“So, are you seeing anyone?”
My lady friend replied, a little bored, “No. Not that I’m looking for anyone, anyway.” “But, you have needs,” I protested. “Of course, that’s what the vibrator’s for.”
She smiled. Yes, it’s not hush-hush anymore. Urban India is naughty, debauched, plays rough and is not embarrassed about it. While fanatics and fundamentalist groups try to uphold ‘Indian culture’ by censoring intimate scenes from films, banning erotic ads, removing sex education from school syllabi and recriminalising homosexuality, sexual wellness products are finding a growing market in India.
There are more than a dozen Indian websites, with names such as That’s Personal, Kaamastra, IMbesharam and OhMySecrets, that are selling sexual wellness products and sex toys. They have been enjoying steady business from the metros and large cities for over a year now. What do they offer? Well, whatever your American Pie-fed imagination wants to ask for. Vibrators, penis rings, BDSM props, role-play costumes, edible lingerie, massage oils, life-size blowup dolls, masturbators, strap-ons, board games, you name it.
Samir Saraiya, a former Microsoft executive based out of Singapore, was among the early entrepreneurs who saw the potential for e-commerce in sexual wellness products. He set up thatspersonal.com two years ago. “There has been a recent trend of intimate gifting in India. Also, with the overdose of adult erotica books in the market, suddenly BDSM is not a kink or a taboo anymore,” he says. A recent Economic Times report put the size of the industry in India at around $220 million; it is expected to cross the $1 billion mark by the end of the decade. It is no wonder that investors are flocking to invest in these web based e-commerce companies. Even e-commerce giant Flipkart has jumped on the bandwagon, and has begun selling condoms, lubes and massage oils.
“Earlier, men would only discuss their sexual interests and fantasies with their guy friends, and women would do the same. Today, couples have these conversations. They are ready to experiment and explore. And, we are more than happy to offer them multiple options to choose from. A global study conducted by our research team shows that 10 per cent of erotica-related searches online come from India. The interest is undeniable,” says Saraiya. Amit Sharma, who runs a website named Masala Toys, agrees. “We are suddenly trying to re-learn what sex is all about,” he says.
Experts attribute this changing attitude towards sex products to the easy availability of information on the internet and the growing popularity of social networking sites. Of course, it wasn’t as if Indians didn’t know about sex products earlier. But, multiple forums and platforms, specifically online, have allowed free discussions and sharing of views. Well-known Mumbai sexologist DrPrakash Kothari says, “Sex toys are not a western thing. India, during the time of Vatsayana, used to have dotted and ribbed dildos. They would be made of different material depending on what people preferred. The problem is that India forgot its history when foreigners invaded us and bound us by foreign laws. Today, whatever we are trying to re-learn or are panning as ‘western culture’ has existed in our culture in the olden times too.”
So, who’s buying sex products? Saraiya confesses that he is still trying to zero in on the target consumer type. Figures show that most orders come from the metros. Sixty-nine per cent of the shoppers are men and 31 per cent are women. The number of women shoppers on thastpersonal.com has been increasing substantially every month. Masala Toys has roughly the same ratio of male to female shoppers, Sharma says. The age group is generally between 24 to 32 years. The websites Exciting Lives and Buy Under Cover cater more to women’s products and lingerie and therefore have more women shoppers. Exciting Lives also sells kinky novelty gift items that are quite a hit with young adults.
For most of these sites, Delhi is the largest market, followed by Mumbai and then Bangalore. What is the kind of traffic they enjoy? That’s Personal declares an average of 10,000 new visitors every day, with more than 100 orders per day. That is quite an achievement considering that most of the products are international brands and, hence, are quite expensive. Sex toys on most of the websites start from Rs 1000 and can go up to Rs 12,000. Life-size dolls and penis enlarger pumps are the most expensive products, followed by elaborate vibrators and strap-on dildos. Indian products are cheaper, with vibrating penis rings starting from Rs 400. Given these prices, it is quite a surprise that these websites are afloat, and that some of them are even making money.
Sitting in his cozy chambers in South Mumbai, surrounded by erotic sculptures and artwork from around the world, pioneering sexologist Dr Kothari has had a ring-side view of India’s changing attitude towards sex over the decades. “Earlier, it used to be just men who would come to meet me. But, then, women started taking charge. Ten years ago, it would be unthinkable that a woman would come with her husband to discuss premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction with a random stranger. Today, it comes as no surprise.”
And, what about sex toys? Kothari laughs. “A patient, who was an air hostess, first brought it up with me. This was ten years ago. She had picked up a rabbit vibrator abroad and wanted to know if it was safe. Since then, I have often encouraged patients to use them. See, sex is about pleasure. And, we might not often be in tune with our partners. What if I want more? What if my partner is not able to satisfy me always? I have busy single women telling me that carrying a vibrator with them is much easier than trying to find a boyfriend.”
Another famous Mumbai sexologist Dr. MahinderWatsa says, “Sex toys can be used for pleasure, but they have therapeutic uses too, especially for couples. And, sex toys have always existed. Thanks to the media, everything is more visible now.” Dr. Kothari would definitely vouch for that. His collection of erotic artifacts that number more than 2000 includes ivory and wooden dildos from India dating back to ancient times
The taboo, though weak, does exist. Many still regard sex toys as a form of perversion. Hence, all the sex products e-commerce websites stress on confidentiality. There is no branding or product information on the packages. The courier service is not informed either. Nothing is mentioned on the invoice. “We stay away from sleaze,” says Saraiya. “Thatspersonal.com is like a friend. We know that above all the customer demands confidentiality. And we pride ourselves for delivering it.”
But what does the law say? That is still a grey area. While all pornographic material is illegal in India, sex toys are generally sold as massagers or medical products. Condoms and lubricants are legal, of course, and that acts as a broad umbrella under which numerous products are sold. As Saraiya points out, the authorities are troubled more by obscene imagery than the actual product. It is also a question of interpretation. While a penis ring is a toy for someone, for an ED patient, it has therapeutic value. The airport Customs authorities around the country would frown upon and seize any sex toy that is brought into the country by an air passenger. But it can be anonymously bought on a website. Clearly, no one knows where the law stands.