When I brought home my new puppy a year ago, I quickly discovered that she was drawn to one thing more than all other things. She was a crotch junkie. Being constantly reminded that between my legs there was an odor, something potent enough to attract furry animals, brought up both the insecurity and the fascination I’ve had about vaginal scents over the years. I wanted to know the role, if any, that vag scent played in my life.
To find out, I contacted Tiffanie Nelson, a vaginal-secretion expert and crotch genius. She is currently a research fellow at the Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases and has spent many years investigating vaginal-tract microbiota. “What makes us smell?” I asked Nelson. She deals exclusively with vaginas, so I didn’t even have to specify which body part I was talking about.
“Hold up a moment,” she said. She explained that we had to start a bit farther back. She said that our vaginal scent is closely linked with the billions of animals that couch-surf down there. A healthy vagina is teeming with bacteria, the majority of which are lactobacilli — the same kind of bugs we use to make sauerkraut and yogurt. “They perform the same function as they do when we ferment foods,” she said, “but instead, they do it in vaginas.”
She explained that our vaginas are like an all-you-can-eat buffet for our bacteria. Our vaginal skin constantly excretes sugars, and the bacteria chow down, turning the sugars into lactic acid.
While we supply the lactobacilli with food and a place to live, we depend on their lactic acid to protect us — the acidic environment shields our crotch from the colonization of undesirable bacteria. Evil bacteria, entering a properly acidic environment, would meet a similar end to an astronaut who went to the moon without a space suit.
Though Nelson isn’t interested in normal vaginal scents, she said that when our vaginas are balanced, meaning a pH of 3.5 to 4.5 (within the range of apples and dill pickles), we have an “everyday vaginal odor.”
To find out what “everyday vaginal odor” meant, I interviewed many women, but most had trouble describing their scent to me. At least four women paused, looked up toward the ceiling, and then said something along the lines of, “I don’t have the words.”
The odor is different for everyone and changes throughout our cycles, but it’s the kind that those douching companies would have us believe leaves us with that “not-so-fresh feeling.”
In 1832, an American physician named Charles Knowlton began promoting his own douching mixture as a form of birth control. The douche was a water-based solution that women spritzed up their canal after sex; it included salt, vinegar, liquid chloride, zinc sulfite, and aluminum potassium sulfite. Clearly, Knowlton just dumped leftover lab chemicals into a vagina.
In 1873, Congress got uptight and passed the Comstock Law, making it illegal to use US mail to disseminate any information or paraphernalia regarding “erotica, contraceptives, abortifacients, or sex toys.”
Douching companies, looking for a loophole in the new law, found a sneaky way around censorship. They began to market birth control by rebranding it under a new label: “feminine hygiene.”
In Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, Andrea Tone explains that, though douche executives could no longer claim that their products had contraceptive value, they implied it by using ambiguous language in their advertisements.
The ads freaked out young, fertile ladies, with headlines like “No Wonder Many Wives Fade Quickly With This Recurrent Fear,” “Can a Married Woman Ever Feel Safe?,” and “The Fear That ‘Blights’ Romance and Ages Women Prematurely.” It was pre-Internet clickbait. If I didn’t know the context, I would think these were teasers for a horror film about uterus-eating goblins.