Why do some Indonesians idealize “tight and dry” sex? And are women risking their health to pursue it? Trish Anderton reports.
The advice started early, feminist writer and The Jakarta Post columnist Julia Suryakusuma recalls: stay away from certain foods, or you’ll get too wet “down there”.
“Ever since I was a teenager I was told by my elders not to eat pineapple and cucumber because it’s bikin becek (“makes wet”). And I love cucumbers and pineapple so I always took them,” she says playfully, adding that it never seemed to hurt her sex life.
While Julia may have ignored that advice, many women take it to heart. And they don’t just avoid certain foods. In pursuit of a drier, tighter vagina they drink jamu (traditional herbal medicine) with names like Sari Rapat (“Essence of Tightness”), Rapat Wangi (“Tight and Fragrant”), and even Empot –Empot Ayam (“Tight as a Chicken’s Anus”).
If you’ve been around vaginas much, you know they tend to be a bit, shall we say, damp. As for tightness, just like any other body part, one’s intimate organs tend to get saggier with age. So why do women try to battle time and nature?
The answer is simple, according to Dr. Iwu Utomo, who has studied vaginal practices in Indonesia: pleasing men.
“In Indonesia there is a myth,” she says on the phone from the Australia National University’s National Center for Epidemiology and Population Health. “Both men and women say that when the vagina is too wet and has excessive fluid, it’s not good, because the man will not feel satisfied.”
Underlying that desire to please is a sense of fear and insecurity. Women “want to give the best of everything, including sex, to the husband”, says Utomo, because “they don’t want the husband to be having sexual affairs outside the house.”
Jamu is not the only product designed to produce the desired effect. One can also buy tongkat Madura (Madura stick), a chalky substance shaped like Bill Clinton’s infamous cigar. This is inserted for one to two minutes at a time on alternate days to “dry the vagina and dry up excessive mucus”, according to the accompanying instructions. There are also vagina spas (see sidebar) that promise to cleanse and “rejuvenate” the vagina by washing, steaming or soaking it with various herbs.
At the most extreme end of the scale, one can go to high-end private clinics for surgery to tighten the vagina. If you’re really going for a youthful feel, you can have your hymen surgically “restored”.
Surgery clearly carries health risks, but what about other vaginal treatments?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises against washing the inside of the vagina (douching), saying it changes the balance of bacteria and may increase the likelihood of infection.
Excessively dry sex also puts women at risk of injury and infection. In sub-Saharan Africa, where women use substances ranging from bleach to chili to gunpowder to dry their vaginas, researchers have made a connection between dry sex and HIV. As Utomo explains, without its natural lubrication, the vagina is more likely to suffer scrapes or tiny cuts during intercourse. These provide a pathway for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
“The risk of getting friction or scars is higher; then if you have sex it’s easier for you to be infected,” she says.
Utomo says the pursuit of dry vaginas is less intense here than in Africa: “It’s more dramatic, what they use, compared to us.” Sex columnist Dr. Ryan Thamrin agrees. Most Indonesian women, he says, want a vagina that’s slippery but not excessively wet or dry.
“If it’s dry, only a few want that. It’s painful not only for the woman but for the man,” he says.
Still, the use of vaginal treatments raises alarms. Many are offered by untrained practitioners, using substances that have not been clinically tested. There has been little study of the health impacts.
Lastly, even if the treatments are safe, the money spent on them might be better used on other health costs.
For now, though, the industry appears to be expanding, says Utomo.
“There are a lot of brands in the supermarket for washing the vagina,” she notes. “Those weren’t in the markets five or seven years ago. But now you can find them everywhere.”
Newspapers and magazines, too, are filling up with advertisements for treatments.
“It’s really just booming at the moment,” she concludes.