Google the word “douche” and you’ll get lots: the antics of Anthony Weiner, Tracy Morgan and stand-out clothing choices at Bonaroo. But the history of douche is, errrr, sticky. Before it was a prejorative, before even it was a “hygiene product” douche was a birth control method–and before that, a childbirth aid.
Here’s a rundown of the history of the douche in America:
- Birth control has long been considered a “woman’s duty” and women have long been crafty. According to a study published in the University of Toronto’s Medical Journal by Charis Kepron and Susan James, Ancient Egyptian women used crocodile dung as a vaginal barrier device, and Ancient Romans ate one plant to extinction because of it’s birth control properties. Later in America, the pair report, there were re-usable condoms made of animal membrane, that you’d wash after use and keep bed-side.
- Dr. Charles Knowlton, an American birth control activist, recommended douching as the best form of birth control in the mid 1800’s. According to birth control researcher Amy Sarch, douching became “the most popular form of birth control in America”. Except at the time in America, birth control was illegal, thanks to Comstock Laws, passed in 1863 and not lifted in some states until the 1970’s. These laws basically anything sexual illegal, except penetration for marrieds, in missionary, with three Hail Marys.
- Douches would become commercially available, through a black market. “It was advertised, but socially camouflaged. In order to recognize the ads or the products, you had to know what the code was, the same way vibrators were advertised ” explains Sarch. The code was talk of keeping a marriage lively and “feminine hygiene”.
- “Supposedly, you could walk into Bloomingdale’s or drug stores where women dressed as nurses–who weren’t nurses– sold diaphragms and douches along with perfume and kotex. None of these were standardized, anyone could slap a label on anything and call it birth control. Even if you could get a diaphragm at Bloomingdale’s, it might not work because it wasn’t fitted for you” says Sarch.
- According to Chepron and James: A birthcontrol recipe from 1300 B.C.E.instructs women to “…fumigate the vagina with emmer seeds…” and then drink a mixture of oil, celery and sweet beer for four consecutive mornings to “loosen semen”. Sounds far-fetched, but a modern day test showed that celery plant extract resulted in pregnancy termination at 33%. Likewise, women weren’t totally ignorant in using douches as birth control, modern day tests show it is somewhat spermicidal, but it wasn’t a great method.
- In 1915, birth control activist, Maragret Sanger took a trip to the Netherlands and became an advocate of the diaphragm, favored by Dutch women. Over the next couple decades, Sanger advocated for the diaphragm–widening women’s birth control options. Simultaneously, douche companies began advertising for douches more as feminine hygiene, louder than ever. We begin to see advertisements with shocking copy– “the grave womanly offense”.
- It seems this “hygiene” front might have been a way for Mothers to share birth control with their daughters in a repressed era. It could also be a way, in a repressed era, that a single women buy birth control and uphold a chaste reputation. Women in the 50′s and 60′s even had tupperwear style parties where douches were sold! But for better or worse, douche as a birth control had been married to douche as personal hygiene. And these companies weren’t going to let go of the hold they had.
- In 1972, the same year the pill was FINALLY available to all unmarried women in the U.S., we begin to see doctors doling out the practical advice that douching in unnecessary and potentially harmful in major publications. This would become common knowledge when some studies in the 1980′s proved the practice causes infection, ectopic pregnancy and other complications.
- Last year, Summer’s Eve ran a campaign with the message: if you want to ask for a raise, you should douche. The company saw the wrath of the internet as the ad was passed around, and even questioned by The New York Times. The ads were pulled and an apology issued. Some American women may still douche, but over-all, the practice seems on it’s way to extinction. And we see this in the super popular pejorative of douchebag: one who is clueless, out-dated, obnoxious, irritating and embarrassing.
See my “favorite” douche ads and learn more about this history at The Frisky!