Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Why is "douche" an acceptable slur?

This last night, I was on the Twitters. And as I scrolled down my feed, about two-thirds of the tweets sported the hashtag #palpabledouchery.

Almost all of the tweets were directed at either Woody Allen (because of his denials of Dylan Farrow's claims of sexual abuse) or Stephen King (from their content, it seems as though he tweeted something in support or defense of Allen, although I am not 100% sure, as I did not seek out King's original tweets/comments).

Anyway, this post is not in anyway meant to critique the critiques of Allen or King. What Allen is accused of is sickening. And people who reflexively defend him play into a longstanding dynamic where survivors of sexual abuse are shamed and put on trial while their perpetrators remain above the fray.

No, this post is not about the Allen/Farrow/King news story or controversy. This post is about the hashtag: #palpabledouchery.

The use of the word "douche" as a slur has existed decades now. I very clearly remember the first time I heard it. I was probably about fourteen at the time, playing video/arcade games with boys from my neighborhood. I forget exactly what happened, but in the context of the game, I did something, and my video-game-opponent responded, "you douchebag!" I was unfamiliar with the term, so I asked, "What's a douchebag?" He laughed, mocking of my naievity. And our mutual friends laughed along until I continued to assert my naievity/curiousity: "No seriously, what is a douchebag?" My acquaintance didn't know what it meant either, so my friends began to laugh at him for pretending to know more than he actually he did.

But despite all of our collective naievity, we all knew *why* the word "douchebag" was funny, why it was a slur. It had something to do with girls.

Fast forward to now. Feminism has made many important inroads. If a person makes blatantly anti-female remarks, they will be branded as a sexist. But if they engage in derogatory commentary about things associated with women, or things associated with femininity, then they will often be let off the hook.

Even before this whole #palpabledouchery meme took off, I was startled to find how many self-described feminists I know who would hurl the word "douche" as a slur. When I questioned them about this, they almost always responded with a rote reply, something to the effect of "Well, douching is a fucked up patriarchal practice that is unhealthy for women to engage in."

Well, first off, some women may medically need to douche. Personally, as a post-op trans woman, I need to douche on a semi-regular basis (I cannot speak for other trans women, or trans men, or other gender-variant folks, but that is my experience).

But of course, this isn't a trans thing. If only trans people douched, such products surely wouldn't be given so much counterspace in pharmacies and supermarkets. The fact that these products are so ubiquitous means that someone is buying them. And presumably the vast majority of people who douche are cis women.

And this brings us back to the whole "women shouldn't douche" or "douching is bad for vaginas" arguments that are invariably invoked to justify using the word douche as a slur. Like I said, all vaginas are different. I know douching can be useful for some trans women, so perhaps there are some instances where it is legitimately necessary for other people to douche. But even if douching turns out to *always* bad for cis women, it nevertheless remains a practice that is *associated* with women. And the negative force the word has as an insult clearly comes from this association. As with other misogynistic slurs (e.g., bitch, slut, pussy, sissy), it shames the person in question by feminizing them, by associating them with the lowly status that femaleness/femininity have in our male/masculine-centric society. Regardless of what you think of the practice of douching, the word douche (as a slur) has misogynistic overtones.

As I said, feel free to critique Allen and King and whoever as you see fit. All I ask is that you think for a minute about whether accusing them of "douchery" is the best way to go about it.

(*note: the next to last paragraph was edited for clarity on 2-4-13)

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]


  1. Hi Julia! I love this point. I've been cutting out all sexually derived insults and swear words ever since reading this post on one of my favorite sites early last year:
    (I hope links work in the comments)

    I've tried explaining the idea to friends, but only one really seemed to understand.

