In 2010, on the second single to his perfect 10 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West famously raised a toast to “the douchebags.” In 2014, Gawker dubbed “douchebag” the “white racial slur we’ve all been waiting for,” and the same year, The Guardian called Mark Wahlberg “the walking, talking, blank-faced, crotch-grabbing totem of successful modern doucheism.” Several years earlier, the TV show New Girl deployed its own version of the swear jar called the Douchebag Jar, and even the New York Times dissected the term’s acceptability. And though it’s been used as an insult for decades, the term exploded in popularity the 2000s — and despite being declared “over” in 2008 and again in 2009 — “douchebag” lives on today.
While the insult is now almost always directed against men — Google’s second dictionary definition is “an obnoxious or contemptible person, typically a man” — the term’s initial sting was based in slut-shaming. “Historically, a douchebag was a piece of equipment used to flush out the vagina,” Stuart Heritage writes in The Guardian. “As a contraceptive, it was useless, but the implication that it was a piece of equipment used by promiscuous women stuck around and slowly gained a pejorative air.”
Despite these origins, though, the term became a favorite on the 2000s feminist blogosphere — “douchenozzle” was a popular and particularly cringeworthy variation — justified on the grounds that douching’s history makes it a perfect insult for a certain kind of man. “Douching was a terribly anti-woman practice designed to make women feel ashamed about their natural body odor,” writes Shakesville blogger Melissa McEwan. “Repeated douching can wash away the lining of the uterus, making it not just pointless but dangerous. So, when one needs a word to describe, say, our pointless and dangerous former president, one would be hard-pressed to find a better word than douchebag.”
Douching, a practice that’s hundreds of years old, deserves its poor reputation. Not only is it an ineffective contraceptive and method of preventing infection, it’s also linked to many health problems, including damaged fallopian tubes, problems during pregnancy such as preterm birth and ectopic pregnancy, increased rates of bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, STIs and vaginal irritation and dryness.
Why, then, would anyone douche their vagina? The Department of Health and Human Services reports that approximately one in five women 15 to 44 years old douche. Meanwhile, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that douching is a more common practice among non-Hispanic black women than among white and Hispanic women, with nearly 59 percent of black women douching in the last 12 months compared with 36 percent of Hispanic women and 27 percent of white women. A Turkish study also revealed that 80.6 percent of women living in rural Southeastern Turkey douche regularly with water or hot water and soap, and 69.8 percent douched more than once a day.
M, a 28-year-old writer and black woman living in the Bay Area (identifying details have been changed to protect her identity), tells me she douched once when she was 19 and suspected she had some kind of infection. “It seemed like a quick fix,” she says. “Instinctively you believe [the infection] is because of germs or dirt.” She adds that her aunts and grandmother used douching products and she’d seen them under the bathroom sink growing up. “Black women internalize lots of messages about the uncleanliness of our genitals,” she continues. “We inherit those ideas.”
Douching is also common in teens of all races and ethnicities. “I douched once, the summer after I graduated high school, when I first started having sex,” Lindsey, a 26-year-old office worker based in Kansas City, tells me. “It was right after my period, and someone asked me if I douched, as though everyone did and should.” She says she had “practically zero sex ed” and no knowledge of her own anatomy from her parents, school or otherwise, so she assumed she should be doing what everyone else did, which seemed to be douching. “Honestly, it was sort of fun but also very drying and terrible,” she continues. “I never did it again because immediately afterwards I did some research.”
It’s hard to question the popularity of douching without noting the aggressive marketing of the practice toward women throughout almost the entire 20th century. Full-page ads featuring “eminent women physicians” endorsing douching products appeared in many women’s magazines, and others would openly play on women’s insecurities about their vaginas, cautioning about their “objectionable odors” and “germs” and blaming women who didn’t douche for their unhappy marriages. “A man marries a woman because he loves her, so instead of blaming him if married love begins to cool, she should question herself,” one Lysol ad read. “One most effective way to safeguard her dainty feminine allure is by practicing complete feminine hygiene as provided by vaginal douches with a scientifically correct preparation like ‘Lysol.’”
Thankfully, from the 1960s onward, the pill became a more popular contraceptive, the negative impact of douching on health was more widely discussed and the misogynistic marketing campaigns were criticized by second-wave feminists, until eventually the idea that “douching is satan for your pussy,” to use the parlance of Lexi, a 27-year-old television producer in L.A., became more widespread — although working-class women of color are the present targets of marketing campaigns just as euphemistic in their language and predatory in their negative psychology as those of yore (but now with added racism!).
Still, despite the modern medical consensus against douching, sometimes rogue doctors continue to encourage the practice. “After struggling with vaginal issues for years, a doctor told me that my bacterial vaginosis could be cured by regular vinegar douching,” says Lexi, adding that her doctor had her “shoot painful, stingy vinegar” into her irritated vagina, which did nothing to help the problem. “The pain was unlike anything I’d ever felt — it was just searing, awful pain. Of course, the next doctor I saw was like, ‘[The previous doctor] told you what?’”
It’s worth noting, though, that trans women’s vaginas need different care to cis women’s. Sarah, a 24-year-old student and trans woman in London who asks me to use a changed first name, says that her surgeon instructed her to douche after her bottom surgery. “The early stages were a medicated douche, and part of the reason was to flush [the vagina] out and keep it sanitary during healing,” she explains. “After that, it was a regular douche, I think because self-cleaning doesn’t work the same way for trans women’s vaginas.” She says the douching process was “really uncomfortable,” especially immediately after her procedure, but describes the result of the surgery itself as a “huge relief.”
The bottom line is that people with vaginas need contraception and prevention and treatment for infection, and while douching is ineffective and can be dangerous, it’s readily accessible, cheap (especially if homemade solutions are used) and private. M tells me black women probably douche at such high rates because they’re more likely to be uninsured, and Megan, a 34-year-old artist in New York City who also asks me to use a pseudonym, tells me that she’s definitely douched in lieu of any other options. “Some people can’t access proper care without getting [their] parents involved, and it may be dangerous for a person in an abusive household to disclose their sexual activity,” she says, adding that this also applies to people experiencing reproductive abuse.
Poverty, too, can be a strong compounding factor. “Sometimes you’re geographically isolated — maybe the pharmacy is 50 miles away and you don’t have a car,” Megan continues. “Or maybe there’s a lack of cash. For a yeast infection, you’re gonna usually use an over-the-counter treatment, and sometimes you just don’t have $7.”
Given that women and other people with vaginas are up against misleading marketing about vaginal “odors,” lack of access to medical alternatives, domestic abuse, poverty and relentless shaming of, and medical obfuscation about, their bodies, it’s no wonder that some of them end up flushing their vaginas with vinegar water. Until these social and economic issues are addressed, it looks like douching — and perhaps the “douchebag” insult — are here to stay.