There's the red pill and blue pill, but ever heard of a virginity pill?
A simple Google search leads one to multiple products that claim that they can 'restore' a woman's virginity. These so-called 'artificial' hymens could either be a pill or a capsule, an insertable pouch, or a vagina tightening gel, which are available on e-commerce platforms selling medicines – some even on popular websites.
The sheer number of these products tells you that there is a market for them. However, physiologically (or biologically), there is no such thing as losing one's virginity.
A 'virgin' is simply someone who has not had sex. That does not concern itself to any body part, explains Dr Sucharita Dalvie, gynecologist and co-founder and coordinator of the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership.
"People think that if a woman's hymen is broken or torn, she has 'lost' her virginity. That is not the case. The hymen is a stretchable organ, which means that when penetration happens, it simply stretches to accommodate it. It does not break, disappear, or get damaged," she adds.
Then, why is there a market for these unscientific virginity products to undo the 'lost' virginity? And, more importantly, how safe are they?
Although the companies that manufacture them shared no data on the demand for these products, several women that The Quint reached out to admitted to using them, with almost all of them reiterating the fact that the myth of virginity and the desire to control a woman's sexuality are still prevalent.
Passing the 'Virginity Test'
When 24-year-old Rani, from Maharashtra's Kanjarbhat community, was to get married in April 2022, she knew she had to undergo the ancient practice of ‘gun jiti’ or 'virginity test.' According to the custom, the bride's virginity is 'tested for' by looking for blood stains on a white sheet – right after the wedding night.
A panicked Rani resorted to YouTube for answers – and it led her to ordering 'fake hymen' from a well-known website.
"There was a little fake blood when the penetration happened. But I developed swelling and fungal infection. It took me more than a month to recover. I had to go to a gynaecologist for treatment and had to be honest with her. But the entire time, I was afraid that someone will tell my parents or husband's family," she says.
Rani is not an exception. In many communities across India, women face intense pressure to 'prove' their so-called virginity – seen as a test of their 'purity' and 'chastity'.
"A part of me wonders whether these products offer safety to people who may not have that kind of negotiating power, or are under the threat of further violence if their community were to find out that they've been sexually active. It's merely a symptomatic fix if we were to ban such products, which we absolutely must," says Apurupa Vatsalya (she/ they), Lead, Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice, The YP Foundation.
The Question He Actually Popped
Twenty-six-year-old Shivani from Chennai was warned about 'the question' when she started meeting potential suitors for marriage.
In her third conversation with a 30-year-old IT professional and potential partner, he actually popped the question.
"He just looked at me and said – 'I know you have been in relationships, and I would like to know if you are a virgin. It is important for me to know, to decide how to take this forward.' I was quite taken aback by the bluntness, and just how he almost thought it was his right to ask me that question."
Shivani fled the scene and never spoke to the person again – but it was hardly the last time she faced the question.
About 600 km away, Ayesha, a 23-year-old advertising professional, working in Bengaluru, said:
"A woman's virginity has never been her private affair. All my life, cinema and Indian television shows have made us believe that a woman's virginity is tied to family honour. So, when I chose to become sexually active, the first feeling I felt was excitement, but also guilt. I kept feeling that I was letting my parents down. But the cycle must break somewhere."
And Indian women are actively breaking the cycle, data shows.
When Indian Women Have Sex: What Numbers Tell Us
According to the latest National Health Family Survey (NFHS-5), the median age of first sexual intercourse is 18.9 years for women aged 25-49. Ten percent of women in this age bracket have had sex before age 15, and 39 percent before age 18.
By age 20, almost 60 percent of them have had sexual intercourse.
The median age of first sexual intercourse for men aged 25-49 in India is, however, 24.8 – a whole six years more than for women.
But the share of Indian women who admit to having non-marital sex is still very low.
In a study published by the Indian Institute of Health Management and Research, gender differences in premarital sex were pronounced – unmarried men were five times more likely to have premarital sex (16 percent) as compared to unmarried women (3 percent).
