The first time I walked into the women’s area of my local Korean spa a few years back, my nose and my medical-history Spidey Sense both twitched. The unmistakable herbal scents of mugwort and yarrow were in the air, pleasant but almost strong enough to make me cough. Clearly there was some sort of medicinal treatment on offer.
I soon found out what it was. Off to the side, in a small tiled room, a row of sweaty heads floated above pink plastic-draped haystacks. The pink plastic sheets certainly never appeared in the works of Gilbertus Anglicus or any of the other premodern physicians from whose writings I’d learned about the practice, but the procedure itself was instantly familiar.1 Beneath the plastic sheets, these women were seated on low stools with holes in their seats, undergoing gynecological fumigation with herb-infused steam.
The spa menu called it a “hip bath,” though the Korean term, I was told, was chai-yok. You may have heard of it, in the time since the mainstream health and beauty press has discovered it, by the maddeningly twee name “v-steam.” But what’s in a name? Gynecological fumigation is one of those very old, very widespread vernacular medical practices that goes by different aliases at different places and times, and has been done for many reasons.
I was familiar with gynecological fumigation, academically speaking, because of its historical use as a virginity test, one of the subjects of my book on the history of virginity. Prior to the anatomical revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at least, there was a common belief that the tubes and canals of the genitals had a direct, unbroken connection to the tubes and canals of the mouth and nose. The Greeks called this continuous tube the hodos, the “road” through the body, and believed that in women whose genital tubes had been “opened” by sexual penetration it should be possible for smoke or fumes introduced into the vagina to waft upward along the “road” and emanate from her mouth or nose.2
To our ancestors, this made fumigation seem like a useful virginity test. By their theory, if you could not smell the fumes on the woman’s breath, then her vagina was still “closed” and her virginity was confirmed.3 Mind you, given some of the substances used in such fumigations, which included sulphur, chopped onions, tree resins, and alcohol, it was probable that everyone in the vicinity smelled it. This is certainly true at my Korean spa, whose entire locker room and women’s area are deeply perfumed with the chai-yok’s herbs. One wonders how any virgin, be she ever so pure, managed to pass the test… but if there is any one thing that is universally true about virginity tests, it’s that no one has ever let a little thing like validity get in the way.
But virginity testing isn’t the only reason that gynecological fumigations have been done, or even the primary one. Around the world, women have also used fumigations to treat inflammation, regulate menstruation, reduce dysmenorrhea, promote fertility, and hasten post-partum healing.4 There are also those who claim, either hopefully or gullibly, that fumigation tightens the vagina.5
Most of the herbs traditionally used in the chai-yok and other cultures’ gynecological fumigations – mugwort, wormwood, motherwort, yarrow, dandelion — are customary in the gynecological and urological pharmacopeia. They are often taken internally, as tinctures or decoctions. Historical sources also feature them in topical treatments like poultices and washes, though. Aerosolizing plant oils in steam instead of presenting them in liquid solution is just another delivery method.6
The big question is: what’s it like? How does it feel to have your tender pink bits steamed over herbal potpourri? Does it do what is claimed, or have any effects at all?
I wanted to know. It was time to take my fumigation education to the next level. At the time I had been enduring pretty acute gynecological disorder for years, with symptoms including dysmenorrhea and abnormal uterine bleeding. From the symptoms perspective I was a perfect candidate for the treatment.
Boldly going where perhaps few historians of topics gynecological have gone before, I stripped down. I let the spa lady in charge of the hip bath room show me to my awkward little potty-chair, pop my fashionable plastic tent over my head, and shove a little pot full of steamy goodness beneath me.
I set about making my observations, the first of which was that I was grateful for the pink tarpaulin. I was told these help keep the medicinal steam where it is supposed to go. Mercifully, they also obscure the whole process from view. (It is possible that there are postures even more inelegant than the one in which one squats labia-first over a simmering pot of vegetation, but on the whole I would prefer not to know what they are.)
So what was going on under my Barbie-pink shroud, aside from the graceless crouch? Sweat. Lots of sweat. Sweat beaded my lip, dampened my hair, ran down my back in streams, pooled in the creases between my thighs and my belly and dripped, inevitably, to the floor. I sweated because it was hot and close in the hip bath room, because I was more than a little self-conscious, and, most of all because I was being steamed, up close and very personal, like a fat fortysomething dumpling.
