“I don’t get the relationship between oral sex and panties,” wrote a Twitter user when, at the end of May, the FDA authorized the sale of the first underwear designed for protection during oral sex. Since then, the social network has been full of revelatory comments about an issue that gynecologists and sexologists have long recognized: it is much more rare to use protection against sexually transmitted infections during oral sex than in intercourse. “I wanted to feel sexy and confident and use something that was made with my body and actual sex in mind,” Melanie Cristol, the creator of the Lorals brand of vanilla-flavored protective underwear, told the New York Times.
The undies come in packs of four and cost €24.95. Being single-use products, their price makes them a semi-luxury product, something to buy more out of curiosity than as a habit. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each day more than a million people contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI), most of which are asymptomatic. And the trend is on the rise.
Gynecologist Conchi de Lucas says that the most commonly transmitted STIs via oral sex are “syphilis, gonorrhea, genital herpes and Human Papiloma Virus (HPV).” It is difficult, however, to determine which cases are caused by genital contact and which by oral contact, as it is common for both practices to occur in a single sexual encounter. HPV, which 90% of the sexually active population will encounter at some point in their lives, “is assocated with the risk of cervical cancer, but the risks that come from contracting it by oral and oral sex are not taken into account,” de Lucas says. The gynecologist gives the example of Michael Douglas, who, as he told The Guardian in 2013, suffered from a throat cancer caused from a HPV infection contracted via oral sex. “The use of protection in sexual relations has been centered on the prevention of unwanted pregnancy, but in the long term, STIs can affect health with the appearance of cancer or fertility problems.”
“I hardly know anyone who does cunnilungus or annilungus with a latex barrier,” says Inma Sutt, community manager of the Barcelona sex shop Amantis de Sant Antoni. The rectangle-shaped barriers are the only regulated and effective form of protection for the vulva and anus available in Spain, where the latex panties have not yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency. The lack of knowledge of other barriers has to do, as Sutt says, with a lack of sex education and a meager offering on the market. “In the shop they rarely sell, and supermarkets don’t even have them.” They can be found in some pharmacies, in sex shops and online.
Additionally, “latex barriers are proportionally much more expensive than condoms,” Sutt says. The pink tax, applied to products marketed towards women, rears its head here: “A box of barriers, which has four pieces, costs €7.99. A box of MY.SIZE male condoms, vegan and with up to six different sizes, has 36 and costs €22.99.” The lack of accessibility, she says, causes “many women to buy condoms and cut them to use as a barrier. Others use cling wrap, but that doesn’t work as protection and can cause infections.”
“There are a lot of myths about oral sex,” says sexologist and clinical psychologist Carme Sanchez. “Many people think that there’s no probability of contracting diseases or that it’s much less likely in oral sex. It’s true that there is less risk, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. We shouldn’t confuse less probability with zero probability.” She recommends that “if we don’t know the people with whom we are having relations, or if we don’t have a monogamous relationship, or in any circumstance in which we can’t be sure of the other person’s state of health, protection should always be used.”
What lies in the future of these garments for oral sex? Can they contribute to a wider awareness about the need for protection? “It’s good news that they exist, although looking at them online I’m not sure they’re very appetizing,” says Inma Sutt, who knows the sexual pleasure market first-hand. “It doesn’t convince me that they’re black. In oral sex it’s important to be able to see.” Her intuition is sharp: Melanie Cristol, the founder of Lorals, has announced that the company will release a transparent model. “If they’re very thin, they could be an interesting option. Wearing them could be more comfortable and safer than dental dams, which you have to hold onto and easily fall off.” One thing is clear: the market needs more safe options that break the stigma that sex with protection can’t be pleasurable.