The Surprising History of Douche in America | From Birth Control to Feminine Hygiene to Put-Down

23rdJun. × ’11

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!

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19 Comments

  1. Tim
    Posted 2011-06-23 at 11:40 | Permalink

    Sooo….

    And how did we go from douche, as a ‘female hygiene product’ that was advertised kinda subliminal to the douche as an insult we have today ?

    I mean that does not seem to make much sense… I mean you might as well say ‘you tampon, you !’.

  2. Posted 2011-06-23 at 11:50 | Permalink

    Tim, many pejoratives are related to the female body–cunt, pussy, and yes I have heard “tampon” used! –anyone else grow up in the late 90s? “Denis Fleming is a tampon”– The fact that douche-bag is a put-down related to the female body has had some people question whether or not it is “okay” to use it–and especially in a feminist sense.

    And feminists for the most part, seem on board. Jill Fillpovic of the blog Feministe says of the pervasive pejorative:

    “Douchebag actually insults something that deserves to be insulted. Douching is terrible for women; it can lead to infection and irritation. Even teen magazines will tell you this! Douches exist only because women have been told that our bodies are unclean. Douches, and the bags that reportedly accompany them, are terrible, no-good products. Insulting douches doesn’t insult women — the existence of douches insults women.” http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2009/11/16/in-defense-of-douchebag/

    So this is true, while the history of douching is somewhat feminist and was good for women, douche over the last 50 years has been an assault on women, shaming them about their bodies via advertising.

    So should we use the word “douche” even though it has roots to female bodies and female reproduction? Well, I am not one that gets terribly PC over slang and terms, aside from chiding my husband for using the word “retarded” and my highschool boyfriend for using the term “gay”. I use words like bitch and slut, as I’ve always thought of myself as reclaiming them.

    When we use “douche” I think we are reclaiming it from the companies who used douches to harm us, so in turn we are re-framing douche to mean something harmful, negative. But knowing the deeper history here does somewhat throw a wrench in reclaiming the word.

    Anyone else have thoughts on the use of the word, douche? Is it okay?

  3. Posted 2011-06-23 at 13:20 | Permalink

    @Tim @rachel
    My thoughts are mostly in line with Jill’s. Douching is a ‘hygiene product’ the same way that enemas are… which is to say, it’s not. It’s actually harmful for your health.

    Anyone who thinks he (or she) is being helpful when in fact he (or she) is being a jerk is therefore otherwise known as a douchebag.

    Tampon shouldn’t be an insult, because tampons are helpful! And we all know cunts and pussies are awesome, so there’s not much sense in using that as an insult either :-)

  4. Posted 2011-06-23 at 13:32 | Permalink

    LOL, Lori. Are enemas as bad as douche? I know people like Dan Savage laud their effectiveness…Should we start calling people enema-bags?

    Also, Tim, to answer your question more directly. Douche became a pejorative when douche became a “feminine deodorizer” instead of a method of birth control. Some trace the slang word back to the 60′s– a time when women had begun to move on from using douches, some able to get the pill and many using diaphragms.

    This dawn of “douche” as slang in the 60s suggests that douche was beginning to be seen as something negative–an outdated form of birth control, something that was harmful (people weren’t stupid, there was discussion of lysol + vag=bad–even back then) and something embarrassing, and who could blame them, with those cringe worthy ads using words like “feminine odor” and euphemisms and fields.

    This is how douche became a put-down.

  5. Tim
    Posted 2011-06-23 at 13:41 | Permalink

    Keep in mind that enemas are an actual medical procedure (If you don’t believe me, compain about having constipation the next time you are in a hospital and fun will ensure).

    Also, I am not sure I entirely understand how douches are supposed to work as a birth control method. Do you administer it before having intercourse and this lysol stuff is supposed to prevent pregnancy or do you use it afterwards ?

  6. Posted 2011-06-23 at 13:52 | Permalink

    Tim, actually douches are still used medically today, too! If you suffer from bacterial vaginosis a remedy can be to douche with yogurt or hydrogyn peroxide. Yogurt or apple cider vinegar or tea tree oil douches are also home remedies for yeast infections. So “douche” to this day is not always bad!

    Also, you would use it after sex, as a spermicide. But the problem with this that douching after sex can actually lodge sperm higher into the vagina–causing pregnancy!

    It blows my mind to think about having valid birth control options, and how much women’s lives have changed in the 50+ years that we’ve had widely available birth control that works. And how even now, there are women who don’t take birth control properly, or seem to not be able to bother (I have had women email me, telling me this much.) Just imagine what it was like before the pill and Comstock was lifted.

