Care for a Lysol douche?

Why mid-century women used oven cleaner for their most intimate, ah, oven

Topics: Broadsheet,

Do you find the scent of vinegar, artificial flowers or oven cleaner to be an aphrodisiac? Does the scent of Lysol remind you of erotic encounters, or the smell of the public toilet in a bus terminal? And can you imagine any personal hygiene crisis dire enough to cause you to scrub your nether regions with chemicals originally intended for your home appliances?

In her aptly named piece “Lysol-Scented Vaginas: The Strange History of Douching,” writer Cherry Trifle digs up some of the more cringe-worthy substances used to combat natural feminine odor during the 1920s through the 1950s. And warning: This article will make readers of either gender cross one’s legs in sympathy and horror.

Lysol is, by far, the most alarming of the bunch. Advertisers at the time described it as “scientifically correct,” “gentle” “non-caustic” and “non-injurious to delicate tissue”– though it’s difficult to imagine anyone being turned on by eau de bus terminal and even more frightening to imagine the sensation immediately following contact with one’s delicate tissue. Those wishing to wallow in the depths of mid-century female sexual shame can find vintage advertisements archived all over the Web (try here, here or here). Sample copy (from Trifle’s article and my own poking around): “So humiliated when she realized the cause of her husband’s frigidity”; “Why does she spend the evenings alone?” and “Instead of blaming him if married love starts to cool, she should question herself” (this last one features a woman banging on a closed door padlocked with “doubt,” “inhibition” and “ignorance.”)

But while the idea of dousing oneself in household chemicals to enhance feminine freshness is laughable, the more serious problem with the Lysol campaign was that it used double-speak to market the cleaner as a form of birth control. Trifle talks to a 79-year-old woman, Bette, who says that she and her other “married gal” friends all douched with Lysol to prevent pregnancy – and stopped after she, three of her friends and her sister-in-law all conceived while on the Lysol douching plan. In fact, in her book “Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America,” historian Andrea Tone claims that Lysol was the most popular female contraceptive between 1930 and 1960. Because direct advertisements of contraceptives were illegal in the first place, marketers could simply allude to the cleaner’s “germ-killing” properties – hey, it rhymes with sperm! – when used as an internal wash and women would snap it up. (Douching is no longer considered an effective form of birth control, Trifle points out, though she cites one study that shows it may reduce fertility by around 30 percent in any given month. And while I’m no doctor, I’m not surprised to hear that putting potentially toxic chemicals in one’s vagina might reduce fertility).

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So what to do when you have that “not-so-fresh” feeling? Trifle talks to one modern woman, a 41-year-old named Daria who cops to being an occasional Summer’s Eve user after her now-husband complained of her “not-so-fresh” taste (ah! The miracle of marketing slogans!) But in reality, as most of us now know, regular douching is likely to “make women 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.” The vagina is, as Trifle puts it, “the original self-cleaning oven.” No oven cleaner needed.

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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