If you enter a French home or hotel room, you might come across an item that resembles a toilet without the lid or water inside, or perhaps just a hose attached to the toilet.
These are bidets – intended as an aid in washing one’s private parts or to be used after defecating. For those who have never used one before, the principle is that you spray water on your underside, which helps you clean off after toilet use.
They’re intended as a toilet aid, but some people also use them to wash their feet – ultimately in the privacy of your own bathroom you can use them for whatever you like, the bidet police will not come knocking.
READ MORE: OPINION: Please stop saying that French people smell – we do wash every day
If you’re wondering if the word bidet is French, then your hunch would be correct. Bidets are a French invention hailing from the 1600s, and the term comes from the Old French word for pony and the verb “bider” – which meant ‘to trot’ – because when using a traditional bidet, one straddles the device in a similar fashion to riding a horse.
Over the past three centuries, they have become popular in many countries, so much so that Italian law requires that all bathrooms contain one. In Japan, bidet-style attachments, called ‘Washlets’ are commonplace.
They never caught on in the anglophone world, however (partly due to confused American soldiers and brothels) and in France itself they are also falling out of favour.
The French origins of the bidet
Originally, bidets had an aristocratic connection. They came about prior to the French revolution, and they were first and foremost seen as high-class.
In a think-piece titled “The Bidet’s Revival” in The Atlantic, author Marie Teresa Hart wrote that bidets were once so integral to French civilised life, that “even the imprisoned Marie Antoinette was granted a red-trimmed one while awaiting the guillotine. She may have been in a dank, rat-infested cell, but her right to freshen up would not be denied.”
There are even famous paintings of aristocratic ladies using their bidets – like one by Louis-Léopold Boilly featuring a woman straddling her bidet.
Had no idea what I was getting into when I pitched a story about the evolution of the bidet.
-Brothels and the Museum of Abortion & Contraception ✔️
-Napoleon soaking his saddle sore man bits. ✔️
-And this spicy bidet painting, circa 1790. ✔️
— Tree Meinch (@timeinch) November 22, 2022
Apparently, Napoleon was a big fan of the devices, and was known to have been the owner of a silver bidet.
Bidets made their way to the other social classes in Europe in the 1800s, alongside advances in plumbing.
How do the French feel about them now?
Despite the former emperor’s preference for bidets, they have fallen out of fashion in France since the 1960s.
According to Le Figaro, they are rarely installed in new and recent housing in France. L’Obs found that only about 42 percent of French households now have bidets, in comparison to almost 100 percent just 20 years ago.
One key reason bidet usage in France has decreased, according to Vitrine-Banyo, is a lack of space, especially in city apartments – many families now choose to use their space to add a washing machine or other equipment.
Others point to a rise in toilet paper, as well as modern contraceptive methods – as previously many believed that douching with a bidet after intercourse could help prevent pregnancy.
Are bidets safe?
When maintained and used properly, experts tend to agree that bidets are safe and hygienic. For example, you should sanitise the bidet prior to using it to avoid spraying yourself with any germs that may have landed on the device.
If you have a vagina you should always wash from the front to the back, in order to avoid getting any fecal matter near the vagina or urethra.
They have one major advantage – a much lower environmental impact than toilet paper. For example, if Americans switched to bidets, at least 15 million trees could be saved.
Americans against bidets
Bidets never really took off in the United States in the same way that they did in Europe, which might explain why a number of Americans tourists visiting countries like France and Italy have found themselves confused by the devices.
There are many myths about bidets that have coloured American imaginations for decades. These are mostly attributable to the experiences of American soldiers after the Second World War.
According to Slate, as soldiers visited brothels, they discovered for the first time the presence of bidets and began to associate the devices with prostitution, even though they were quite common in many French homes.
This assumption, in addition to widespread American beliefs that vaginal douching could be a form of contraception and was therefore sinful, helped spread the idea that owning a bidet would be inappropriate in some way.
In 1936, Norman Haire, a pioneer in the field of contraception, even noted that “having a bidet in one’s home was considered a symbol of sin”.
American sociologist Harvey Molotch told The Atlantic that “all the power of capitalism can’t break the taboo, as the devices were associated with French ‘hedonism and sexuality’.
Despite American conservatism regarding bidets, they became very commonplace in Catholic Italy, so much so that they have been included in legal building requirements in Italy for nearly 50 years now.
READ MORE: Reader question: Are bidets legally required in Italian homes?
Article 7 of a Ministerial Decree issued on July 5th, 1975 states that “in each house, at least one bathroom must have the following fixtures: a toilet, a bidet, a bathtub or shower, and a sink”.
If they were really meant for cleaning after defecation they would be next to the toilet. But, despite your photo, most French homes equipped with them have them in the bathroom, and the WC is in a separate little room. I think this is another American and perhaps Japanese misperception. My understanding is that they’re simply meant for washing what my mom used to call “the pertinent parts”. They were essential to daily ablutions in a time when many people took a full bath only once a week or so.