  2. I love your writings, Julia. I've been thinking a lot about slurs lately -- and although there's a whole universe of them, I'm starting to run out of ones that I'm willing to use, and I'm not sure it's realistic for me to abandon them altogether. I've tended to feel like "asshole" and "douche" are the most perfect slurs, because they're used to level an accusation of cruelty or inconsideration, which seems like the only valid reason for using a slur in the first place. (I categorically refuse to use any slur that impugns the subject's intelligence, gender, sexuality, etc., for many reasons.) However, I agree with all your points about "douche", and it's also been suggested to me that "asshole" is probably an implied reference to receiving anal sex and thus has its own insurmountable problems. What's left? Are there no good general-purpose slurs? -- Elly

    1. thanks for the kind words about my writings. as for slurs, it seems to me there are two ways of going about it. one involves using calling someone or comparing them to a type of person or identity or object that is viewed negatively in society (e.g., "that's so gay," "you're a douche"). this not only depicts the target negatively, but reinforces the idea that the group they are being compared to are also illegitimate. in other words, such slurs have two targets: the intended person & the group/thing they are being compared to.

      an alternative way is to just use language (but not slurs) to describe them. If someone is being misogynistic, then call them a misogynist rather than a douchebag. If they are lying, or being a jerk, or denying instances of sexual abuse, then use those words rather than comparing them to another group or body part or what have you. It is admittedly less colorful or interesting linguistically, but it conveys the idea without dismissing others in the process.

      just my two cents...

  3. an additional comment based on some Twitter responses I received: I appreciate the feminist critique of douching, which for many women is unnecessary and potentially unhealthy, and which plays into notions that women's bodies are inherently unclean, impure, dirty, etc. And I get that, for some feminists, using the term as a slur feels anti-sexist and a critique of patriarchal notions of womanhood. But when teenage boys or dude-bros call one another "douchebags," I don't think that they are critiquing the patriarchy. And for every person who uses "douche" as a slur with feminist intentions, there are probably ten or twenty or more folks who use the term with clear misogynistic intent or overtones.

    anyway, I am not the word police. continue to use the word as a slur if you wish. I am merely pointing out how others use it and why I feel that using the word as a slur may do more harm than good.

  4. Thank you for speaking out on slur words.
    Your articulation on the matter is so succinct.<3
    What gets me is that some folks in our own community cling to some slurs and use them without a thought in the world,
    as to the regards of the stereotypes it projects onto society and the message it sends to society at large.
    That it's OK to use slurs when referring to trans folks.
    Or any folks for that matter, it breeds a level of acceptance that just shouldn't be acceptable.
    Some of the labels that folks use and or reclaim are often the same words used to belittle bully and marginalize people of our community.
    Some of these labels have direct relation to violence, and that's what ruffles my feather's

  5. Hmmm. I can see how the use of this word would be considered upsetting and offensive to you or any woman. On the other hand, people of all stripes have been using offensive words to each other for centuries (Shakespeare is a good place to start).

    Offensive words tend to be based on genitalia, intercourse, eliminatory functions (and some religious figures), and this is true across human cultures. The longest-lived and most popular ones (in English) tend to have four-letters and have a long and distinguished Anglo-Saxon pedigree (piss, shit, prick, fuck, and cunt, for example).

    It seems to me that "douchebag" probably became a slur around the time that the practice became reasonably widely known. In addition, "douche" (which is the perfectly innocent French word for "shower) has a single syllable and a round vowel sound, which add to its impact in the way that, for example "enema" does not.

    While there is some argument to be made that slurs involving women are commoner, I think there are also plenty which involve men. In British English, a blunder is a "cockup", a drunkard is a "piss head", an idiot is a "prick", a "wanker", or in Scotland, a "ball-bag". Even the expression "a load of old cobblers", meaning a lot of nonsense, is not as innocent as it sounds when it becomes clear that "cobblers" is an old English slang term for testicles (but the modern term "a load of old bollocks" is equivalent).

    Across the pond, an idiot may be known as a "dick-head", or "dick-wad", and the innocent-sounding word "dork" is an American slang word for "penis". To delay someone needlessly may be to "jerk them around".

    Where I am going with this is that, from a linguistic perspective, there are reasons why this particular word "douche" or "douchebag" may have gained widespread adoption which are not necessarily to do with insulting women.

    Just my 2p.


  6. I try to avoid "fuck you" and especially "you're fucked" for the same reason. Being fucked (in the literal sense) is often a good thing; it's only an insult because of who gets fucked (in the worldview of the people who use the insult, it's women and gay or bisexual men).