Before they became an insult for annoying bros, women used them to put Lysol up their vaginas. Go figure.
The ubiquitous term “douchebag” is a soft-swearword most of us are aware of—but what is it, exactly? A feminine hygiene product? A jerk? A bro? What does it mean when we use the word “douche”, and where does its meaning come from?
To better understand the curious double meaning of the word as an adjective, it’s important to shed some light on what a “douche” is as an object, as well as the implications of what it means as a verb (“to douche”). So, we thought we’d probe the annals of douching in the olden days – as well as its fretful fallout – to find out why we define an archaic vaginal cleansing device as “a guy who…”
Desperate Times, Douchey Measures
Douching made its first splash on the scene way back in 1832, when an American physician suggested that women inject a solution including—among other things— salt, vinegar, liquid chloride, zinc sulfite, and aluminum potassium sulfite into their vaginas after sex as a form of birth control. 1873 saw the passage of the Comstock Law in the US, an anti-obscenity act for the “suppression of trade in, and circulation of, obscene literature and articles of immoral use”. Sadly, the concept of so-called immoral and obscene material included anything “alluding to any sexual content or information”—which meant that promoting douching as a type of birth control became illegal.
Margaret Sanger, credited for popularizing “birth control” as a term as well as having established what is now Planned Parenthood, was among those prosecuted under these laws for distributing information about pregnancy prevention. “In the methods of preventing conception, (every woman should) cleanse herself thoroughly by means of the vaginal douche,” she wrote in 1917’s Family Limitation. “After the sexual act go as quickly as possible to the bath room and prepare a douche. Lie down upon the back in the bath tub. Hang the filled douche bag high over the tub, and let the water flow freely into the vagina, to wash out the male sperm which was deposited during the act.” Though the charges were eventually dropped against Margaret Sanger, her husband, William Sanger, was arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail for distributing a copy of Family Limitation to an undercover agent.
To circumvent these Comstock Laws, marketers started referring to douching products as “hygiene products” and “germ killers”, predominately as euphemisms. The most popular douching brand was Lysol—as in, the very same heavy-duty household cleaning product and disinfectant you wouldn’t want to handle without a pair of latex gloves today. As if the thought of douching with Lysol isn’t horrifying enough, its pre-1953 formulation contained a phenol compound called cresol—which could cause burning, inflammation and even death. “By 1911 doctors had recorded 193 Lysol poisonings and five deaths from uterine irrigation,” notes Mother Jones. “Despite reports to the contrary, Lysol was aggressively marketed to women as safe and gentle.”
With the marketing of douching products relegated to the sphere of so-called hygiene, a stigma about vaginal odor was capitalized upon in advertising strategy. Emphasizing the need for douching to sell products therefore emphasized an inherent lack of vaginal cleanliness, suggesting that women’s nether-regions were hygienically “problematic” and needed to be “remedied” with douching. Stigmas and stereotypes about female cleanliness were thus exacerbated, with advertisements overtly playing into women’s insecurities and self-doubts. Though the notion of “odors” was frequently invoked to sell douching as a birth control method, this was doubly harmful: such references sowed additional seeds of shame and self-loathing while not providing any supposed benefits, since douching itself does not prevent pregnancy. As one Lysol advertisement read, “A man marries a woman because he loves her. So instead of blaming him if married love begins to cool, she should question herself.” The marketing of Lysol, as well as other douching brands, emphasized safeguarding women’s “dainty feminine allure”, often going so far as to suggest that a boyfriend’s disinterest or a husband’s abuse was a woman’s fault, since her improper hygiene (read: un-douched vagina) was to blame.
Luckily, with the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s, douching was finally nixed as a popular method of birth control. At this point, another re-branding of douching products occurred, with the focus shifting almost entirely to hygiene. Under the second wave of feminism, the blatantly misogynistic advertising of the 1950s was replaced by less overtly offensive, subtler marketing strategies—though still implying that women were unclean unless their vaginas smelled like an ocean breeze.
Do As I Say, Not As I Douche
Though douching came to be associated with female cleanliness, the past few decades have seen a reduction in subtly sexist stigmas about vaginas as inherently “unclean”, as well as an increase in knowledge about female health and its importance.
Today’s health practitioners consider douching unnecessary. Not only has it been scientifically shown to provide absolutely no health benefits, researchers are continuing to find risks associated with the practice. The US Department of Health and Human Services discourages it, noting how douching can mess up the normal balance of “vaginal flora” (and possible fauna), leading to an overgrowth of bad bacteria which can cause yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis. In addition to possibly causing infections, douching while already having an infection can push the infection into the uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries, which can cause pelvic inflammatory disease. Though ineffective as a birth control method, douching – even for the purpose of “that clean feeling” – has been found to reduce fertility and cause various problems with pregnancy later in life, such as raising the risk of ectopic pregnancy or premature birth. Many douches themselves have been found to contain certain kinds of phthalates – chemicals that have been linked to a variety of health problems – which can be absorbed into the body at a particularly high rate via vaginal contact. Douching has recently even been linked to some cancers, such as cervical cancer, with a study this year finding the risk of ovarian cancer was nearly double among women who douche.
