Sellers of madura sticks promise the cigar-shaped products which fit inside the vagina will do everything from revitalize a woman’s genitals to near-enough restore her virginity. But experts have warned Newsweek that the potentially dangerous devices are little more than “cigarettes for the vagina,” and a scam rooted in harmful gender stereotypes around sex and pleasure.
Once nestled inside the vagina, the objects named after an Indonesian island release an often unknown cocktail of ingredients. There is no evidence that the tools—tied to the notion that women must satisfy men with little thought for their own safety or sexual preferences—have any benefits at all.
However, Sarifah Nurhayati, 27, who lives in the Indonesian city of Depok, greater Jakarta, is among those who swear by them. She told the South China Morning Post she is five months pregnant, and plans to use them after she gives birth to get her vagina “back in good shape to keep my husband happy.” Her husband sells the sticks at his store in Depok.
Nurhayati says she has used the sticks for years, and claims placing them inside her body for two to three minutes makes her vagina “drier, tighter and stronger.” One stick can be used up to 20 times, she said.
“When used regularly, it will make you feel like a virgin again,” she claimed. However, there is no evidence that having sex permanently loosens the vagina, or that it is possible to tell if a woman has had sex. Information about what is in the sticks can be scant on packaging, but Sarifah believes “everything is natural.”
Her husband Reno Waldi said he sells up to eight sticks a day. Products range from US$3 to US$30, with higher quality products being more expensive, as the cheaper ones can break. “You don’t want that to happen while using it,” he said.
Professor Linda McGowan of the University of Leeds and a researcher at the charity Wellbeing of Women took an anecdotal poll among her Indonesian students on the topic for Newsweek. One unnamed student said she knows of at least two women who use the sticks, including members of the Indonesia diaspora in the Netherlands. They had heard good testimonies about them, she said. Some of the women also bought herbs called “ratus” to steam the vagina, a dangerous practice which can cause severe burns.
“Talking about sex in Indonesia is still very much a taboo,” McGowan said. “Women may discuss these matters with their closest friends but not sisters within the family network.”
McGowan was among experts to urge women not to use the sticks, which are symptomatic of damaging attitudes towards women’s bodies seen in all parts of the world. In 2012, the World Health Organization published a study on vaginal practices in Indonesia, as well as Thailand, Mozambique and South Africa. The body concluded that practices including inserting powders creams, herbs, tablets, and sticks into the area in an attempt to tighten it could make a woman more susceptible to infections including STIs like HIV.
Dr. Jen Gunter, a gynecologist, obstetrician and best-selling author of The Vagina Bible, told Newsweek: “Many women in many countries wipe out their vagina with the idea that too much discharge is bad. I hear this maybe once a month. It isn’t as extreme a practice [as using madura sticks], but it is part of the spectrum.”
Products like madura sticks contain astringents—which shrink tissue— desiccants—which cause dryness—and other substances that are “physically harmful to the vagina,” she said. They damage the vaginal skin and mucus layer, and disturb “good” bacteria that the body needs. The chemicals in madura sticks will likely make it painful to have sex, she said. Dismissing the myth that it is normal for women to experience discomfort during sex, Gunter said this only happens if there is a problem with technique, they have experienced sexual assault, or have a medical condition.
Dr. Amanda Selk, a gynaecologist and Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, Canada, told Newsweek madura sticks “are marketed to promote a myth about the ‘virgin’ vagina when there is no difference in feeling for either sex between a virginal and non-virginal vagina.
“The vagina does not stay stretched out after sex and you can’t tell from muscle tone whether someone has ever had sex,” she said, adding: “With childbirth there can be some weakening of the pelvic floor that can be strengthened with pelvic floor exercises.”
Madura sticks “are being marketed to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” Selk continued. “Sex should be pleasurable to both people or there is a problem. Different people find different aspects of sex pleasurable. Good communication between partners is the key to good sex not spending money on unnecessary products.”
Gunter chimed that women shouldn’t buy into products which claim to tighten the vagina, stating these are “medically harmful and playing off patriarchal tropes.”
In fact, healthy women should never use any products which promise to clean, freshen or enhance the vagina in any way, she said. The organ, which is a tube of muscles, can keep itself healthy, partly thanks to secretions called discharge. Gunter compared it to a self-cleaning oven. Simply gently washing the surrounding area, called the vulva, as well as the perineal area between the vagina the anus with unperfumed soaps every day is all that women need to do, and more than once a day during their period if needed.
Depending on her situation, all a woman needs to buy to put inside her vagina is condoms if she partners with men; tampons or a menstrual cup; pessaries; and sex toys made of substances which can be cleaned, said Gunter. A woman might also like to use a water or silicone-based lubricant, which will be designed to align with the vaginal osmolality and pH, as well as products designed to provide moisture for perimenopausal or menopausal women.
“While not well studied, some food oils (coconut and olive) seem to be safe (anecdotally) for use as lube. Not with latex condoms though,” said Gunter.
Despite the potential risks, a few taps and clicks on Google Shopping and Facebook bring up marketing for the sticks. Gunter called on such websites to make an effort to remove links to such products from their platforms.
One Facebook post described madura sticks as a “must have for every woman,” and claimed they “tighten loose cookie muscles.” Google Shopping results for madura sticks include eBay listings claiming they make the vagina “tight,” “clean,” and turn a woman into an “Instant Virgin.”
“Obviously as a doctor I see much harm in these things,” said Gunter. “When I Google cigarettes I don’t get the same volume of advertising as I do for these kinds of vaginal products. As they are essentially cigarettes for the vagina, if there is advertising restrictions for cigarettes in my opinion they should apply here as well.”
McGowan commented. “In growing economies, such as Indonesia, the market for products via Amazon, Google etc. is huge,” she said. “These sites do sell a number of ‘health and lifestyle’ products which researchers would say were not evidence based.”
Selk conceded it’s impossible to ban “things that are bad for you.” Instead, she argued: “I think we need more articles and media supporting women to be proud of their bodies, learn to love themselves the way they are and not fall in to the trap of buying or using things that are not helpful and potentially harmful.”
Newsweek contacted Facebook, which declined to comment. A spokesperson for eBay told Newsweek: “These items are banned from eBay’s platform and have been removed.”
A Google spokesperson told Newsweek: “Our advertising policies are designed to protect users from exploitative or misleading ads. When we discover ads that break our policies we remove them, and we encourage anyone who is concerned about an ad to report it directly to us.”