How a vaginal cream ad has prompted debate about sexuality in India


August 30, 2012

While India is fast becoming the next superpower, this rapid economic growth is not yet matched by a sexual revolution

August 30, 2012

While India is fast becoming the next superpower, this rapid economic growth is not yet matched by a sexual revolution

An Indian bride. Sex before marriage is still widely frowned upon in India. Photograph: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

What do you think of when you hear the words "female empowerment"? Equal pay, the pill, the vote… Or, according to Indian pharmaceutical company, Ultratech, a tighter vagina.

An advert for the dubiously named 18 Again, a "vaginal tightening and rejuvenation cream", has caused an outcry in India. In it, a sari-clad woman dances around her husband singing "I feel like a virgin". He's very happy about it, despite the fact that most of his family seem to be present. Her mother-in-law (just who you want to witness the joy of your newly tightened female genitalia), first looks disapproving, but ends up ordering some for herself as her delighted husband looks on.

The video is ridiculous, but it has prompted serious debate. While it is not the first cream of its kind – similar products, such as Intivar, are already on sale in the US and elsewhere – it does demonstrate conflicting forces in modern Indian society. Attitudes to sexuality are beginning to relax, particularly in big cities – but conservative morality remains powerful.

For the vast majority of people in India, premarital sex is taboo. A poll last year by India Today magazine found that fewer than one in five (19%) of respondents were open to the idea of pre-marital sex or live-in relationships. This is despite the fact that people are having sex earlier: another survey showed the average age at which Indians lose their virginity dropping from 23 in 2006 to 19.8 in 2011. Behaviour, then, is changing, particularly in urban areas. But whatever people are doing behind closed doors, social attitudes are slower to catch up. Tellingly, in the India Today survey, a quarter of people said they had no objection to sex before marriage, as long as it was not happening in their family.

While India is fast becoming the next superpower, this rapid economic growth is not matched by a corresponding sexual revolution. Although India's enormous size and range in terms of development and attitudes makes it difficult to generalise, shame culture remains powerful and pervasive. The obsession with virginity – a manifestation of the desire to control the female body – is a symptom of this. At best, in more liberal areas such as the major cities, you might see attitudes equivalent to "slut-shaming" in the west. People are secretive about their activities, and women known to have had several sexual partners may be seen as less desirable. At worst, in rural areas or among poorer communities, sex outside marriage can mean complete social exclusion or even death. It is not uncommon for divorced women to be rejected in their villages, seen as licentious and dangerous because they are not virgins.

Against this backdrop, Ultratech's claim that the product aims to "empower women" rings false. "Men have so many products they can buy to enhance their sexual pleasure, this is just putting sexual enhancement in the hands of women," says Rishi Bhatia, the company's owner. It is noteworthy that he is using the language of sexual empowerment at all, but who does it provide pleasure for? Of course, it's the man. Most women would agree that losing their virginity was far from being their most pleasurable sexual encounter.

Dressed up as empowerment for women, but propagating deeply conservative values, 18 Again indicates that despite increasing consumerism, India has not let go of its repressive attitudes to female sexuality. While the backlash in Indian newspapers and websites shows that women are fighting back, it is anyone's guess how long it will take for this battle against the dual forces of patriarchy and consumerism in Indian society to be won.

This article originally appeared on