Despite all of this, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found that nearly one in four women douches or has douched. Why would this practice continue when evidence against it is so clearly written on the (vaginal) wall?
According to Rebecca Brotman, a douche researcher (!) and assistant professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Maryland, “women today are most likely to douche in response to perceived vaginal odor or as a way to cleanse themselves after menstruation”, which brings to mind how menstruation is often still regarded as inherently unsanitary and taboo. The practice also persists amongst some demographics in particular. CDC data indicates that minorities are overrepresented in the numbers of those who continue to douche; a 2005 CDC study reported that an estimated 59% of African-American women and 36% of Latina women had douched in the past 12 months, for example. Douching brands are well aware of this discrepancy and, in the face of quickly decreasing sales, have even intentionally targeted these groups in their advertising campaigns. In one such case, Summer’s Eve had to pull a campaign in which their products were marketed to minority groups by using what some deemed to be racially insensitive stereotypes.
As one scientific study importantly points out, “Outside influences such as physicians, mothers, girlfriends, boyfriends, and the media affect a woman’s decision to douche. The motivation for douching is a complicated issue imbued with both psychologic and social features that need to be addressed if vaginal douching behavior is likely to be modified on any large scale.” Although knowledge about women’s health is now more accessible and openly discussed, taboos surrounding such subject matter nevertheless continue (legislation restricting sex ed., for example). Companies have thus been able to continue capitalizing on the lack of proper information about women’s health concerns in order to continue pushing the idea of douching for hygienic purposes. At the same time, the suggestion that women are unhygienic unless they douche only exacerbates gendered and archaic notions of cleanliness and femininity. The douche thus lives on by demonizing women’s normal bodily functions and cashing in on resulting insecurities.
Losing the Baggage
So how did the douchebag transition in meaning, from a word describing a rubber bag full of Lysol for cleaning your vajayjay to a word describing the modern pompous bro?
Tracing the etymology of “douchebag” or “douche” as a pejorative term takes us back sometime around the 1930s, when it was yet another ye olde insult for women. Like a trollop or a strumpet, it originally reflected sexist ideologies in its use as a slur. “Bag” itself was often used and extrapolated as an insult. Examples include “windbag”, an originally male-specific “person who talks too much” which can be traced back to 1827; “scumbag”, a currently mild insult which, circa 1939, was male-specific and referred to a used condom; or “old bag”, an ageist female-specific insult linguistically related to “old hat” or “old hag”, meaning outdated—or in the original sense meaning “a woman’s privities, because frequently felt.”
As with many other old-timey epithets, the term “douchebag” can be seen as crossing over from solely referring to women when it began to be used in reference to men who behaved as women. Like a chauvinistic coach yelling at his high school football team for being a bunch of “pussies”, “douchebag” became derogatory towards men since it implied they were feminine, through the use of a (then) female-specific insult. “Douche and douchebag are hardly the first epithets to cross the gender barrier,” Brian Palmer explains at Slate. “Both ‘bitch’ and ‘faggot’ were first applied to women before becoming emasculating insults to men. Those examples suggest that ‘douche’ once referred, in some way, to a failure to conform to gender stereotypes.” Henry Miller’s Plexus, published in 1953, provides one such example of this, in that it contains a male character named Minnie Douchebag, a “crazy fairy who sings and plays the piano…and wears women’s clothes.” The application of the term to men was thus originally a doubly derogatory intention, again via misogyny. It was used to demean a man by implying he is unmanly—deserving of a female-specific insult because he himself is female-like.
The irony of “douchebag” is thus especially salient given its modern usage. Today “douchebag” or “douche” denotes machismo, used as a derogatory term for a man who is arguably too male-like. No longer implying one is unmanly, a “douche” is now too manly while simultaneously lacking in maturity—basically someone acting like a boisterous frat boy. As an insult it is rarely applied to women anymore, if ever. This gives it a certain liminality: only minutely related or altogether removed from historical usage, the term nonetheless evokes vague connotations of its original meaning, yet without this being necessary for insulting connotations. Removed from its history and meaning, “douche” and “douchebag” as an adjective or insult replaces the “douche” as an act and “douchebag” as an object and gives power to the insult. A soft-swear, “douche” and “douchebag” are more potent than calling someone a “jerk”, yet aren’t considered strong enough to be cut or bleeped by popular media censors—so the term abounds on television, film and, accordingly, in popular vernacular.
Another Day, Another Douche
So should we decry the use of the term “douchebag” given its misogyny-laced marketing history and deleterious health effects? Not necessarily. Despite the background of the douche/douchebag as act/object, the term today can be seen as more closely associated with the patriarchal oppression of women than with women themselves, reflecting the fact that language is never static. English, in particular, is in a constant state of flux, growing and evolving to include new terms, expressions and slang, while old ones are continually invigorated with new or different meanings. Viewed from this perspective, calling an entitled chauvinist or jerk a “douchebag” is a perfectly fitting meta-insult, as there’s an irony in the fact that both the douchebag-object and douchebag-subject are bad for you. Perhaps the moral of the story is simply to avoid douchebags—both literally and figuratively.