|Dry, tight and warm: Dry sex practices in Central and Southern Africa|
|Written by Nicola Hugo (1) Wednesday, 16 May 2012 08:10|
A preference for a dry, tight vagina during sexual intercourse has been identified in several Central and Southern African countries. Understanding the social and cultural influences driving the practice of dry sex, the methods used and their impact on sexual health is important for sexual health campaigns and the development of safe sex techniques. Once one looks beyond initial assumptions of female victimisation it is clear that, even through potentially oppressive dry sex practices, women exert agency. Women use cultural or male-centered ideas to exercise control over their own sexuality, economic survival, relationships and love.
This CAI paper highlights some of the physical, cultural, and social aspects of dry sex by discussing four studies conducted in the Southern and Central African regions. Though these aspects are undoubtedly interrelated, they have been organised into separate sections for the purpose of this discussion.
What is dry sex?
Dry sex refers to the practice of applying astringent intra-vaginal agents or actions before or between acts of sexual intercourse so that the vagina may be dry, tight and warm. In some cases, preparations are also consumed or certain foods are ingested to cause a drying effect.(2) A large variety of agents are believed to achieve these effects and today both traditional and non-traditional drying agents are used.(3)
Studies conducted: Zaire, Zimbabwe and South Africa
In 1993 Brown et al. conducted a study on dry sex in the country formally known as Zaire. Four types of research methods were used: exploratory conversations, focus group discussions, open-ended interviews and observations in a controlled, clinical setting. The report reveals that one-third of each group interviewed had used intra-vaginal or tightening substances at some time. They discuss the various substances used and explain that the main reason for practicing dry sex is to increase sexual pleasure for both male and female partners during intercourse.(4)
Theo Vos conducted a qualitative study in 1994 on attitudes to sex and sexual behaviour in rural Zimbabwe. Structured interviews and focus group discussions were his research methods. Vos explores the cultural and social environments that affect these attitudes and determine the form of female agency negotiated.
Diane Civic and David Wilson later conducted a qualitative study in 1996 on dry sex and its implications for condom use in Zimbabwe where they conducted focus group discussions. They explain that dry sex is preferred not only for physical sexual pleasure, but also because intra-vaginal drying agents serve as “love potions” for women to attract sexual partners and to ensure faithfulness.(5)
In 2009 Scorgie et al. conducted a qualitative study in rural and urban KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Their research methods were focus group discussions, in-depth interviews and ethnography. They focused on the socio-cultural and historical influences encouraging the practice of dry sex. They also aimed to locate these influences within the context of local patterns of migration and understandings of sexual health and pleasure.(6)
A physical practice: Products, motivations and sexual health
Brown et al. report that there are up to 30 different substances, mostly leaves and powders that women used in Zaire: Leaves are crushed and inserted into the vagina for several hours, to be removed before intercourse. Powders made from bark, stems or roots of plants are usually the consistency of salt or fine sand. These are not removed before intercourse.(7) In Zimbabwe, chemicals like copper sulphate and fertilizers are used to dry out the vagina before and during acts of intercourse.(8) Other drying methods include vaginal douching with water, soap or antiseptics, drying the vagina with cloth or paper, and the insertion of stones into the vagina.(9) Alternative pharmaceutical and non-traditional products used include talcum powder, Vicks (cold and flu remedy), Lovedrops (a commercial liquid from South Africa), alum, disinfectants, household bleach and vaginal medicines/creams.(10)
Brown et al. found that many women respondents express a clear preference for dry, tight, sex. Respondents believe that if a man has a small penis, powders help create a good feeling for the woman. One woman explains, “A women feels no pleasure when the vagina has too much liquid.”(11) However, dry sex practices are not always preferred. Civic and Wilson report that the majority of Zimbabwean female respondents think that many drying agents cause cervical or uterine cancer.(12) Respondents complained about lower-abdominal pain, vaginal swelling, cuts or abrasions, internal bruising, itching, male and female genital sores, pain during intercourse and internal infections.(13)