The sensation was not at all painful, but it wasn’t terribly comfortable either. Happily I did not feel any burning, itching, or other alarming sensation. But neither did I feel as if anything in particular was happening.
I wanted to ask if I was missing something, but the first rule of Fumigation Club seemed to be that you do not talk during Fumigation Club. I closed my eyes and tried a little harder to see if there were anything to pay attention to other than the rivulets of sweat that were making me vaguely itchy all over.
In the end, the answer was no. I experienced no detectable gynecological effects from being fumigated, either topically or systemically. After it was over, I took a leaf from the notebooks of the feminist health activists whose history I am currently researching, and went into the washroom armed with a hand mirror for a simple self-exam. I saw nothing more significant than some completely predictable reddening of the tissues.
Nothing looked or felt any different. I checked again later that day just to be sure, but still nothing. Nor did the fumigation seem to have any effects on my despotic plumbing, whose reign of terror continued unabated until I was relieved of the plumbing in question some months later via hysterectomy.
Yet as a fair-minded historian who is not entirely unfamiliar with herbal gynecology, I can’t dismiss fumigations out of hand. On the basis of ample evidence in the historical record in regard to things like, say, willow bark being good for headaches, I tend to believe that treatments from which people have long claimed to derive benefit may well be doing something genuinely beneficial at least for some of the people and some of the time.
Perhaps, as with some herbal therapies, repeated exposure to fairly dilute active ingredients is required before one notices any effect. Maybe fumigation is more useful for physically superficial complaints, for example for Bartholin’s cysts , for which warm compresses and sitz baths are a standard treatment, than for problems of the internal reproductive system. It seems likely that topical application of vaporized plant oils with known antimicrobial action, as are characteristic of some plants traditionally used in these fumigations, could help stem a localized infection. Research could certainly be done to find out.
Based purely on my own experience, I can’t say that the “hip bath” does much other than make you sweat. But sitting and sweating with other people, communally, is a valued ritual around the globe. If sitting and sweating over pots of herbs with other women flips your switch, why not? Just don’t be too disappointed if all it gives you is a lingering smell of yarrow.
- A collection of Gilbertus’ writings on gynecology, distilled from his circa 1230 Compendium Medicinae, circulated in English as of the 15th century. This book, The Sickness of Women, was the major English language text on gynecology during that period, and includes discussions of gynecological fumigations for various purposes. Return to text.
- Giulia Sissa’s Greek Virginity (Harvard University Press, 1990) is the go-to resource for ancient Greek approaches to virginity and virginity testing as well as virginity’s place in Greek culture. Return to text.
- For a comparative approach that helps to place this Greek model of virginity testing in a broader pre-modern context see Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages (Taylor and Francis, 2002). Return to text.
- As with many vernacular medical traditions, academic documentation for efficacy in specific indications can be hard to come by. Alternative healers make a variety of claims for genital fumigation, however. Individual herbal components of these fumigations are listed for these and other gynecological indications in standard and alternative herbal pharmacopeias such as Bensky, et al. Chinese Herbal Materia Medica (3rd ed., Eastland Press, 2004); Crellin and Philpott, A Reference Guide to Medicinal Plants: Herbal Medicine Past and Present (Duke University Press, 1990); and Lewis and Lewis, Medical Botany: Plants Affecting Human Health (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) as well as many historical sources, for example Culpeper’s 1653 Complete Herbal. Return to text.
- In Metairie, Louisiana, you and your lady friends can attend a “Keep It Tight, Keep It Right V-Steam and Pole Dance Party” at a local dance studio, if you like. Return to text.
- Legendary U.S. feminist herbalist Billie Potts, for instance, indicates the use of herbal steams as a delivery method (particularly for respiratory ailments) at various points alongside teas, decoctions, tinctures, poultices, and ointments in her Witches Heal: Lesbian Herbal Self-Sufficiency (Cohosh Corners Press, 1998; Hecuba’s Daughters, Inc., 1981). Return to text.