Washing out mouth with soap

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1937 cartoon in Boys' Life

Washing out mouth with soap is a form of physical punishment that consists in placing soap, or a similar cleansing agent, inside a person's mouth so that the person will taste it, inducing what most people consider an unpleasant experience. One method uses a bar of soap which is placed in a person's mouth; the person can then be forced to hold it for a period of time and/or swallow it.

Washing out mouth with soap is most often used as a response to profanity, lying, biting,[1] tobacco use, or verbal disrespect. It functions both as a symbolic "cleansing" following the infraction, as well as acting as a deterrent due to the foul aftertaste. It is commonly used as child discipline or school discipline, and is more frequently employed by mothers than fathers.[2]

Liquid soap, dishwashing liquid, or certain other liquid or solid cleansers may be used; in the case of liquids the person may be forced to swallow or to swish the liquid in his or her mouth for a period of time. The used product may also be brushed onto a person's teeth and/or oral soft tissues using a toothbrush.

This punishment still has advocates today, even though its use has diminished considerably in recent years in favour of discipline methods that are not considered violent or humiliating. Additionally, soaps and detergents can have potentially harmful results, including vomiting, diarrhea, irritation of the lining of the mouth and digestive tract, and in rare instances, pulmonary aspiration.


One of the earliest recorded uses of forcing another to ingest soap as punishment appeared in the 1832 Legal Examiner, in which it was noted that a married couple "were constantly quarrelling ; and that one evening, on the man's return home, he found his wife intoxicated, [...] perceiving a piece of kitchen soap lying on the ground near the spot, he crammed it into his wife's mouth, saying, "She has had plenty of water to wash with, she ought now to have a little soap".[4]

In the 1860s, the periodical Aunt Judy's Annual Volume featured the main characters forced to eat a bar of soap as punishment for constantly failing to wash up, as the climax to a story entitled "Scaramouches at School".[5]

In 1872, The Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal stated that the practice of washing out the mouth of a child heard to swear was noted by an American colleague, and should be recommended to colleagues in the Orient as well.[6]

In 1873, a schoolmistress in Mahaska, Iowa was noted to have punished a boy in her class for indulging in chewing tobacco by washing his mouth out with soap.[7] Much later examples tell how Filipino or Lakota aboriginals were punished for speaking their native language with a similar punishment.[8][9]

An 1898 "study in moral education", published by the Journal of Genetic Psychology, noted that whipping, withdrawal of privileges, lectures, being sent alone to a room and washing out a subject's mouth with either soap, salt or pepper, were the most likely punishments to deter future abuses.[10] Two years later, a New York State Department of Social Welfare officer submitted a complaint against the Rochester Orphan Asylum noting that "I find, as charged, that children's mouths have been washed with soap-suds, but not, as also charged, with ashes and water; that such punishments were ordered for obscene or profane language".[11] By the start of the 20th century, the practice was also noted at the Maryland State Reformatory for Women as punishment for any infraction of the rules.[12]

In the 1950s, several American schoolboards ruled in favour of washing out a pupil's mouth with soap as a legitimate punishment.[13][14]

In 1953, Wisconsin judge Harvey L. Neelan fined a Miss Mertz $25 for her drunken obscenities and noted that she should be required to wash her mouth with soap.[15] In 1963, Michigan judge Francis Castellucci ordered Louis Winiarski, who had been found using obscene language around women and children, to wash his mouth with soap before leaving the courtroom.[16] A similar case in October 1979 saw a New York resident choose to wash his mouth out with soap, rather than serve ten days in prison for his disorderly conduct and obscenities.[17]

In 1977, the National Criminal Justice Reference System published a report defending the use of corporal punishment in schools, in which a school administrator noted that he documented 200 cases, over his 13-year career, of using corporal punishmenting, noting "That's not just using paddles in every instance, but if you shake a student, if you grab a student, if you wash a student's mouth out with soap, that's corporal punishment under the definition of the law".[18]

In 1982, the Journal of Youth and Adolescence listed the practise, alongside paddling and hairpulling as a "moderate" punishment for children, beneath the realm of "severe" punishment such as whipping.[19] Similarly in 1996, the American Academy of Pediatrics classified it as an alternative to spanking.[20]

In 2006, students at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts carried out a peer-reviewed study on the ability of punishment to curb the use of profanity by interviewing colleagues on their remembered upbringings, and noted that the most commonly reported parental reaction was a verbal reprimand (41%). Soap in the mouth was mentioned in 20% of the episodes, and physical punishments were described in 14%.[21]

Legal ramifications[edit]

An infant having his mouth washed out with soap

There have been a number of cases of arrests, charges and civil lawsuits arising from the domestic discipline of washing another's mouth out with soap; often arising from the perception of abuse of parental authority by an outside figure.

In the United States, there is often variance between individual states as well;[22] for example North Carolina specifically instructs its social workers that "washing a child’s mouth out with soap is not considered an extreme measure",[23] but the Florida Department of Children and Families took away a mother's two children permanently after she forced her 8-year-old daughter to chew soap after saying the F word, leading to an allergic reaction.[24][25][26][27][28]

Notable cases[edit]

  • In 1890, a Mormon father submitted a complaint to the Brooklyn, Nevada school board noting that a teacher had washed his daughter's mouth out with soap, after she lied to the teacher.[29]
  • In November 1980, an African American mother in Albany, Georgia appealed to the school board to fire the Caucasian teacher who had washed her daughter's mouth out with soap. When the schoolboard refused, 500 black families picketed the school board.[30][31]
  • In March 1949, twenty years before the advent of no fault divorce, Mary L. Muick was granted a divorce against her husband Joseph Muick in San Jose, California after he retaliated against her own threats to soap his son's mouth for foul language at a family gathering, by forcibly washing her mouth with soap.[32]
  • Through the 1960s and 1970s, Sister Marie Docherty was accused of mistreating girls in her care at Nazareth House in Aberdeen, Scotland; including washing their mouths out with soap if they swore.[33]
  • Convicted murderer Steven W. Bowman was alleged to have washed out his girlfriend's mouth with soap in July 2000, when she mentioned her other romantic partner's name; before murdering him.[34]
  • A teacher in Rochester, New York was suspended in 2004 for washing out the mouth of a student for using vulgar language. Following her suspension, parents and family members of her students signed a petition supporting her actions and requesting her reinstatement.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Old Remedy Not Advised. Portsmouth Daily Times - May 3, 1988
  2. ^ Dimensions of discipline by fathers and mothers as recalled by university students http://gauss.unh.edu/~mas2/DD03%20Draft%20D9.pdf
  3. ^ Good Housekeeping: Volume 9 - Page 276. 1889
  4. ^ The Legal examiner: Volume 1 - Page 508. Great Britain. Courts - 1832
  5. ^ Volume 6, Issue 32 (Aunt Judy's Annual Volume)
  6. ^ The Chinese recorder and missionary journal - Page 452. A friend of the writer in America called into the bath room a little son who was heard for the first time to swear, and scrubbed his mouth out with soap and a nail brush
  7. ^ The New York State educational journal: devoted to popular ...: Volumes 2-3 - Page 607books.google.comO. R. Burchard, New York State Teachers Association - 1873
  8. ^ Styles of speaking: an analysis of Lakota communication alternatives ES Grobsmith - Anthropological Linguistics, 1979
  9. ^ The Man in the Outhouse: How Western Colonization Silenced the Filipino Imagination. P Abarquez-Delacruz - Amerasia Journal, 1999
  10. ^ Journal of genetic psychology: Volume 5. Granville Stanley Hall, Carl Allanmore Murchison - 1898
  11. ^ Report. New York (State). Dept. of Social Welfare - 1890
  12. ^ Initiated Water Cure. The Sun (1837-1985) - Baltimore, Md. Date: Dec 21, 1919
  13. ^ Washing Mouth With Soap Ruled Okay .St. Petersburg Times - Dec 14, 1955
  14. ^ Mouth-Washing Of Pupil Seen As Not Violating School Policy -Hartford Courant - Apr 29, 1956
  15. ^ The Milwaukee Journal - Jan 16, 1953
  16. ^ Kentucky New Era - Jul 10, 1963
  17. ^ The Press-Courier - Oct 19, 1979
  18. ^ A practical defense of corporal punishment in the schools[PDF] from ncjrs.govLK Reinholz - Hyman, IA, & Wise, JH (1979). Corporal punishment in schools, 1977. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/51400NCJRS.pdf#page=37
  19. ^ Corporal punishment: Normative data and sociological and psychological correlates in a community college population. JW Bryan… - Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 1982
  20. ^ A review of the outcomes of parental use of nonabusive or customary physical punishment. RE Larzelere - Pediatrics, 1996 - Am Acad Pediatrics
  21. ^ Memories of punishment for cursing. T Jay, K King… - Sex roles, 2006 www.mcla.edu/Undergraduate/uploads/textWidget/1457.00013/documents/tj_mem_punish.pdf
  22. ^ Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal Volume 23, Number 3, 316-342, DOI: 10.1007/s10560-006-0051-z Defining child abuse: Exploring variations in ratings of discipline severity among child welfare practitioners. Stephen D. Whitney, Emiko A. Tajima, Todd I. Herrenkohl and Bu Huang
  23. ^ http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/csm-60/man/CS1407-05.htm
  24. ^ http://www.floridachildinjurylawyer.com/2009/10/palm_bay_florida_couple_adriya.html
  25. ^ http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2009-10-13/news/0910130002_1_soap-department-of-children-allergic-reaction
  26. ^ Mom Arrested for Washing Kid's Mouth With Soap. By Todd Wright, Associated Press Writer. NBCMiami.Com, Oct 14, 2009.
  27. ^ http://www2.counton2.com/news/2009/oct/14/florida_child_suffers_severe_allergic_reaction_to_-ar-537697/
  28. ^ Palm Bay mother guilty of child neglect Florida Today - Melbourne, Fla. Author: KAUSTUV BASU Date: Aug 20, 2011
  29. ^ The Deseret weekly: Volume 40 - Page 725. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - 1890
  30. ^ Jet - 8 Jan 1981 - Page 22. Vol. 59, No. 17
  31. ^ Jet - 27 Nov 1980 - Page 40. Vol. 59, No. 11
  32. ^ "Emily Post says it ain't nice", The Deseret News - Mar 18, 1949
  33. ^ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1353093/Girl-forced-to-kiss-nuns-corpse-while-in-care.html
  34. ^ http://www.sccourts.org/opinions//unpublishedopinions/HTMLFiles/COA/2004-UP-158.htm
  35. ^ Teacher suspended for washing student's mouth out with soap. By Ben Dobbin, Associated Press Writer. CBSNEWYORK.COM, June 10, 2004.