In Zambia, a traditional belief maintains that a dry vagina is a sign of fidelity. Women curb natural lubrication with herbs inserted vaginally or taken orally, but doctors warn that some practices could lead to health problems.
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA— Dora, 39, has been married for 18 years. She credits her relationship’s longevity to her regular use of traditional herbs, which dry out her genitalia.
A lubricated vagina sends the wrong message, she says.
“If you are like that, the man will think you are promiscuous and he might leave you for another,” Dora says.
Dora says she learned about vaginal drying during her traditional marriage counseling sessions, and her husband has never complained about their sex life.
“I know how to take care of myself,” says Dora, who requested only her first name be used.
Women in this southern African country have long used herbs to curb natural lubrication. They say the practice helps satisfy their partners.
Traditionally, women inserted herbs into their vaginas, but medical experts warn that the practice can lead to abrasions — scratches and other open wounds — during intercourse, which heightens the risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Now, most women consume herbal powders by adding them to porridge or other food. They say the oral powders are just as effective, and they don’t come with the risk of causing open wounds within the vagina.
Dora, who once inserted herbs and salt crystals into her vagina, agrees that oral powders work well.
Experts say the use of vaginal drying agents is widespread in Zambia, though there are few statistics that track the practice.
Two-thirds of the 812 Zambian women surveyed in a study Psychology, Health & Medicine published in 2009 had used traditional medicines for dry sex at one point. About half were currently using them.
Vaginal drying has been reported in countries including South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Traders who sell herbal drying agents say most women now prefer to take the herbs orally.
“Most of the products we sell are those powders women put in porridge or in warm water,” says Josephine Munsaka, who sells vagina drying herbs. “We rarely receive women wanting things to insert. If there is, it is one out of 20.”
Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia
The practice is grounded in a false belief that female genitalia can be loose or watery as a sign of frequent sexual intercourse, health experts say.
“Medically, there is no such a thing as a loose or watery vagina,” says Dr. Lottie Hachaambwa, an infectious diseases specialist at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka. “The vagina has mucus membranes that provide the fluid for lubrication during sex, which is normal.”
Vaginal drying agents might seem to be effective because they can cause the vaginal walls to swell, Hachaambwa says. Once a woman stops using them, she can get infections, possibly caused by using the drying agents, which lead to abnormal discharge. And that discharge could lead her to use the drying agents again, he says.
Women who experience abnormal discharge could have fungal, bacterial or sexually transmitted infections, he says.
The use of vaginally-inserted drying agents could also lead to HIV infection, he says.
“Dry sex might increase the acquisition of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases because of abrasions on the vaginal walls,” Hachaambwa says. “If skin is broken, HIV can be transmitted more easily.”
But even without the risk of abrasions, a dry vagina can pose other problems, he says. Condoms can break if there’s not enough lubrication.
But some women maintain that drying agents are necessary for healthy sexual relationships.
Linda, a 36-year-old woman who asked that only her first name be used, says her husband asked her to use herbs after he complained that he didn’t enjoy sex.
“I found (an) herbal remedy and it helped,” Linda says.
Malambo, 30, who also asked that only her first name be used, says she drinks herbs to keep her body warm and her vagina tight.
“I use them once in a while because I am not married and I only have sex once in a while,” she says. “I have grown to know that men mistake a loose vagina for promiscuity.”
Men favor a dry vagina, saying a “loose” vagina is a put-off.
“How can you enjoy sex when you can’t feel the walls of your woman?” says Luka Banda.
Traditional marriage counselors support the practice.
Iris Phiri, national coordinator for the Zambia National Traditional Counselors Association, says societal pressure has forced women to use vagina drying herbs to keep their men from cheating.
Phiri says most men don’t complain if they are not enjoying sex, but instead look elsewhere for satisfaction. It’s a woman’s duty to keep the man, she says.
Up until about four years ago, traditional counselors taught women to insert herbs and salt crystals into their vaginas, Phiri says. But with new knowledge about how HIV is contracted, that’s no longer the recommendation.
“We advise them to use oral herbs, eat lemons or simply sit in cold water,” Phiri says.
Iris Phiri and Prudence Phiri, GPJ, are not related.
Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja and Bemba.