental dams. But the center has been out of the barriers for "three months at least," Executive Director David Mariner tells me. By contrast, the center moves about 2,000 free two-condom packets a week. Add it up: In the past three months, the Center has distributed zero dental dams and about 48,000 condoms.
Of course, this is not simply an issue of access. "We don’t have a very high demand for dental dams when they are here," says Mariner. And interest in dental dams is often more about visibility than actual use. "Honestly, we rarely have people come and ask for dental dams unless they're organizing a feminist event and want to make them available for conference participants," Mariner says. "They want to have them on hand, but I don't get the sense that there is a huge demand."
To Roberts, the lack of general interest in dental dams isn’t an excuse—it’s a problem. The more foreign dental dams seem, the less likely women are to take them for a test run. “I work on a college campus, and when I bring up diaphragms and dental dams with women who are having sex with women, they don’t know what they are," Roberts says. "There's a lack of knowledge out there, and a lot of that is a result of the lack of visibility."
* Where the dams are: Several local public health organizations do independently invest in oral barriers like dental dams, and successfully distribute a limited number of them to locals. "We don't have any leftovers from D.C. Those ran out a long time ago," a rep from Metro TeenAIDS told me. But the organization funds its own stockpile of dental dams, and "people do use them," the rep says. "It’s not something that just sits on the shelf."
Also buying their own dental dams: medical care provider the Whitman-Walker Clinic and women's health organization The Women's Collective. June Pollydore, HIV Counseling & Testing Coordinator for the Women's Collective, says that the organization focuses on male and female condom distribution, but hawks dams on the side. "We distribute dental dams, but not within our condom distribution program," Pollydore says. "If anyone we meet during our outreach wants a dam, we will offer it to them," she says. "But a lot of people don't accept it in the same way that they do the male condom."
Money isn't too much of an issue: Metro TeenAIDS, like many local barrier method providers, secures its dental dams from the Total Access Group. Total Access ships 13 kinds of dental dams—in latex or polyurethane, flavored with banana or cola or strawberries and cream—for about 49 cents a pop (condoms usually go for less than a dime).
* Professional development: One local public health organization does manage to make fast work of its free dental dams: Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS). "Obviously, we work with sex workers, a population that is a little bit more savvy to those types of materials," says HIPS Executive Director Cyndee Clay. "Dental dams are very popular within our organization." The HIPS outreach van is stocked with dams, which volunteers distribute to sex workers accompanied by a spiel about "why they should want to use them, and how to do so," Clay says. Some sex workers bite: Clay estimates that HIPS distributes between 10,000 and 15,000 condoms every month, and “not nearly as many” dams—between 20 and 50 dental dams a month.
That 50-dam-a-month investment (about $25) isn't getting any boost from the city. "I’m not sure if we ever received dental dams from the Department of Health," Clay says. "I've never even thought that they would make them available to us. It's hard enough time to get them condoms from them."
* Pay to play: Lesbians can't always find dental dams for free—and they often can't pay for them locally, either. One CVS pharmacist told me that he wasn't aware of any dental dams available at local pharmacies, and that I should “try a medical supply house" instead.
* The kitchen cabinet. In lieu of a dam, cunnilingus recipients are encouraged to get creative. Many women turn to ad hoc solutions, like splitting a latex condom or rolling some plastic over the area. "That’s a part of our education: If you don’t have a dental dam, you can split a condom. If you can find a female condom, you can use the outside part as a kind of dental dam. Then there’s always Saran Wrap and stuff like that," says Clay. Adds Mariner: "Obviously, there haven’t been any studies on this. But we also lack studies on the effectiveness of using a condom for anal sex, or using a female condom for anal sex," he says. The creative solution doesn't help alleviate the dental dam visibility issue. "But it’s a common practice," Mariner says, "and I think it’s better than not using one."