Forget education and throw out access to birth control — one Indian company says it has found the answer to female empowerment: a vagina tightening gel.
The product, called 18 Again, launched on August 7. The makers, Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company Ultratech, have drawn significant criticism for boasting that 18 Again is a “femininity restoring” and “empowerment” product. With each jar selling at Rs. 2,439, or around $43, the company has invested serious money in its marketing campaign and is looking for serious returns. There’s even a Bollywood-style commercial to go with it. Take a look:
So what exactly is the idea behind 18 Again? Over to the product’s FAQ:
18 Again is a result of years of research and development done by our scientists. 18 Again addresses intimate feminine concerns of women. It helps in the rejuvenation of the vagina by tightening it in a natural way. It is a product that provides true women empowerment.
There have been a number of eyebrows raised firstly about the true effectiveness of any such creams and gels because, beyond a local vasodilating effect, it is unlikely that the gel would be able to act on the vaginal muscles at all. However, it isn’t actually the product itself that women’s rights commentators and medical professionals are most concerned over. Indeed there are already several products like this on the market in Europe and the USA.
Rather it is the “female empowerment” angle the company has used which, critics say, capitalizes on the prevalent notion that women should aspire to be and remain virginal until marriage, a cultural taboo that is still present in the slowly socially modernizing India.
“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.
“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.
There’s yet another reason to be cautious about the way 18 Again has been marketed.
Critics have pointed out that it is one of several products to come on the market recently that are actually more about pleasing men — or more specifically, upholding age-old and errant ideas about what should be pleasing to men — even though they have been dressed up as women’s cosmetics and health care.
Indeed, a recent and aggressive upsurge in skin lightening creams, where women are told they will be more successful and more prosperous in love and life if they have a lighter complexion, have taken hold in India’s stores. There has even been a vaginal whitening product put on the market, though since an outcry, that particular product has apparently been moved to ship primarily for medical retailers.
The product’s makers are standing by their claim that 18 Again is about women feeling their best, however, with the company’s owner Rishi Bhatia telling the Guardian: “Men have so many products they can buy to enhance their sexual pleasure, this is just putting sexual enhancement in the hands of women.”
This “sexual enhancement” angle seems unlikely to dissuade critics though, who charge that the product is a cynical ploy to bottle an old patriarchal idea and try to sell it to women as a means to better themselves.