The HT-MaRS Youth Survey in 2015 showed that an unprecedented 61 percent believe that premarital sex is no longer a taboo. But when it comes to marriage, 63 percent want their partners to be 'virgins.'
Only Women of Lose Character Lose Virginity: What Women Are Told
Growing up in Lucknow, 25-year-old Cauvery was told repeatedly that only women of 'loose moral character' date other men; but there was no conversation about sex or sexual health with anyone.
It was only after she moved to Delhi for college that she was exposed to a gendered bias – if you are a man, being sexually active outside the society-approved relationships is lauded, but women are made to feel like they will "pay a price."
"No one cares whether a man is a virgin. The first time I slept with someone, I was so afraid to confide in even my close friends. I thought they would judge me for being 'so easy.' I was also scared that there might be a rumour about me – and I was afraid my family would hear it somehow. But do I regret it? Not at all," Cauvery adds.
'My Mother Saw Tampon in My Bag...'
Internalised patriarchy also has a big role to play, these women say. When Ayesha's mother found out that her daughter was sexually active, she was taken to a gynaecologist.
"I was taken to a gynaecologist, who was not our usual family doctor – because you cannot let anyone know that your daughter is sexually active. My mother was worried that my 'husband' (who does not exist) would ship me home when he 'found out' that I am not a virgin. The doctor, thankfully, explained to my mother that there is no such possibility. But it was humiliating."Ayesha to The Quint
But how did her mother find out that Ayesha was sexually active?
"It's a funny story. I was home for the holidays, and my mother saw a packet of tampons in my bag. She thought if I was using tampons, it means I am sexually active, and that my hymen is 'damaged'. I use tampons because it is convenient."
'No One Entertained the Possibility of Me Being Sexually Active'
Both the best and the worst-kept secret of sisterhood: 'What they don't know won't hurt anyone.'
Shivani got married earlier this year to someone who never asked the unwarranted question about virginity. But she says, there are many women who reveal 'just the information required.'
"There's no way anyone can tell whether a woman is a virgin or not. Many women simply play it to their advantage – because not everyone has the privilege to discuss their sexual history with their partners."
Shivani's friend Ritika* (name changed) has been married for over five years now. She chose to keep her sexual history to herself.
"I chose not to reveal it on my own – no one even entertained the possibility that I could have been sexually active. I also don't feel ashamed, but just amused how everything about how women must be is just assumed by everyone around her."
Ayesha, too, says if she faces the difficult choice, she would reveal what's necessary.
"It is not ideal, but in an ideal world, we would not be discussing this. Men, and parents, would not be asking us weird questions about this. It is completely up to women to reveal what we want to reveal."
Lack of Conversation Has Implications
Indian women are having pre-marital sex. But they do not have access to safe spaces to talk about it. Lack of conversation means, women are, once again, entrapped in a never-ending cycle – of health risks, unwanted pregnancies.
"There is so much importance given to someone's first-time, because she is a 'virgin', because she will be 'de-flowered'; these notions give men the idea that they 'own' a woman – and puts toxic romanticisation idea of a first-time. We all think that we know so many people who have had pre-marital sex but we are all the exceptions. There are many who simply have no means to reach out to anyone and this keeps getting passed on from generation to generation," Shivani tells The Quint.
What women need now is access to stigma-free, rights-affirming information on issues of health and sexuality. The few such spaces that exist now, are the exceptions and now the rule.
"I prefer the term non-marital sex, as pre-marital implies that marriage is a given and everything happens pre or post it. There still exists a lot of stigma surrounding it which has public health implications such as challenges when comes to accessing contraception, or abortion services.Apurupa Vatsalya (she/ they), Lead, Sexual and Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice, The YP Foundation
"Parents and educators and who are supposed to be invested in the healthy growth and development of adolescents and young people are perpetuating damaging myths and are actively participating in gatekeeping information, tools, resources and services which can enable safer sex practices."
While Indian women are breaking the cycle actively, it is merely a dent in the scheme of things for now.
(This is part one of the two-part series. In the second part, The Quint delves deeper into the safety hazard of using virginity pills.)