Vaginal practices, such as intra-vaginal cleansing, drying and tightening, are suspected of placing women at higher risk of acquiring HIV and STIs. Yet, there is limited understanding of what these practices entail, what motivates women to undertake them and what their socio-cultural and historical meanings are. This paper explores the range of vaginal practices used by women in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and locates these within the context of local patterns of migration and understandings of sexual health and pleasure. Study activities took place at urban and rural sites, employing qualitative research techniques: semi-structured interviewing and an additional ethnographic component in the rural site. Vaginal practices were believed to be ubiquitous and a wide range of substances and procedures were described. Strong motivations for vaginal practices included women's desire to enhance men's sexual pleasure, ensure men's fidelity and exercise agency and control in their relationships. The common use of traditional medicines in this quest to maintain stable relationships and affect the course of love, suggests a complexity that cannot be captured by simple terms like 'dry sex'. We argue instead that any interventions to change women's reliance on vaginal practices must recognise and attend to the broader social contexts in which they are embedded.
Culture, Health & Sexuality (2009) Volume 11, Issue 3 (Special Conference Issue: Contested Innocence - Sexual Agency in Public and Private Space. Hanoi, Vietnam, 2009), pp. 267 - 283 [doi:10.1080/13691050802395915]