    When I read about women who, historically, made waves and how often those women were rumored to be lesbians, I often think, yeah! most women were stuck having babies! Slaves to our Fallopian tubes!

  7. Posted 2011-06-23 at 14:50 | Permalink

    I thought gay men used a ‘douche’ too for the ass.

    I don’t think of it is particularly feminine myself. But I am a bit of a homo.

    I think we can live in an age where words can be used as ‘insults’ but not *always* for them to be automatically insulting to the gender/sexuality identities from whence they come from. I know it is a bit tricky to get your head round. But that’s language. It is complex!

  8. Posted 2011-06-23 at 15:27 | Permalink

    I think the term ‘gay’ is an example of this. Young people often say ‘that’s gay’ or even ‘ghey’ meaning ‘lame’. Some gay people and their allies say this is homophobic and offensive. I am not so sure it is. In fact, I think it is a sign that gay identities are so integrated into culture that new meanings for the term ‘gay’ are being freed up, apart from the homosexual one.

  9. Jim
    Posted 2011-06-23 at 15:38 | Permalink

    “I thought gay men used a ‘douche’ too for the ass.”

    That’s part of the “man-pussy” meme. My experience is that its currency is pretty narrow. Not so for the the practice. In bath houses it’s considered the minimum of good manners to do an enema – not a “douche” – if you want to receive.

  10. Jim
    Posted 2011-06-23 at 15:43 | Permalink

    “I think the term ‘gay’ is an example of this. Young people often say ‘that’s gay’ or even ‘ghey’ meaning ‘lame’. Some gay people and their allies say this is homophobic and offensive.”

    Oh maybe it is, in that Puritanical, rigorist, absolutist, “structural” kind of way. But it doesn’t feel like there’s much actual gay-shaming animosity behind it.

    Offensive – how often do you hear people take offense at something and label it offensive. Taking offense at something – that’s something that happens in you. Offensive – that’s about it. They need to get some boundaries and learn the difference.

  11. Posted 2011-06-23 at 15:54 | Permalink

    LOL, god are people REALLY saying “man pussy”? Does anyone have some insight on where the MAN qualifier thing came from? Manorexia, Bro-Mance, Guy-liner. QRG, I feel like you might have some ideas on this…

    Jim, you are so right about the personally offensive vs. morally wrong thing. This is what we were getting at in the SlutWalk chat, and girls being “offended” by some guys approaching them, then equating this with being morally wrong.

    Also, I was just thinking before I read your comment, about how I have never felt personally felt HURT by people calling things “gay” or “retarded” . I recoil, socially, because it’s I know it’s “not okay” and “offensive”. The only time I can remember feeling offended, personally by a pejorative, was by the rap/club hit by DJ Assault–”don’t get mad when I don’t wanna fuck, you need soap and water…” But does my feeling personally offended by this make it wrong?

    I feel a little on the fence about gay as a pejorative being not so bad, having grown up in an area of the country that was very Christian and homophobic and gay bashing. Growing up, knowing, in towns like mine it was gay kids being bullied, and even killed. This was also a part of my social recoil. When I later heard my gay friends int he city saying “that’s so gay” it felt weird.

    Regardless, I do think the PC policing of slang is a bit out of hand. I mean I saw on the Feministe boards the idea that we shouldn’t use the word “crazy” because it’s ableist. Is it me, or is that just–er– a preposterous idea? (Preposterous is okay to use right?) ;)

  12. Jim
    Posted 2011-06-23 at 16:18 | Permalink

    “LOL, god are people REALLY saying “man pussy”? Does anyone have some insight on where the MAN qualifier thing came from? ”

    Well the idea is that the anus is the equivalent. At least functionally. Or something. feel free to have a problem with that; that’s reportage, not analysis.

    “I feel a little on the fence about gay as a pejorative ….”

    You hit it on the head – it matters when and where it turns into violence or actual discrimination. The rest of the time it turns into thought policing.

    And so much of the “male gaze” discourse comes down to plain old Church Lady thought policing. And no amount of fashionable aca-babble, academese, whatever, can cover that up.

  13. Posted 2011-06-23 at 17:22 | Permalink

    Right, I guess the idea behind policing someone’s words is “words can hurt”. Which is true, if you are using them to hurt someone–verbally slandering them, aggressively slandering, cursing, emotionally abusing, etc. But that’s not what we are talking about with slang…However, the way I feel is if I know someone might be offended or hurt by my use of certain slang–gay, retarded, etc. then I don’t use it because I don’t want to harm. Sigh. I feel like I am going in a circle here and not figuring this out.

