Lysol-Scented Vaginas: The Strange History of Douching
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It’s a magnificent word, really, in its adopted American sense. To me, a lifelong writer and incessant talker, the word “douche” is pure. Simple. It even somehow sounds like what it is, so much so that I can’t even roll it over in my head without the image of Sean Hannity’s face appearing and hovering there in my frontal lobe, green-tinted, translucent and undulating like some Scooby Doo villain whose scheme, state-of-the-art visual effects and real identity are yet to be revealed by those meddling kids.
Alas, I am a Gen-Xer, born too late to for the word to yield any true power over my sexual identity. Douching was an abstract idea, one far more connected to jokes about that unforgettable mother-daughter beach walk commercial than the idea of actually flushing my vag out with salad dressing.
While douching has been around for eons -- some research speculates it goes back to the time of Hippocrates -- the practice hit its pop-culture peak between the 1920s and ’50s, a time when magazines like McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal were read almost universally, when manufacturers, retailers, publishers and advertising executives were congealing into the vast media monster we know and worship today.
Back then, this media “blob” was almost 100-percent male-driven, of course. And as the mad men on Madison Avenue began to realize that beauty advice would sell more magazines and products, so began the systematic dismantling of the American woman’s body image, a popular national pastime that persists to this very day. (To illustrate, all the subheads below come from actual ads of the era.)
It’s actually not always about beaver stank.
Vaginal douching came about primarily as a method of birth control, but by the aforementioned golden age of womens’ magazines, it had evolved into a “beauty tool.” Water, vinegar and even antiseptic concoctions, such as Lysol, were employed. The concentrated germ-killer was described in ads as “scientifically correct,” “gentle” and “non-caustic.”
Douching has since been proven ineffective as a method of contraception, although some studies report it does result in reduced fertility. One, published by the American Journal of Public Health, found that douching may reduce a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant during a given month by approximately 30 percent. Even so, ads like many of those Lysol ran had a considerable double-entendre.
“I think they said something like ‘Dispel your fears’ or something similar,” recalls Bette, 79, a Lysol douche regular back in the earliest days of her marriage. “We didn’t talk about these things as openly as we do now, but while the ads seemed to be talking about odor, I was using the product for birth control. I’ve a feeling lots of other married gals used it with that in mind, too. I don’t think [unwanted pregnancy] was something [advertisers] would admit to meaning when using the word ‘fear’ in an ad, but I absolutely believe the inference was intentional.”
Bette, who didn’t conceive until the second year of her marriage -- after she’d stopped douching -- was a firm believer that she had Lysol to thank for her sexual freedom as a newlywed. “I stopped altogether when I got pregnant with my second son about five minutes after having my first,” she laughs. “I, three of my friends and my sister-in-law all had our second children at the same time, within a month or two of one another.” All were using Lysol douches at the time. “I figured that first year might have been either luck or coincidence.”
Daria doesn’t, actually, but the newly married 41-year-old is an occasional user and fan of douching. And while she never plied her mom about vaginal freshness while on a nature walk, it was the Summer’s Eve in her mother’s medicine cabinet that inspired her to give it a try following a nasty yeast infection.
“I felt incredibly icky down there and I wanted to feel really clean and fresh,” she says. Subsequent inspirations for grabbing the old nozzle focused more on her boyfriend (now husband) who once, during cunnilingus, was turned off by what he called a “not-so-fresh taste.
“I think I might have run into the bathroom at that very moment to freshen up,” she says, “since I did not want him to remove this activity from our playbook! The few times I did it in the beginning of our relationship must have worked wonders. I haven’t douched in a while, and my husband still calls me ‘Peaches.’”
Betty Joan Perske was born in New York City in 1924, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. It is unclear whether she could have sold anything to anyone. However, years later, as Lauren Bacall, she sold smoking to a young and impressionable Hazel quite effortlessly.
“Seeing her with a cigarette, how could I not smoke?” she laughs. “Besides, they didn’t say it was bad for you then. Years later, they came out with filter cigarettes and how much healthier they were, so I smoked those instead.”
Hazel, now 73, smoke-free and a former marathoner, admits a weakness in that respect, as it was the magazines at her doctor’s office that sold her douching just as easily. “I recall them being articles, more health- and medical-related, not ads, but they convinced me that it was a part of hygiene, that it was good for me. It had nothing to do with my sex life.”
In the 1970s, Hazel underwent a holistic transformation; she was turned on to the benefits of vitamins, exercise and natural foods. It was around this time that doctors publicly changed their tune on the douche. “I realize I was sold a bill of goods,” she says, shaking her head, laughing. “But I admit I was a slave to what I was reading and hearing. I bought it all, hook, line and sinker -- more or less what I do with the Dr. Weil newsletters I read now!”
The truth, simply, is that the vagina is the original self-cleaning oven. It needs no help. Douches are not only unnecessary, in most instances, they are detrimental. Douching, say the experts, actually upsets the chemical balance of the vagina, making a woman more susceptible to all manner of infections and therefore, ironically, more prone to the grave and tragic “feminine odor” she’s been trying to avoid.
Mucous secretions and friendly bacteria, the vagina’s natural police force, are depleted by douching -- making the neighborhood safe for undesirables. Women who douche regularly experience more irritation and infections than those who don’t, and they are more likely to develop bacterial vaginosis (a notoriously odiferous affliction), as well as pelvic inflammatory disease. Both have serious negative implications for fertility and pregnancy.
Very occasionally, in the event of certain chronic infections, some health care providers may recommend introducing a solution of lactobacilli-rich acidophilus to encourage the growth of healthy vaginal flora, but doctors tend to agree that douching should be performed only under a physician’s precise orders.
This one, sadly, is fairly accurate. Feminine odor, largely, is all in the mind. Does pussy have a scent? Sure, but it’s not supposed to be the same as a sanitized restroom.
“I love the smell of pussy,” says Romero, 35, an apparent vaginal sommelier. “There is a consistent smell to all pussy, a key note, if you will, like in a good wine or cologne, but of course each is unique. I find that going down on a woman is far more about the smell than the taste. Afterward, I’ve tended to notice a hint of something on my palate, but it was always nice because it reminded me of what I’d just been up to. That said, all pussy is not created equal.”
Pheromones are the key, says Eric, 27. “I think some people just click more because their scents are complementary. You may not even notice it, but the reason you find one person more attractive than another may be because of their smell. A woman’s core, that’s a very intimate scent. I know there have been times I’ve just loved licking a particular girl and it’s gotten me to the point where I nearly came, and others where it may not have been a turn-off, but it just wasn’t as sexy or exciting, and I can’t really tell you why. I think it has to be something that’s olfactory.”
And what about douching?
“Deception!” he shouts, Tourette’s-like, frightening me just a little. Apparently, I’d struck a nerve. “Douching would, to me, indicate a deceptive personality. I’d wonder: What exactly is this girl trying to hide?”
For most doctors -- and Eric -- there is no douche debate. But if you’re really hankering for one, I recommend FOX NEWS.