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From Fair Vaginas To Regrown Hymens: Ridiculous Ways Society Controls Women’s Sexuality

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Dr Anamika Pradhan

A doctor asks: can we please have conversations around (hetero)sexual pleasure that don’t focus on ‘editing’ women’s bodies for men’s sake?

The other day, I got a text message from a friend that really made me sit up!

It was a link to an ad by a doctor who was openly advertising some incredible ‘services’. “Complete re-virgination akin to 16-year-old girl” (₹ 65,000), “Hoodectomy for more sexual pleasure” (₹ 20,000), and “Superfemale with superhymenoplasty” (₹ 1,15,000), were just some of the items on his list—with prices in rupees and dollars. Out of the kindness of his heart, it appears, he also offers a heavy discount.

Ironically, the friend who told me about him is a filmmaker who has been working on mobilising women to speak out against khatna, the female genital mutilation (FGM), which is being practised in India for religious and cultural reasons and aims to control female sexuality. And here was a member of the medical profession advertising for more unnecessary procedures involving women’s genitals, claiming it would lead to pleasure—but for whom?

There is a clue here: the doctor in question also offers a training programme and has published an article in a journal which starts like this: “Hymenoplasty is required to restore the hymen if torn before marriage. Nowadays, hymenoplasty is also requested by some females at their 25th anniversary to be enjoyed as re-virgin.”

And here was a member of the medical profession advertising for more unnecessary procedures involving women’s genitals, claiming it would lead to pleasure—but for whom? Illustration by Maddox Pazl

While one may be inclined to dismiss this as an individual case, the shocking reality is that this doctor isn’t the only one of his kind. There’s a growing medical-corporate-pharma complex that feeds into people’s insecurities and upholds patriarchal ideas of what is appropriate for women’s bodies. It starts off with the insidious and all-pervasive suggestion to be ‘fair and lovely’, and then moves on to the need to have flawless skin, no body hair but luxurious hair on your head, smelling like a flower, being slim, and hence, always attractive to men. But it doesn’t end with just a focus on external appearance.

There is a vaginal ‘tightening’ product called 18 Again that was advertised for a brief while and still continues to be sold. It talks about how it makes the sex feel like the “first time every time”. It also claims to include gold among its ingredients, as well as Punica Granatum, about which it says on its website: “According to a legend, Punica Granatum grew in the Garden of Eden and the fruit has been used as a folk medicine for thousands of years.” Of course, there are plenty such ‘snake oil’ variations being sold to gullible people, but this one actually has gynaecologists endorsing it on their website.

Setting aside the tall claims of such products, what is so exciting about a woman’s ‘first time’ that one can market that as something worthwhile? Who is a ‘tight’ vagina meant to be pleasurable for? Clearly, for her male partner. How can we have a conversation about women’s sexual pleasure without talking about a range of topics such as foreplay, relationship issues, male erectile dysfunction? Even the medication for male erectile dysfunction gets marketed as something that will help men regain sexual pleasure, not for women whose partners are unable to get it up!

If society, with the premium it places on “purity” and virginity, sees women’s sexuality through the lens of male pleasure and is okay with asking women to do unreasonable things to their bodies, doctors are caught in this cultural web too. The reality is that in five years of MBBS and three years of post-graduate training (whether in ObGyn or any other field), there is no formal training on issues of sexual health. When it comes to women, the entire focus is on reproduction and in managing pathologies like menstrual disorders and other conditions. The biology of pleasure does not figure in understanding women’s bodies, and this is a cultural bias that shapes the medical field.

Has anyone looked at the textbooks we learn from? One of the forensic medicine textbooks defines a virgin as “a female upon whose body the sex act has not been performed”—so only women are virgins, and their role in sex is seen as a passive one; of receivers, not participants. Forensic medicine deals with medico-legal cases (such as rape), and thus, this kind of mindset is disturbing.

We know that beauty is only skin deep, but the misogyny surrounding it and self-hate it creates can cut us right down to our bones. Illustrated by Maddox Pazl

Doctors are taught to do the ‘two-finger test’ (based on the scientifically incorrect idea that a tight vagina indicates that someone hasn’t had sex before, while a lax one means a woman is ‘habituated to sex’) for ‘proof’ of rape in a victim. The logic is that if you are a woman who is used to having sex, then you probably weren’t actually raped. Despite changes in guidelines for examining victims of sexual assault and a Supreme Court ban on the test in 2013, many doctors still continue to use the ‘two-finger test’. Only in May 2019 did Maharashtra remove it from medical textbooks, and it is probably the only state to have done so.

How does one make the transition from being a 19-year-old fresh medical student who is being taught this, day in and day out and is studying this and needing to write this as an answer in an exam, to becoming a 27-year-old practising doctor who will be able to recognise that this is objectification and derogatory, and that ‘virgin’ is not even a medical topic but a socio-cultural concept created by patriarchy to control women’s sexuality? That it really has no place in a medical syllabus or application?

It is a tough journey to make and most never even bother to think that deeply beyond the overwhelming amount of bio-medical information they need to learn, in the absence of any social and cultural contexts or gender and rights sensitisation.

It is a sign of the changing times that there is currently, quite rightly, much being written about the judgemental attitudes of doctors (especially gynaecologists) towards women and their sexual lives.

Illustrated by Maddox Pazl

The Supreme Court may have declared the right to privacy, but when will the medical profession learn to respect the privacy and the personal spaces and sexual choices of women? When will medical textbooks stop talking of virginity and two-finger tests and include discussion on the social, cultural and religious environment within which health and health seeking is practised?

The medical and nursing professions should ideally be at the forefront of enabling such social change, since they bear witness on a daily basis to the violations that women and young girls face as a result of archaic and oppressive gender norms. Medicine could be a discipline which makes us see human beings afresh and opens up our mind to human life in a more realistic way; helping us be better doctors who help people be healthier in a holistic way.

We know that beauty is only skin deep, but the misogyny surrounding it and self-hate it creates can cut us right down to our bones, as do harmful ideas about women’s bodies and women’s sexuality, which deeply impact mental health and in turn the overall health of people. If doctors’ goal is to provide healthcare to women, then it’s time they actually focus on women’s health and women’s rights, not damaging women’s minds and bodies for some misguided cultural ideals.

About the author: Dr Anamika Pradhan is a practising specialist in Mumbai who has studied at one of the medical colleges in the city and feels strongly about the need to produce more humane and thoughtful doctors who can be agents of change in society.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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