Bad Vibes over Indian Condoms

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It's a scandal that has the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh buzzing. In early March, Hindustan Latex, a company owned by India's national government, began selling a battery-operated vibrating ring packaged with three of its "Crezendo" brand condoms that supposedly provides added stimulation for both partners. One of the main reasons cited for low condom usage in India is "lack of pleasure in the usage of the condom," says Hindustan Latex spokesman S. Jayaraj. "The vibrating ring provided with the condom was introduced as a pleasure enhancer" in order to encourage their use, thus helping stem the country's burgeoning epidemic of HIV/AIDS. (It also "helps to hold the condom in position," Jayaraj adds.)

But Kailash Vijayavargiya, a state minister in Madhya Pradesh, is outraged by the product. He claims the vibrating ring qualifies not as a contraceptive but as a sex toy — illegal in his state — and has accused Hindustan Latex, and by extension India's national government, of immorality. In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this week calling for a ban on the sale of the condoms, Vijayavargiya says the government "has disregarded rules, regulations, the country's laws and morality. Sex toys can have serious repercussions on the Indian way of life."

To understand the latest barrage in the culture wars that have begun to rage in this traditionally conservative country, it helps to know that Vijayavargiya is a member of the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which makes a regular show of acting outraged over sex and perceived slights against the nation. It's also worth knowing that except for a few fellow politicians, no one else has so far complained about the vibrating ring, whose packaging promises "a 20-minute joyride through the realms of vibrating pleasure." Indeed, Hindustan Latex has sold about 130,000 of the $3 packs in the three months since it released them. That's good news in the fight against HIV/AIDS, says company spokesman Jayaraj, who says if the state government of Madhya Pradesh demands the product's withdrawal, the company would happily stop selling it there immediately.

"Our intention is not to make huge profits but to try to promote condom usage," says Jayaraj, who points out that global condom giant Durex has been selling a similar product of its own for about $9.50. "This is about trying to stop the spread of a disease."

While globalization may have brought a new openness in talking about love and sex in India, such subjects still regularly spark controversy, especially when politicians get involved. In April, Hollywood actor Richard Gere outraged India's prudes by kissing Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS awareness rally. A month earlier, six states including Madhya Pradesh banned sex education in schools, after authorities said that pictures showing changes that occur during puberty were too graphic. And in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), some schools have recently banned public displays of affection between students.

But in other areas there is a more pragmatic approach. Health officials in Gujarat have distributed free condoms outside pornographic movie halls recently, despite the fact that pornographic films are illegal there. And, a few weeks ago, the Chandigarh Industrial and Tourism Development Corporation opened India's first "condom bar," a popular night spot featuring crystal bowls filled with free condoms. Here, at least, the buzz is for real: according to newspaper reports, the bar is packed most nights.