Feminism, Agency, and Douches

Feminism, Agency, and Douches February 29, 2012

Yes, you read that right. Last night in conversation with some of my international colleagues, I used the word “douchebag” to describe an unsavory person, and then I had to explain what it meant. I have always been annoyed at the implication that a douche (or douchebag, or my favorite, douche-nozzle) is a bad name to call someone because of its proximity to women’s health, and worse yet, to vaginas.

However, I am heartened to know that the practice of douching is actually quite bad for vaginal chemistry, so calling someone a douche is, from this perspective, actually a comment on what a terrible idea it is to artificially introduce substances to one’s vagina in the misguided search for cleanliness (when in actuality most vaginas have self-regulating ecosystems, and are thus quite healthy and clean even if there are some secretions and  the like). So when I apply the word douche, or any of its variations, to someone, I am critiquing the misogynist assumption that women’s vaginas are unclean.

For an explanation of some of the science behind douching, see Kate Clancy’s blog post about douching practices among sex workers in Nigeria. There’s some really interesting stuff about racism and colonialism, too.

By far, however, my favorite part is this:

“it’s hard to not place lime juice douching within the spectrum of cultural practices enforced to control women, from female genital cutting, to diets, to cosmetics, to scores of other ways women alter their bodies to fit a culturally-sanctioned norm. And just as we can demonstrate the ways in which women may choose these practices, or find empowerment in some of them, I don’t know that it is really possible to parse out a woman’s agency from the institutional inequities that increase her chances of making certain choices. That is, a woman may choose any of these actions and be well aware of the benefits and consequences, but she is still aware of, and sometimes constrained by, a culture that dictates both.”

Yes, yes, and yes. Feminism has always maintained an active dialogue about agency – where does it come from? How do we obtain and exercise it? And while it’s lovely to think that all human beings are automatically granted agency simply by virtue of our subjectivity (another tricky concept), our choices are always made within the context of the groups we inhabit, both institutional/official and folk/vernacular (not to imply an exclusive dichotomy). Our cultures constrain us even as they permit some sorts of agency and choice within their confines. We don’t even know what an individual looks like outside culture; for while individuals may consciously reject some aspects of a culture, that same individual was irrevocably shaped by her culture, to the point where it may be impossible to disentangle the threads of identity formation.

I think this is a deeply uncomfortable concept for feminists and other activists to sit with and think about, especially for those of us who are Westerners and have been brought up with the “you are a unique snowflake” brand of individuality. I think the best we can hope for, right now at least, is to point out cultural norms and constructions when we see them, in order to expose the ideologies that hide as “natural.” Perhaps, when faced with the realization of how much of culture is constructed and naturalized, people can expose a little more wiggle room in order to explore and make choices?

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