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Let’s Unpack That

The disgust over ‘vabbing’ is just another way to demonise women’s bodies

As a new social media trend encourages women to use their bodily fluids as fragrance in order to attract the opposite sex, Olivia Petter examines what it says about society’s obsession with women’s bodies

Sunday 07 August 2022 11:43 BST

Another day, another bizarre thing women need to do with their vagina. If it’s not steaming the poor thing, it’s hoisting a jade egg inside it. Or spending unnecessary amounts of money on an overpriced douching product – not realising that vaginas are, in fact, self-cleansing – and possibly giving yourself an infection in the process. Maybe you’ve even tried putting a clove of garlic up there. Or a sprig of parsely.

But hold onto your herbs, because there’s something new for you to try: “vabbing”. The term itself is a portmanteau that, put simply, means vaginal dabbing. According to TikTok, where the trend has recently gone viral, the idea is that women are using their bodily fluids as perfume in order to attract others. Yes, really.

In one of the first videos detailing the trend – which has since been deleted – TikTok user and influencer Mandy Lee hailed vabbing as the latest dating hack for women, purporting that it helped her to land dates. "I swear if you vab you will attract people, like a date, [or a one-night stand. Or you’ll just get free drinks all night," she said in the clip, which quickly racked up more than 1.5 million views.

In another video with more than 850,000 views – posted by a user who goes by @palesamoon – one woman recalls a first date with a man who “couldn’t keep his hands” off her. “But I kind of understood,” she says, “because I was doing an experiment that night [...] I decided to use my coochie juice as, like, perfume.” There are now thousands of other videos discussing the practice on the platform, with the hashtag #vabbingperfume acquiring more than 12.9 million views to date.

Like with all TikTok trends, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when – or how – this one began. But some have traced it back to a podcast episode from 2018 hosted by comedians Carly Aquilino and Emma Willman, in which a listener revealed that she had started using her own fluids as fragrance.

The practice was also given as a handy tip for single women in sexologist Shan Boodram’s 2019 book, The Game of Desire. “If copulins [chemicals secreted by the vagina] are used as perfume, then it will attract anyone traditionally attracted to women with vulvas,” Boodram wrote.

The science behind this is questionable, to say the least. Based on pheromones – the idea that scent plays an integral role in sexual attraction – it’s a highly contested concept that has been under-researched and widely misunderstood ever since it was first identified in 1959.

“Bodily secretions such as vaginal fluids contain pheromones that can convey a range of information about a person, including their genetic makeups,” explain Dr Andrea Wahling and Dr Alexandra James of La Trobe University. “In the animal kingdom, different pheromones can do different things, such as incite a behavioural response. While pheromones play an important role in how animals communicate with each other, research is divided as to whether pheromones play a significant role in sexual and romantic compatibility for humans.”

There are some studies to support the phenomenon, but they have largely been dismissed as inconclusive. One 2012 review described previous studies as “weak” because they were not controlled. Some psychologists have argued that there’s no evidence human pheromones even exist.

“The snag is that while many researchers agree on the basic properties of pheromones, there is considerable debate over which olfactory [sense of smell] cues represent pheromones,” writes Mark Sergeant, senior lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped countless fragrance brands from using this in their marketing, claiming products laced with pheromones can induce sexual attraction.

But pseudoscience aside, there’s something darker at play going on here. Ostensibly, vabbing may seem like an empowering, possibly even feminist, trend – one that celebrates women and rewrites years of social and sexual shame around the female body. At least, that’s how it has been framed by some, like one writer, who claimed that vabbing for one week made her feel “like a sexy, feral god”.

Take one look at the thousands of TikTok videos discussing the trend, though, and this narrative is quickly derailed. Currently, all of the most-viewed #vabbing videos are characterised by a sense of disgust and repulsion. As opposed to endorsing the trend, the majority of people are criticising it and, as a result, perpetuating the view that vaginas – and their apparent scent – are disgusting.

“When the one girl who’s vabbing wants to touch me,” reads the caption on a video that’s accompanied by a cry face and thumbs-down emoji. Other similar videos are illustrated with vomit and skull emojis. In one video, a woman dips her fingers into a tin of tuna before touching her wrists and neck. She later tells her husband that she has tried vabbing and, after smelling her, he quickly rushes to douse her in kitchen cleaning spray.

All of these videos send the same message: some people really hate vaginas. In a similar way to the aforementioned vaginal cleansing and steaming trends, they tap into this idea that the vagina is a problem that needs to be fixed. With this in mind, vabbing doesn’t seem like much of a trend at all, but rather a smear campaign against women’s bodies. One that is predicated on the social and sexual shame we attach to our physical selves.

It also perpetuates some rather damaging myths about women’s health. Despite what the vabbing videos may suggest, the NHS Go website states that it’s completely normal for the vagina to have a scent. “Vaginal odour can change at different times of the reproductive cycle and shouldn’t always be thought of as being a sign of infection or illness,” says Dr Sophie Elneil, a consultant in urogynaecology at University College Hospital, London. The website adds that those worried about the scent of their vagina, or find it unpleasant, should see their GP.

The funny thing is that we’ve been here before. Remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s infamous candle that stated: “This Smells Like My Vagina”? Of course you do. The £77 candle, launched in 2020 on the actor-turned-wellness guru’s lifestyle website, Goop, was described as having a “funny, gorgeous, sexy, and beautifully unexpected scent”. It blended geranium, citrus-y bergamot, and cedar with Damask rose and ambrette seed – in other words, scents not typically associated with a woman’s vagina.

Like vabbing, the intention behind the candle might have been well-meaning. But all it really did was facilitate ridicule, prompting the internet to make fun of both Paltrow and women’s bodies, highlighting just how much societal shame we attach to the vagina. But Paltrow is no fool – the candles swiftly sold out. She simply identified a taboo and, knowing it would cause a stir, turned it into dollar signs. Genius, really, even if it was mildly depressing to see a woman capitalise on vaginal shame.

The point is that while vabbing may seem new, its online ubiquity suggests a very old – and very sad – truth about how society views the female body. The question isn’t to vab or not to vab, but rather: how much longer will women have to wait until our bodies are accepted as they are?

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