Indeed, drying practices can produce inflammatory reactions and epithelial damage in the vagina and cervix, resulting in ulceration, sloughing of the vaginal wall and necrosis. Excessive drying could lead to abrasive epithelial trauma during sexual intercourse for both the woman and her partner.(14) It is possible that lesions caused by dry sex, such as genital lesions caused by a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI), could increase the risk of HIV transmission, as they are likely to promote the passage of pathological organisms that cause AIDS.(15) Brown et al. suggest that there is a correlation between the insertion of substances for dry and “rough sex” with HIV seropositivity.(16) Furthermore, vaginal douching has been associated with pelvic inflammatory disease and increased bacterial vaginosis, which in turn has been associated with increased risk of HIV infection.(17)
Dry sex practices can also increase risk for sexually transmitted diseases in that they may be a deterrent for condom use. Civic and Wilson found that women fear that condoms block the magic of drying agents.(18) Even when condoms are used, they frequently break due to excessive vaginal tightness. The effective use of condoms may further be compromised by intra-vaginal substance use. Spermicides, lubricants and lubricated condoms are also reportedly disliked because they wet the vagina.(19)
Various studies have attempted to address these health concerns. A study by Schwandt et al. in 2006 stresses the importance of microbicides that are effective during anal and dry sex.(20) Another study by Brown and Brown in 2000 suggests that researchers design spermicides and microbicides that give the sensation of dryness and warmth, or design male and female condoms that enhance friction. Brown and Brown believe that, paired with effective advertising, these feasible technologic solutions could help prevent disease in the future.(21)
Culture: Patriarchal sexuality versus women’s love potions
The cultural and patriarchal aspects of dry sex practices are evident in the main motivation reported: to enhance men’s sexual pleasure and to increase their libido. They are also illustrated in popular understandings that denigrate female sexuality (including female bodily fluids), and are seen in constructions of the ideal female body as virginal and chaste.
Scorgie et al. report the belief that a women’s pain during sex “is tolerated or overshadowed by the greater need or desire to please their partners.”(22) Women are culturally expected to endure pain and forfeit their own sexual pleasure for the sexual pleasure of their male partners. Ideas about appropriate sexuality are based on men’s sexual expectations. Similarly, a Zairian woman explains that she derives emotional pleasure knowing that her husband experiences sexual pleasure during dry sex: “When the vagina has too much liquid, the man is not satisfied, so how can the woman be satisfied? Impossible!”(23)
Brown et al. explain that women distinguish between three different types of vaginal secretions: secretions in small amounts at specific times during the menstrual cycle, secretions during sexual excitement, and vaginal discharge caused by infections. It is the second type of secretion, due to sexual arousal, that women and men find offensive. It is this type of secretion that will result in what they disapprovingly refer to as a “wet vagina.”(24) The word (lombembe) used to describe a “wet” vagina is the same word used to describe the noise of diarrhea. Both men and women consider an unpleasant noise during sexual relations, as a result of vaginal wetness, to be embarrassing. Getting rid of excess wetness is considered a necessary part of personal hygiene. A wet vagina is believed to be the result of a curse, bad luck, disease or illicit sexual activity. For this reason, women who want to protect their dignity and chastity, or avoid ridicule, need to ensure that they are dry.(25)
A vagina is not only undesirable when it is excessively wet; it is also undesirable when it is considered to be “large” or “cold”. Brown et al. quote respondents’ descriptions of a good vagina as “narrow,” “tight,” “like cement,” “like a young girl,” and “difficult to penetrate.”(26) Respondents believe that the man should hurt or suffer a little during penetration. An undesirable vagina was described as “a loosely woven basket that water runs through.” Neither partner would be satisfied if the man enters too easily. In this case, respondents explain that the “penis swims around.”(27)
The use of vaginal drying and tightening agents is especially necessary before marriage if the girl has had a high number of sexual relations. Respondents believe that agents will create a “virgin-like state.”(28) Drying agents are also popular after childbirth for this same reason. In Zimbabwe, respondents explain that childbirth makes the vagina loose and that substances can make the body warm, dry, and tighten the vagina.(29) Women who have delivered children are thus expected to present as young virgins. Scorgie et al. also found that men and women idealise the bodies of young virgin girls in South Africa. They refer to this phenomenon as “a cultural fetishisation of female virginity.”(30) Because of the social, cultural, and aesthetic value placed on virginity, women are pressured into creating the illusion of virginity by using drying/tightening agents.(31) Men believe that the natural state of a “good” woman’s vagina is dry and tight, irrespective of the number of children she has given birth to. For this reason, women are often pressured to put their sexual health in danger.
