Millennials  are helping  drive  India’s  personal pleasure accessories market, though the laws about the legality of the sale of these products are still very vague.

30-year old Salil Kapoor (not his real name) works in advertising, is popular with the girls and has his own studio in a hip Mumbai neighbourhood. With his carefree smile and boyish charm, one would expect him to be a ‘player’ and, well, he is. No, he does not go all Don Juan on the ladies, but he does love his toys. “I don’t have the bandwidth to be in a long term, committed relationship right now. But I have needs, and I can’t use and throw people. So I discovered a healthier alternative,” says Kapoor, explaining why he uses adult pleasure accessories.

Kapoor first discovered adult toys ten years ago, while watching pornography. “At first, I thought sex toys were only for women. But when I found that there was stuff even men could use, I became curious and started looking for more information online,” he recalls. His search led him to websites of adult pleasure accessories retailers. “There were a variety of products and demo videos, with detailed instructions on how to use them. I couldn’t find anything in India, so I convinced a friend to get me a Fleshlight from Canada,” says Kapoor. India A Fleshlight looks like a regular flash-light on the outside, but looks and feels like a vagina on the inside. It is a product used by men for self-pleasure. Over the last ten years, he has ordered a variety of pleasure enhancers and lubricants online. “It’s just really convenient. It all arrives in discreet packaging right at my doorstep,” he says.

Kapoor is not alone. The Indian sexual wellness industry has grown beyond just condoms and lubricants. The adult pleasure accessories market now includes adult toys, massagers, edible lingerie, role play costumes, gels and massage oils. Many online retailers also got on the BDSM bandwagon, with product lines inspired by 50 Shades of Grey, and Indian customers discovered their kinkier sides with handcuffs, blindfolds and floggers. “In 2015, the Indian sexual wellness market was valued at around $453 million. By 2020, it is estimated to reach $1.63 billion, a compounded annual growth of 29.19 per cent,” estimates Neil Dosanjh, co-founder of Guptt.in, an online retailer of personal pleasure accessories. The size of the global sex toy industry is estimated to be around $15 billion and, according to a 2016 report by Technavio, this figure is expected to exceed $29 billion by 2020, with a compounded annual growth of  almost 7 per cent.

Today, the Indian millennial is helping drive the very vibrant personal pleasure accessories market in the country. According to the third edition of India Uncovered, a study of trends and usage patterns of sex products in India by ThatsPersonal.com, 44 per cent of the demand comes from people in the age group of 25-34 years.  They are not only the highest transactors, but also the biggest repeat users. However, customers over the age of 45, who constitute 16 per cent of the demand, are the ones demanding luxury products, some of which can set you back by as much as Rs 30,000/. This age group also has a larger proportion of female customers. Overall, women are responsible for nearly 40 per cent of the demand. In fact, there are more female customers in cities like Baroda, Pune and Thiruvananthapuram. The average basket size of orders placed by female customers also tends to be 18 per cent larger than that of male customers.

Male customers have in fact had their own unique story arc in their discovery of personal pleasure products. For a long time, men limited their purchases to condoms and lubricants. “When we started out three years ago, we did focus group interactions and studies, where we discovered women were very vocal about what they wanted, while men dismissed the need for adult toys outright,” says Dosanjh. The men saw it as a blot on their manhood if they were unable to satisfy a woman in bed without using any pleasure enhancer. “But when they heard the women assert their sexual needs, the men began to feel more comfortable with the idea of using such products,” he says.

He has seen the change in buying behavior as well. “Earlier, two thirds of our demand would come from women, but now the demand has become more gender balanced. Men are even opening up to devices like prostate massagers. In fact, that is one of my fastest selling products today, and we have seen a growth of 68 per cent over the last 6 months,” says Dosanjh. According to the India Uncovered study, men have also shown interest in products like delay sprays, which help prevent premature ejaculation and an early loss of erection.

