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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011

The Douching Dilemma

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I was recently chatting with a colleague who works at a sexual health care clinic about common issues or concerns that are brought up by patients. I was surprised that vaginal douching was the first thing she mentioned, saying that many of the women visiting the clinic did not realize that douching can actually be the cause of, not the solution to, some of the health problems they were experiencing.

Many women learn the basics of how to take care of their bodies from their mothers, grandmothers or aunts—older, wiser female family members who give us vital information about being a woman. They take us shopping for our first bras, explain how to use tampons or pads, and share their remedies for menstrual cramps. Every family has different beliefs that are passed along between generations—for instance, whether young women who haven't had vaginal intercourse should use tampons (for the record, there is no harm caused by this, but some families advise using pads instead). Some girls learn from their mothers or other women that vaginal douching—which is basically squirting fluids into the vagina—is important to keep their lady business “clean,” especially after sex or having a period.

It's hard to realize that your well-meaning mom might be wrong about some things. Mothers don't usually intentionally advise their daughters to do things that can cause them harm. But in this case, mother does not know best. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services both advise against douching, as do a host of women-run organizations like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Scarleteen.

What, exactly, does douching do to cause harm? The vagina is designed to clean itself and naturally get rid of menstrual blood and semen. Your vagina has a mix of healthy bacteria and a particular pH balance (level of acidity or non-acidity) that keep it running smoothly. When someone rinses their vagina with water or other fluids and chemicals, it disrupts this normal environment. This can lead to infections (especially bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections), irritation and possibly problems with fertility. Some people think that douching will cure or prevent sexually transmitted infections; it can actually make them worse.

It can be hard to change women's health practices that are passed along from mother to daughter. For example, female genital cutting has historically been practiced in some African and Middle Eastern countries. Mothers may give approval for or encourage their daughters to undergo genital cutting, because they believe that their daughters will not be able to get married, will experience physical harm, or will have other negative consequences if they don't. Although human rights organizations have condemned this practice, simply telling women not to do it is not enough to stop something that is tied up in cultural views of what it means to be a “good,” socially acceptable woman.

Obviously, there's a huge difference between genital cutting and douching in terms of the harm that they cause. But both have roots in cultural messages that women's bodies are unclean and must be “fixed.” Women (including our mothers) have heard and believed these messages. But we are slowly realizing that these practices do not actually have women's best interests at heart.

Women do not need to douche or otherwise “clean” their vaginas. A simple external rinse of the labia and opening to the vagina with water or a mild, pH-balanced soap are fine. Your mom tried to do her best to teach you about your health—as a grown woman, you can return the favor and start a conversation with her about what douching really does.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.


Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.