    Yeah, it’s really interesting to me how the sex negativity gets played out in the “male gaze” arguments. This is what I kept coming back to on the SlutWalk thread, that just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s icky. This is the problem we’ve had with conservative (religious) thinking about sex over time. The response some people have to gay sex is that it’s icky, so it’s labeled wrong. the response some have to BDSM and the variety of fetishes is that it’s icky, so it’s again, wrong.

    Personal repulsion or offense does not = immoral or bad or wrong.

  14. Posted 2011-06-23 at 17:23 | Permalink

    @rachel
    I don’t know if enemas are worse than douches, but either (if used more than once in a blue moon) will fuck up your system. Douches lead to infections and enemas lead to malnutrition.

  15. Posted 2011-06-23 at 17:29 | Permalink

    @quietriotgirl
    “I think the term ‘gay’ is an example of this. Young people often say ‘that’s gay’ or even ‘ghey’ meaning ‘lame’. Some gay people and their allies say this is homophobic and offensive. I am not so sure it is. . In fact, I think it is a sign that gay identities are so integrated into culture that new meanings for the term ‘gay’ are being freed up, apart from the homosexual one.”

    Right, just like how we’ve been using “that’s so straight” as an insult for decades now, cause it’s so integrated in our culture! Uhno. ‘Gay’ meaning ‘bad’ or ‘not cool’ is not some linguistic anomaly that has nothing to do with its more commonly held meaning. ‘Gay’ came to mean ‘bad’ or ‘not cool’ because gay people are seen as bad and not cool, similarly to how ‘lame’ people are perceived.

    Once we start using hegemonic identities as insults, your argument might have a hint of validity.

  16. Posted 2011-06-23 at 17:31 | Permalink

    @Jim
    “Oh maybe it is, in that Puritanical, rigorist, absolutist, “structural” kind of way. But it doesn’t feel like there’s much actual gay-shaming animosity behind it.”

    If you don’t think it’s viscerally offensive to hear your identity used as a synonym for ‘bad’… your identity probably isn’t being used as a synonym for ‘bad.’

  17. Posted 2011-06-23 at 17:33 | Permalink

    Lori, that’s an excellent point. Notice, all, we didn’t start using douche as a pejorative until it became associated with a bad thing–with women’s smelly vaginas, with outdated birth control, with an archaic cultural belief that we now see as unnecessary, wrong and embarrassing.

  18. Posted 2011-06-24 at 10:03 | Permalink

    I do use hegemonic terms as insults eg ‘macho’ and ‘mumsy cupcake feminist’ and ‘middle class white’ in a negative context.

    I don’t like having my language policed. But that’s just me.

    as for ‘douche’ I have heard gay men use the term ‘douche’ to suggest a way of cleaning the ass before having anal sex. I have never enquired as to the exact technical thing they were referring to.

  19. Jim
    Posted 2011-06-27 at 14:10 | Permalink

    “If you don’t think it’s viscerally offensive to hear your identity used as a synonym for ‘bad’… your identity probably isn’t being used as a synonym for ‘bad.’

    Guess again. Lori, did you grow in fear of being called “faggot” and “queer”? I did. While I know all about this and I really don’t need lectures from anyone on this point, I do appreciate your concern. It is an important point to make and it can be helpful, but only if it is not taken too far.

    It’s not that I don’t know it’s viscerally offensive to hear my identity as a synonym for bad, I do, and that’s not the only identity of mine that has been used as a synonym for bad, and usually in the same high-minded social justice and tradtional propriety kind of way (and frankly there really isn’t micron of daylight between the two positions usually) – it’s just that I know better than to expect total stranges to give a shit about my viscera or my feelings. That, and I have a better moral sense than to think I can impose my emotional norms on the behavior and speech of total strangers. I recognize that for what it is, the high-minded totalitarianism of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    “….But it doesn’t feel like there’s much actual gay-shaming animosity behind it.”

    If you don’t think it’s viscerally offensive to hear….’”

    Rachel makes a good point above and I would like to apply it here. I can be viscerally offended at hearing something, but that does not mean it was said with even the slightest malice. And I am not talking about someone unconsiously saying something that is part of a system of oppression – I mean simply mis-hearing what someone says, hearing it in my context instead of theirs. Example – when I hear an educated southern British accent, basically Piers Morgan or posher, it is always sounds sarcastic, condescending and hostile. I have to make an effort to pay atention to what the person is actually saying instead of my emotional reaction. The accent itself is as fraught – viscerally offensive – for me as the word “faggot”. That is not only independent of anything in the speaker’s mind, it is just an unjust stereotype generated out of my historical context. The same goes for many (US) Southern accents – they always have the whiff of KKK terrorism to them. Completely unfair, and what’s worse, completely misleading.