In recent months, there has been a rise in influencers and online sellers pushing creams, gels and lotions to “tighten” the vagina. These unregulated and potentially harmful products are being sold via social media platforms like Facebook and Tik Tok, and even in pharmacies. In fact, one member of the Klahaan team was handed one such product as a ‘gift’ after receiving a Covid vaccine at a school in Boeung Tumpun, showing how mainstream these products are and how widely they are becoming pushed on women.
So what’s the problem?
1. The first issue is the potential for physical harm caused by the use of such products in this sensitive area of the body. According to medical experts, cis women and other people with vulvas and vaginas should not be applying any chemicals to these areas, instead only using clean warm water and – if anything else – a mild, gentle, unscented soap to keep the vulva clean. The reason for this is the risk of infection; skin reactions including burning sensations and rashes; and even scarring.
“Applying these creams could end up causing itching, irritation or trigger some reaction. And if there’s some strong substance in it, it could be even worse.” – Dr Rishma Pai, Gynaecologist, speaking to The Quint World, 2018
2. The second problem with these products is the way they contribute to psychologically harmful ideas about the value of women and the desirability of their bodies being bound together with their virginity. In the sale and popularity of these products, what we’re seeing is a capitalist expression of long-standing and harmful beliefs about women’s desirability being bound together with their chastity.
Considering that many of these products contain names along the lines of ‘Virgin Again’ or ‘Like a Virgin,’ we can see that women are yet again being told their bodies are in need of improving – and that they can be sold a cure for these supposed flaws.
In reality, having sex often or even with different partners does not permanently stretch the vagina. As expert Dr. Michelle Metz put it in Women's Health:
‘the vagina is like a muscular rubber band, that stretches during sex and returns to its original shape and size.’
Some argue that the one exception to this rule is that the first time a cis woman has penetrative sex, there may be some stretching that takes place. However, when it comes to creams that allege they can make the vagina become ‘Like a Virgin,’ let’s unpack this idea and consider the following:
For many women, their first time having penetrative sex is painful. Often, too painful to enjoy. In fact, one study of heterosexual women reported that only a quarter of them reached orgasm during intercourse within the first year they started having partnered sex.
So why on earth would grown women want their experience of sex to return to the (often) painful, inexperienced state of first-time intercourse?
The answer, of course, lies in the internalisation of sexist norms that constantly tell us or hint to us that men’s pleasure and gaze is more important than a woman’s physical experience.
In fact, research has shown that when men are asked what ‘bad sex’ is to them, the answer is usually ‘boring’ or ‘unsatisfying’. For women, the answers are often along very different lines, of ‘pain,’ ‘coercion,’ or ‘fear of being hurt.’
According to sex and relationship therapist Lisa Torney, women aren't just more likely to experience consensual sex that's bad, painful and unsatisfying, they are also socialised to prioritise men's pleasure over their own.
Thus, when women are told their intimate body parts should be chemically reverted back to how they existed before women were likely able to derive pleasure from the sexual experience rather than pain, a dangerous message is being sent that reinforces wider norms about the cost of men’s pleasure being women’s pain – and that being okay.
What about after childbirth?
For some women and other people with vaginas, especially those who have given birth vaginally, there may be a genuine desire to tighten (or loosen!) the pelvic floor muscles in order to improve bladder control issues (being able to hold in wee without leaking) and sometimes to improve sexual function.
Nonetheless, the path to women’s sexual wellbeing in such cases lies not in potentially harmful chemical gels and creams, but in pelvic floor muscle exercises to strengthen (or release) the muscles of the vaginal wall.* More information about ‘kegels’ as the most well-known exercises are called, should become more widely available so that women are aware of them, can decide whether they are right for them and, if so, how to do them properly. In addition, many more physical therapists should be trained in pelvic floor and vaginal muscle issues, and made more widely available and accessible to Cambodian women experiencing pelvic pain or sexual dysfunction.
In short, products that claim to tighten the vagina should be steered well clear of, alongside bleaching products that promote harmful and racist ideas about ‘lightening’ the vulva.
“The most sensitive skin in the body is the vulvar and vaginal tissue, so why do something that can irritate that skin for no good reason whatsoever?” – Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale Medical School, speaking with Women’s Health
* For serious bladder leakage or vaginal/pelvic pain after childbirth, seeking medical advice is recommended.