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Lysol-Scented Vaginas: The Strange History of Douching

Thanks to a media marketing machine bent on making money by making women feel bad, women used to pour Lysol in their vaginas. Some still douche. But why?


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.)

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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.”

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