Like a virgin. But not quite.
A screen shot from the '18 Again' ad.
Nothing has contributed more to the oppression of women than the obsession with female virginity. Restrictions on women’s freedom in both western and eastern societies all stem from the misogynistic belief that women must remain untouched until their wedding nights.
Whilst things have relaxed somewhat in the west, the patriarchal preference for female youth and purity (and what is youth if not a signifier of purity?) has been seized upon as a money-making venture by opportunistic advertisers who, in preying on women’s insecurities about age and attractiveness, have convinced women to act against their own interests.
There is no end to the ‘beauty’ products designed to, if not restore our youthful purity, then at least give us the superficial appearance of the untouched. Anti-wrinkle creams, collagen injections, facelifts and laser treatments; all promise to help women retrieve the desirability of their lost innocence.
18 Again ... a vaginal tightening cream that claims to "build inner confidence’".
While women in the west are surgically repairing their hymens to ‘regain’ their virginity to give as anniversary gifts to their husbands, Middle Eastern women who dare to have sex before marriage are having the same surgery to fool their new husbands into thinking they never lost theirs.
But I can think of nothing that exemplifies the unholy alliance of capitalism and patriarchy as much as this ad for 18 Again, a ‘vaginal tightening and rejuvenating cream’ currently being marketed at Indian women.
This is not the first wonder potion promising to ‘fix’ women’s vaginas. It is, however, the first to market itself as a ‘product of female empowerment.’ How exactly are women supposed to feel empowered by imagining themselves as perpetual teenage virgins?
The product’s owner, Rishi Bhatia, claims 18 Again ‘builds inner confidence’ and ‘boosts self-esteem’. When the middle-aged woman in the ad sings about ‘it’ feeling like her first time, says Bhata, she is simply happy that the product has restored, not her actual virginity (if only!) but the emotions of being a virgin and having sex for the first time.
It is truly staggering how the sexuality-as-empowerment idea has been turned both on its head and against us as women. Until the 1960s and 70s, sex was considered a duty faithful wives performed for their husbands. They weren’t particularly encouraged to enjoy it, and respectable women certainly weren’t to engage in it outside the safe confines of marriage. The women’s movement challenged this head on. Suddenly, a single woman who admitted to having and enjoying sex was empowered, not because of the sex itself but because she was breaking a major taboo.
But having sex freely wasn’t who she was, it was never meant to define her as a person. It was simply something she did. Like eating, voting and working, sex was part of being a complete human being. Fast forward to the 1990s and the girl power movement -co-opted by the men behind the Spice Girls- corrupted this concept by foregrounding sexual desirability. Girl-power, despite its quasi-feminist moniker, was really about men because it equated ‘power’ with being a sex object.
18 Again is another manifestation of empowerment-as-sex-object, especially coming as it does in a society that is adopting a western lifestyle whilst remaining shackled by patriarchal attitudes. Far from empowering women, it is the latest incarnation of the tired virgin-whore dichotomy, which renders a woman either acceptable (virgin) or contemptible (whore). Desirable or derisible. What 18 Again says is that the best kind of woman is not a woman at all but a young girl.
Naturally, many women in India are critical of this affront to their very existence. In a country rigidly ruled by the caste system, caste purity was traditionally maintained by strictly policing women’s sexual activity. There were women men went a-whoring with, and women men married with nothing in between.
Annie Raja, from the National Federation of Indian Women, calls bullshit on 18 Again, and its affirmation of the patriarchal notion that men only want to marry virgins. ‘Why should women stay virgins until they are married?’ she asks.
Well, never mind the wedding night, it appears 18 Again wants women remain virgins forever.
And that is what is truly insidious about the current face of patriarchy. It tries, and often succeeds, in fooling women into thinking it is about them when really it is about men (yes, yes, I know, not all men). What this product is actually selling women is the degrading idea that the greatest asset a woman can have is a tight, unsullied vagina.
That 18 Again is not really about women is obvious from how clueless it is about female sexual pleasure . This woman is actually singing about how great her first time felt? Seriously? Had you been a fly on the wall during my ‘first time’, this is what you would have been privy to:
‘I can’t get it in. You’re too tense. Just relax!’
‘Sorry! I can’t help it. It hurts! Is this better?’
‘Yeah…no you’re all tense again.’
This went on for about two hours. Empowering stuff, eh? But, as I said it’s not about us. And truth be told, it’s not really about men’s sexual pleasure either. Do men really think that virgins make better lovers? No, but the obsession with female virginity has never been about sex per se. It’s about keeping women in their place, it’s about a woman’s body belonging to a man, and it’s a reminder to women that their value diminishes with age and sexual activity.
It’s ultimate aim is to make money but in the process 18 Again, like so many products before it, keeps patriarchal repression alive by encouraging both men and women to see youthful virginity as the ideal state for a woman.