Sex and the Single Indian

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The BBC’s inability to comprehend religion is not a new story at GetReligion. Often as not the corporation appears oblivious to the faith dimension of a story. I should say the BBC’s religion reporters are a professional lot and there are a number of fine specialty programs that treat faith issues well and when it focuses on religion it does a good job. It is outside the religion ghetto that the BBC fails to “get religion.”

This item, “Virginity cream sparks Indian sex debate”, is an example of the BBC’s failure to comprehend the faith element of a story.

It begins:

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.

The article starts off with a few facts about the product but then turns into a discussion of the importance of virginity for women. It states:

… 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.

The clause that ends this paragraph frames the rest of the story: “which is even seen as sinful by some.”

The BBC then lines up critics of 18 Again: doctors, activists and bloggers whose objections are that the add campaign reinforces a taboo on pre-marital sex.

Objection one comes from Annie Raja of the National Federation of Indian Women who says “this kind of cream is utter nonsense, and could give some women an inferiority complex,” as it reaffirms

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.”

Second comes the doctor with the sex-advice column in the newspapers.

“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. … Men still hope they’re marrying a virgin, but more girls in India, at least in the towns and cities, are having sex before.”

And then we move to the internet. Man (woman) in the street comments followed by Dr Nisreen Nakhoda, “a GP who advises on sexual health for the medical website MDhil” who questions the science behind the product, and observes:

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.

Any comment representing a voice in support of the traditional view? No, but the BBC does provides a sidebar which begins with this questionable statement:

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.

But closes with the admission that virginity is a religious issue and is:

Considered to be a spiritual obligation, Hindu wedding ceremonies even today centre round the Kanyadaan, which literally translates as the gift of a virgin.

From the start the BBC has framed this story in a faith-free atmosphere.  We see this in the line about some “even” seeing pre-marital sex as being sinful. Who might these people be? Answer: India’s Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Parsis to name but a few.

Were India a fiercely secular society, such an omission might be justified. But it is not — nor are the rates of pre-marital sex comparable to the West. A study by the International Institute for Population Studies estimated that 3 per cent of women had engaged in pre-marital sex.

Why? Perhaps it is because sexuality for a woman in the Vedic tradition of Hindu culture is controlled by her age and marital status. It frames virginity, chastity and celibacy as being appropriate for distinct periods of life. Virginity is expected of a woman before marriage and chastity is expected within marriage. Celibacy, as signaled by an ascetic withdrawal from the obligations of marriage and family life, takes place at the end of life with abstinence being a liberation of the self from worldly attachments. While Tantric cults exalted women in worship, their sexual mores did not extend to a modern notion of female sexual autonomy. While the ideal seldom governs the real, it must be stated that pre-marital sex simply does not work within the Hindu worldview.

From what I have read, discussions of sexuality in India often turn to a mythologized past where it is claimed “openness and a lack of hypocrisy” ruled. This is the Kama Sutra narrative, but it is not history. It is more a product of the nationalist aspirations of the rising middle classes of the Twentieth century, mixed with anti-colonialism, coupled with a dash of “Orientalism” — a belief in repressed Westerners and liberated Orientals. However the Kama Sutra narrative of Indian sexuality is largely irrelevant to an understanding of its modern manifestations and as sociologist Sanjay Srivastava of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi writes:

is best confined to expensive coffee table books of our ‘glorious’ past that was supposedly destroyed by foreign invaders.

Does the BBC truly believe that it is not necessary to note the objections that might come from religious scruples? I do not believe I am being too harsh. Though an off color topic, the story was not treated in a light tone. It was given the full BBC treatment — 1400 words including an analysis side bar. Yet the final result was one-sided and woefully incomplete.

Bottom line — a poor outing once again for the BBC.

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  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I personally find it extremely — I don’t know — narcissistic, maybe — that people who want to promote “modern” sexual attitudes see an indictment of their opinions in an ad for a product targeting women who have been married for a while, and who were most likely virgins when they got married. The ad knows its target audience. The funny thing is, women who are sexually active earlier are more likely to be wanting this product sooner in their lives than women who wait to get married first. And if they’re that concerned about enjoying sex, they may want the benefits of this product even more than women who are less concerned.

    I find it a strange reaction to the ad in any case, and it says a lot about the mentality of the reporters and the publisher.

    The religion angle to me is certainly a topic that was raised and not fully explored, and so seems like a hole in the structure of the article. Yet, the religion ghosts may not be the religious motives behind virginity in India, but the lack thereof (it seems) behind the critics’ complaints.

  • http://www.twitter.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

    But does it work?! :-)

    (Also, there are millions of Muslims in India, so it’s not just a question of how Hindu culture traditionally views premarital sex… assuming that this product is actually aiming for that market, and not women who are already married.)

    • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

      There is also a significant, if small, Christian population, whose doctrines traditionally also affirm virginity prior to marriage, chastity within it, and abstinence after it.

    • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

      And that goes for both sexes, not just women!

  • Will

    ‘“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. ‘

    Uh, that sounds like an emulation of something else…..
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s__rX_WL100

  • suburbanbanshee

    Oh, come on. The product obviously is about attempting rejuvenation or intensification, not about any kind of virginity. The only connection is the company’s attempt to convey the product’s effects without resorting to language that would get them banned from advertising openly. “Virginity” isn’t an obscene word, so they’re using it.

    So why did the BBC bother to drag in a commercial, when they wanted to do a story about “for some reason, Indians aren’t as gung ho about premarital teenage sex as today’s UK government would prefer them to be”?

  • http://www.doulos.at/ Wolf Paul

    One thing I find astonishing is that even the BBC is no longer even grammatically competent. The paragraph you cite as defining the religious angle of this story actually does not say that some people view extra-marital sex as sinful; it says that some people view THE TABOO on such sex as sinful. No doubt some do, but they wouldn’t use the “s” word, and of course that’s not what the author intended to say. It’s just grammatical incompetence on the part of both author and editor.


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