In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about douching.
Q: What is douching? And do I need to douche?
Once firmly the provenance of the “women’s hygiene” aisle at the drugstore, the term douching now covers two body parts: the vagina and the butt. By itself, “douche” is just the French word for “shower,” but when we’re talking about vaginal and anal douching, there’s a lot more involved. And while you might want to do one, you definitely shouldn’t do the other.
People with vaginas have been shooting various liquids up there for hundreds of years, usually as a form of (ineffective) birth control and (ineffective) treatment for exposure to a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Starting in the early 1900s, vaginal douching with Lysol (yup, you read that right — literal bleach) was advertised as a contraceptive. But with the invention of the birth control pill in the 1960s, the focus shifted from pregnancy prevention and more towards feeling “fresh.” That’s persisted into the present day when one in four American women still use vaginal douches.
Basically, companies are saying: Your pussy is gross. It stinks. Fix it with this chemical.
But here’s the thing about vaginal douching — if your pussy wasn’t gross before you used it (and it wasn’t), it will be afterward. That’s because vaginal douching actually upsets the delicate pH and bacterial balance in the vagina and vulva. When that balance gets upset, you’re at risk of fun things, like bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections.
All of this, of course, is rooted in sexist messaging that a vulva and vagina’s natural discharges and smells are somehow dirty. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Left to their own devices, your vagina and vulva will clean themselves. All you need is a little bit of scent-free soap in the shower, and you’re good to go. So, in short: Don’t use vaginal douches.
Anal douches, on the other hand, are a whole other story. Unlike the vaginal canal, the anus isn’t as great at cleaning itself. As a result, some people have bits of fecal matter hanging out in the first few inches of their anus. That’s especially true for people who have a low-fiber diet, suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or often have loose stools.
In your day-to-day life, that little bit of fecal matter doesn't matter much. They don’t cause any smells, and they’re swept away with your next bowel movement. But if you’re someone who enjoys anal sex, you might be concerned about the cleanliness of your anus. And that’s where anal douching comes in.
Unlike vaginal douches, anal douches don’t usually contain chemicals. Generally, it’s just a squeezable bulb with a pipette on the end, kind of like a turkey baster. (You can also buy ones that are pre-filled with saline, aka salt and water.) You fill it with water, insert it into your anus, and squeeze it, so the water all comes out. This does two things: Relaxes the muscles in your butt, so that they contract and push out the water and fecal matter, and rinses away fecal matter. If you choose to douche before anal sex, give yourself about 15 to 30 minutes to ensure that all of the water has come out before putting anything else up there.
But while many people choose to douche before anal sex, it’s by no means a requirement. If you eat enough fiber and have regular, solid bowel movements, you probably don’t need to squirt water up your butt. But if it makes you feel more secure about having anal sex, it’s not going to hurt you. (Unless you have an anal affliction, like hemorrhoids, in which case you don’t want to douche and honestly probably don’t want to do anal either.) Also, if you’re having anal sex, it’s probably a good idea to get comfortable with the fact that poop sometimes happens. Have some extra towels on hand for clean up, just in case, and don’t freak out.
In conclusion: Don’t vaginal douche, ever. Do anal douche, if it makes you feel comfortable. And don’t let anyone tell you that your body is wrong or gross just the way it is.