According to the India Uncovered study, the metros continue to be the biggest markets, with Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata being the top five cities in terms of demand. However, demand is also growing in tier II cities, with Guwahati, Coimbatore, Indore and Surat registering an impressive 25 per cent growth in demand over the last year. Demand has also increased from tier III cities like Nanded, Dhibrugarh, Imphal and Bellari. While lubricants (18 per cent) and intimate massagers (16 per cent) remain the most sought after products, sexy lingerie (13 percent) including an edible variety made of chocolate and role play costumes have also found many takers. The naughty nurse costume is a bestseller, and kinky products like handcuffs also sell like hot cakes.

While Assam has the highest demand for BDSM products, Bengal is into candy panties. While men in Telangana are looking for sexy underwear, their brothers in Uttar Pradesh are showing interest in penis enlargement products. Bhopal is the largest market for flavoured condoms, while Panjim has the highest demand for massage oils. Other sexually enlightened cities include Jaipur, Udaipur, Kochi, Lucknow, Rohtak, Haldwani, Gurgaon and Noida.

While the sale of “obscene products” is illegal in India, there is a gray area that many retailers exploit, to make a variety of accessories available to customers, including products from a variety of top international brands including Lelo, Hustler and We-Vibe. And though it is still not legal to set up a physical sex toy shop in India, online retailers like ThatsPersonal.com, IMbesharam.com, guptt.in and even Amazon.com (which sells innocuous looking products like fluffy handcuffs and blindfolds) are reaching out to meet a growing demand, all the while staying within the boundaries of the law. “Obviously we can’t sell dildos. They are shaped like penises and hence fall under the ‘obscene product’ category,” says Dosanjh. “However, a vibrator looks like a lipstick or a small pen, and therefore can’t really be considered ‘obscene’,” he explains.

And that’s exactly how 33-year old digital media consultant Richa Jain (not her real name) first discovered adult toys. “My first experience with a vibrator was actually by accident. This was fifteen years ago, and I was a student in Australia back then. My roommate let me borrow her lipstick, and I pulled out her vibrator from her purse thinking it was a lipstick,” she recalls. Jain started checking out more such products online and in stores, and gradually opened up to the idea of treating herself to some adult toys. But she left them all behind when she came back to India, as she was terrified of what would happen if her family found out.

Interestingly, it was these toys that came to her rescue at a particularly crucial point in her life. “I had an arranged marriage, and the excitement in the bedroom died in the first year itself. With time, my husband and I became like two blocks of ice floating away from each other. That’s when I decided to spice things up,” she says. Jain ordered a couple’s vibrating ring online. It is a device worn by the man around his penis and has 8-10 vibration settings that deliver vibrations to both partners during intercourse. Richa’s husband was reluctant at first, but she urged him to try it once. “And once was all it took to convince him that we still had a shot at being a real married couple, instead of just being two people trapped in a legal arrangement. Who would think that a ‘toy’ could help save a marriage?” she asks.

This is exactly the messaging being used by some retailers who are looking to establish themselves in India. “In our culture, sex has always been seen as a spiritual experience. However, we don’t really like talking about it,” says Dosanjh, pointing out India’s awkwardness with all things sexual. “As a young Indian boy growing up in the UK, I experienced intense anxiety, shame and guilt when I began to discover my sexual side as a young adult. But I came to realize that ‘guilt’ was the ‘original sin’, not sex. That set me free, and I decided I was going to help others set themselves free,” he says, explaining how he got into the business of retailing adult toys.

Dosanjh also believes that there is a lot of stigma associated with the use of sex toys, because people associate it only with masturbation. However, modern sex toys like couple’s vibrators, massagers and rings, can be used by both partners together, to maximize the pleasure derived from the sexual experience. “We are seeing a lot of empty nesters demanding couple’s products, to rekindle their romance after their children grow up and leave the house,” he says.

Words by Deborah Grey