Despite these cultural influences that illustrate the pervasiveness of patriarchal constructions and the ways in which they are imposed upon women, studies also report the numerous ways in which female agency prevails. Scorgie et al., for example, report that women use intra-vaginal agents in order to attract men, maintain relationships and to counter male infidelity. Drying agents serve as ‘love potions’. Not only are men drawn by the enjoyable sexual experience, they are also drawn as a result of the “magical powers” of agents.(32) They tend to draw a number of men; therefore women have the option of choosing a man best suited to their needs. Potions are also used to ensure men’s faithfulness, “If a man goes out drinking beer, he won’t think of anyone but you.” Moreover, they used to ensure that partners return, "If a man goes away, he'll come home- even if he has other girlfriends while he is away."(33) Considering that agents are said to change a male partner’s character, they are believed to prevent violence and give women an advantage over their rivals.(34) They offer women a way to affect the course of love. Scorgie et al. also mention the use of drying agents by women to conceal their own multi-partnering, which is culturally unacceptable.(35) In this way, women take something potentially oppressive, and use it to suit their own desires.
Scorgie et al. describe a specific social context in which dry sex is practiced. They explain that a woman’s desire to be dry and tight cannot be separated from her “longer-term desire to maintain successful monogamous love relationships” and secure economic male support.(36) In a context where multiple partnering is a defining feature of masculinity and sexuality is not a topic candidly discussed by partners, drying agents and other intra-vaginal substances offer ways in which women manage the challenge of men’s infidelity. Scorgie et al. explain the importance of confronting this male-standard. Women fear that their partners may bring disease into the relationship. They may be jealous, unwilling to share their partners with other women. Other women not only mean increased vulnerability to sexual disease, they also often jeopardise the financial support a woman gets for her and her children. Women may also fear humiliation by men’s public display of their multiple partners.
Scorgie et al. also draw attention to the ways in which migrant labour/regional lack of employment influence the use of intra-vaginal agents. Rural women report using intra-vaginal agents that serve as love potions. They are believed to work over long-distances, to prevent their partner’s infidelity with urban women. Furthermore, intra-vaginal substances that create heat increase pleasure during female masturbation. Women report the use of intra-vaginal agents that create a tingling sensation when their partners work as migrants in distant provinces for long periods of time.(37)
Civic and Wilson find that sex workers in Zimbabwe use drying agents as a strategy to increase their clientele and make more money. Sex workers use drying agents as a “fishing rod” to catch men.(38) When the competition is tough and it is imperative for men to return, dry sex ensures regular customers.(39)
Although certain aspects of this paper may appear essentialising in nature, such as referring to women as a unified group with similar problems and pursuits of agency, the purpose of this paper is to highlight how the practices of dry sex are physically, culturally and socially constituted and (re)created. In countries such as Zimbabwe, the former Zaire and South Africa there are complex cultural and social factors that contribute to and maintain harmful physical practices such as dry sex; and which call for more research on the matter to gain further understanding on the deep-rooted intersections that maintain the practice. This would allow for more informed interventions that are tailored to the unique contexts in which the practice emerges.
The studies that were briefly used during the course of the paper highlight the growing literature and research on the practice. However, there is still more room to explore how agency is exerted through the body and physical interactions and how these are culturally and socially informed. The gendered nature of these acts does not exist within a vacuum and the need to understand them still exists.
(1) Contact Nicola Hugo through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (