Virginity cream sparks Indian sex debate
An Indian company has launched what it claims is the country's first vagina tightening cream, saying it will make women feel "like a virgin" again. The company says it is about empowering women, but critics say it is doing the opposite. The BBC's Rajini Vaidyanathan in Mumbai reports.
It is certainly a bold claim. As the music starts playing on the advertisement for the 18 Again cream, a sari-clad woman is singing and dancing.
It is an unusual take on Bollywood.
"I feel like a virgin," she croons, although the advert makes it clear she is not.
Her shocked in-laws look on, before her husband joins her for some salsa-style dancing.
"Feels like the very first time," she continues, as she is twirled around.
Cut away to her mother-in-law who begins by responding with a disgusted look on her face, but by the end of the advert even she has been won over, and is seen buying the product online.
This video is designed to market a vaginal "rejuvenation and tightening" product, which was launched this month in India.
The makers of 18 Again, the Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company Ultratech, say it is the first of its kind in India (similar creams are already available in other parts of the world such as the USA), and fills a gap in the market.
Ancient India has always been celebrated for its openness and lack of hypocrisy, for its modernity and inclusive attitude; but in one aspect, it has remained rigid: the need for women to be virgins.
Because society was divided into four rather inflexible social groups, straying from or intermingling between these castes was seen as a state worse than death.
So to ensure racial purity, inter- caste marriages were strictly forbidden, with children from such marriages being declared to be illegitimate.
Amorous adventures between the classes, however was freely permitted.
So, there were two kinds of women: one for procreation and one for pleasure and obviously the one who bore your children had to be from the same caste and definitely a virgin.
Chastity, thus, had little to do with waiting for the right man or exploring one's sexuality and everything to do with preserving racial purity, for only virgins could hope to attain the aspired status of wife.
Considered to be a spiritual obligation, Hindu wedding ceremonies even today centre round the Kanyadaan, which literally translates as the gift of a virgin.
Ultratech's owner, Rishi Bhatia, says the cream, which is selling for around $44 (£28), contains natural ingredients including gold dust, aloe vera, almond and pomegranate, and has been clinically tested.
"It's a unique and revolutionary product which also works towards building inner confidence in a woman and boosting her self esteem," says Mr Bhatia, adding that the goal of the product is to "empower women".
Mr Bhatia says the product is not claiming to restore a woman's virginity, but to restore the emotions of being a virgin.
"We are only saying, 'feel like a virgin' - it's a metaphor. It tries to bring back that feeling when a person is 18."
But the company's advertising strategy has attracted criticism from some doctors, women's groups and social media users, who say the product reinforces the widely held view in India that pre-marital sex is something to be frowned upon, a taboo which is even seen as sinful by some.
"This kind of cream is utter nonsense, and could give some women an inferiority complex," argues Annie Raja from the National Federation of Indian Women, which fights for women's rights in the country.
Ms Raja says that rather than empower women, the cream will do the opposite, by reaffirming a patriarchal view that is held by many here - the notion that men want all women to be virgins until their wedding night.
"Why should women remain a virgin until marriage? It is a woman's right to have sexual relations with a man, but society here still says they should not until they are brides."
"Being a virgin is still prized, and I don't think attitudes will change in this century," says Dr Mahinda Watsa, a gynaecologist who writes a popular sexual advice column in the Mumbai Mirror and Bangalore Mirror newspaper.
Dr Watsa has answered more than 30,000 questions from Indians wanting sexual advice, and says a common question from men is how to find out whether their wife is a virgin, or from women who are keen their husband doesn't know they are not.
"Men still hope they're marrying a virgin, but more girls in India, at least in the towns and cities, are having sex before.
"Women write to me - and say, what do I do? I've had sex with other people but how do I convince people that I'm a virgin?"
Dr Watsa says that in major cities and towns more people are sexually active before marriage - more women working and having independence has led to women having more confidence and interactions with men.
"There is definitely more casual sex and sex before marriage happening in India nowadays," says Dr Nisreen Nakhoda, a GP who advises on sexual health for the medical website MDhil.
Dr Nakhoda is sceptical about how a cream such as 18 Again can work.
"Tightening the vagina is done by the vaginal muscles so I don't know how a local cream can do the job," she says, but believes it has the potential to do well in India because even if practices are changing, attitudes are not catching up as fast, so some people would try anything to cover up any hint of their actions.
"It's all very under wraps and discreet, no-one really discusses their sex lives with their friends or boyfriends," says Dr Nakhoda.
She says she has even heard stories of companies which work at night, such as call centres, finding their toilets full of condoms which they cannot flush down, as some couples find it hard to find a place to be alone.
A survey of more than 5,000 people by India Today magazine last year showed that fewer than 1 in 5 (19%) of respondents were open to the idea of pre-marital sex, or live-in relationships, with a quarter of people saying they did not object to sex before marriage, as long as it was not happening in their family.
End Quote Dr Nisreen Nakhoda
On one hand you're supposed to be the traditional demure Indian bride, but on the other hand, you don't want to have to wait for sex”
"We're brought up being told that having sex with someone is a bit vulgar," says one 26-year-old virgin.
"When you're younger it's hard to have a boyfriend, and most of my friends who did had to go to great lengths to lie to their parents," adds the girl, who says she hopes to lose her virginity to her husband.
Another 27-year-old girl, who first had sex at the age of 20 and has had three sexual partners, believes a lot of the stigma comes from the idea that a man wants to feel like he owns a woman, adding that the idea that a women who sleeps with multiple partners might be called a "slut" is something all societies have to contend with.
"The Indian mindset is in a state of turmoil," says Dr Nahkoda,
"The young generation wants to be hip and cool and try out sex before marriage, but they're still brought up in the traditional set up where it's taboo to have sex before marriage. This leads to a lot of confusion in many teenagers.
"On one hand you're supposed to be the traditional demure Indian bride, but on the other hand, you don't want to have to wait for sex because people are marrying later. Temptations are coming their way and people are no longer resisting," says Dr Nakhoda.
The introduction of a vagina tightening cream, follows a recent controversy over a vagina skin lightening cream. Both are examples of how traditional values are clashing with newer ones in today's India.
Annie Raja says these kind of products are all about giving men control over how a woman should behave or look, and that this is outdated and dangerous.
But Ultratech's Rishi Bhatia says the fuss is unwarranted.
"Men have so many products they can buy to enhance their sexual pleasure, this is just putting sexual enhancement in the hands of women."