The D-word

My best friend has long been quick to scold me, in the motherly-yet-not-annoying way that only she can, not to use the word “douchebag” as an insult. Granted, it’s not something I say all the time. But admittedly, it’s a word that slips out sometimes to describe people (usually guys, if I’m being honest) who do something shitty to me or to one of my friends. “Ugh!” says my dear friend, who is normally not a language-policing type. “Don’t use a word that’s related to a woman’s anatomy as an insult.”
I’ll be honest: It’s a word we’re not shy about using on Feministing. A quick search of the archives shows we’ve applied the term “douchebag” to people who have been shitty to us and our friends, Joe Francis, anti-feminists, Joe Francis, John McCain, and, uh, Joe Francis.
I bring all this up because a few weeks ago I read this post at Jezebel, and it reminded me of my best friend’s stance on “douchebag.” But it slipped my mind until I saw this post by Andi on the Bitch Blog: Douchebag lawyer and his douchebag lawsuit: “Feminism violates men’s rights!” (Not to call you out, Andi! Like I said, we do it here, too…)
It’s pretty easy to see why this evolved as an insult. Douchebag is funny because it’s anachronistic. It was a device once promoted for health reasons, but as science has marched on, douching is generally just thought of as an embarrassing (and definitely not-talked-about) product for women who are paranoid about good old-fashioned vagina smells. If we’re honest, we also laugh at it because it grosses us out. (Call it the bro-ish side of some feminists, myself included.) Like Dodai at Jezebel, I’m not calling for a ban on the word. Just asking feminists to think about it a bit more before saying it. To consider whether using “douchebag” as an insult is just another way of saying “everything associated with vaginas is icky!”
And so, here’s a long, rambling rumination on the D-word — and the book that changed my mind about it…

My thoughts on the douchebag began to evolve (ok, I admit I’m kind of snickering as I type this sentence) after I read Mary McCarthy’s The Group. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s about the lives of a handful of women who graduate from Vassar in the early ’30s and pursue life and love in the big city. As one 1964 review put it, “Those who care deeply about the intimate thoughts and habits of the welleducated, upper-crust American female during the exhilarating Roosevelt era have an amusing enough evening ahead with Mary McCarthy’s latest novel.” It was recommended to me by my coworker, who said, “Ann, you would love this book. It has all sorts of retro contraception references.”
And indeed, it opened my eyes to the douchebag and its importance. Along with an early version of the diaphragm (called a “pessary”), it was one of the few options for woman-controlled birth control at that time. Yes, condoms were around. But the pesssary/douchebag combo was kind of the equivalent of the Pill or the NuvaRing at that time:

So it was socially acceptable for “serious” relationships, not for casual sex. The book contains several scenes of young, single women’s trials and tribulations in obtaining their very own pessary and douchebag. Despite all of their privilege — as the previous passage indicates, the main characters are snooty, upper-class, well-educated women– they have to jump through some hoops. After all, it’s the pre-Roe, pre-Griswold era. The characters nervously tell their doctors that they’re engaged, and pray that the doc won’t ask any further questions. This all really resonated with me — and in an odd way, made me see 1930s douchebag-access issues as kind of a historical equivalent to battles we fight over the Pill and emergency contraception today.
And what if a single woman wanted her own birth control method to rely on, rather than keeping her fingers crossed that her partner had (and would use) a condom? She was seen as a slut, of course:

The book also made me feel really sympathetic for women who toughed it out in the bad old days of contraception. I mean, it’s a lot easier to be discreet about a pack of pills than it is a whole douching kit:

I’ll stop myself from rambling on about the book here. But the point is that once I really thought about the douchebag, I started to see it not as a ridiculous insult to be applied to people like Joe Francis, but as a real item that real women once relied upon as part of their reproductive health routine. Yeah, I still think of it as a historical relic, but as one with some serious relevance for reproductive health issues today. This is all in addition to the qualms I raised earlier — that I should really be stopping and thinking for a sec when I find myself using terms associated with women’s bodies as an insult.
To read more about literal douchebags and douche history (ok, again, I’m admittedly kind of cracking up as I type this. I’m not perfect!) head over to the Museum of Menstruation. Also check out this vintage 1928 douche ad.

Join the Conversation