INDIA RISING

Bold entrepreneurs are helping Indians have better sex, one vibrator at a time

Buy, not tell.
Buy, not tell.
Image: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz
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At a private party of five in a tony South Delhi neighbourhood last week, Avani Parekh explained to a handful of women how to use a variety of adult toys. On display were Kegel balls, used to firm up vaginal muscles; chocolate-flavoured body paint by adult-cosmetics company Shunga; a host of vibrators, and a variety of lubricants.

Parekh, a partner at Bengaluru-based online adult-toys retailer Lovetreats, was hosting the workshop in the national capital as part of a pilot programme in Delhi designed to break the taboo around sexual-wellness products in conservative India.

“This is a sort of experiment we’re doing to enhance the education of pleasure toys among women, and initiate conversations about relationships in an environment that is comforting and familiar to them,” said Parekh, also a sex and relationship counsellor. The 38-year-old has been trained by Germany-based adult-toy maker Fun Factory to demonstrate the use of such products.

The discreet yet informative session was a sneak peek into how a handful of companies are trying to capitalise on the Rs2,000 crore-Rs2,500 crore market (as estimated by companies) for sexual wellness products in India, where adult toys are rarely sold openly.

Earlier, the average Indian consumer had to purchase them in the narrow bylanes of Delhi’s Karol Bagh or Mumbai’s Crawford market, while more affluent shoppers picked them up abroad. But now, companies such as Lovetreats, Masala Toys, IMbesharam, Kinkpin, and Naughtyme are are selling everything from lubricants to vibrators and even sex dolls online. And they’re receiving orders from young and experimental Indians from Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), all the way across to the Andamans.

DNA of a sex-toy shopper

Armed with smartphones and low internet tariffs, Indian adults now have easy access to pornography and sexual content. In fact, in 2016, India ranked fourth in the world in terms of visitors to Pornhub, the most popular pornographic website. This, coupled with a more liberal attitude towards sex, at least among young people, has meant that Indian men and women are gradually becoming more experimental than they were a decade ago. And that’s helping drive up sex toy sales.

“An average Indian is far more in tune with the western lifestyle than ever before, due to easy access to the internet, Hollywood, and Bollywood movies, (and) TV shows,” explained Raj Armani, chief operating officer at IMbesharam, an online adult toy retailer founded in 2013. The company sells sex toys manufactured by brands such as Hustler, Playboy, Lelo, and Fleshlight, among others.

Typically, it’s both men and women aged between 24 and 35 who are increasingly looking online for massagers, flavoured condoms, racy lingerie, lubricants, and other products. The amount they spend ranges from between a few hundred rupees to as high as Rs25,000. But this booming demand isn’t limited to big cities.

“Anyone who has access to the internet, has a debit or credit card, has disposable income, and has heard of adult products, whether on TV, online, or in conversations, is our ideal customer,” added Armani, whose website is endorsed by former adult movie star Sunny Leone. And if these shoppers have travelled abroad, their chances of picking up adult toys online is even higher, Armani explained.

The officials of most companies that Quartz spoke to acknowledged that orders for adult toys and sexual wellness products are trickling in from every nook and corner of India.

When Delhi-based Reetinder Singh first launched Kinkpin, a paltry five to six orders a day was the norm. “Now we get up to 100-150 orders per day and they come from everywhere,” Singh said. Today, their Trojan brand of condoms, widely popular in the US, is the highest-selling product. While the market for such products is highly unorganised, there is a lot more awareness and curiosity among consumers: Over 60% of Kinkpin’s shoppers are from small towns and cities.

“We’ve even had orders from areas unreachable by large courier companies (that) can only be serviced by India Post,” he added. Recently, Kinkpin received an order from an army outpost in highest reaches of Leh, J&K.

And Kinkpin isn’t the only company in the fray. Lovetreat’s founders recall orders pouring in from Hapur, a small town in western Uttar Pradesh, last year. “We had to literally look it up,” Bala TV, co-founder at Lovetreats added. And from then on, orders from Hapur just kept coming in, mainly for vibrators costing between Rs4,000-Rs5,000.

For IMbesharam, Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chennai, and Hyderabad top the list of shoppers, but more orders are also emerging from cities such as Jaipur, Surat, Ahmedabad and Kolkata.

And these are some high-value orders.

It once sold a customised vibrator from American adult toy maker Sybian for Rs4.5 lakh to a customer in Bilaspur, a small town in Chhattisgarh. In April 2016, a shopper in Warangal, Telangana, ordered a gold-plated vibrator by high-end adult toy maker LELO. Such orders have helped IMBesharam raise a series-A round of $4 million in 2016 from undisclosed investors.

Besides, more Indian women, too, are joining the fun.

“Since these products are a part of western mainstream media and even shows, a lot of women know about them already,” explained Ute Wiemer, the German co-founder of Lovetreats. Wiemer started the website in 2015 after noticing that there wasn’t a discreet and comfortable space for both men and women to buy such products in India.

But selling sex toys in India isn’t just pure pleasure.

Toys R Us

India is a regulated market for adult toys.

While websites do sell beads and sex dolls, there is ambiguity regarding how these products can be represented. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code spells out that activities, such as the sale, distribution, public exhibition, and circulation of anything obscene, are punishable offences. But the meaning of obscene remains unclear.

“Some products fall into the grey area and depend on circumstances—a massager is legal, but one that is shaped like a private part is considered to be illegal,” Vaibhav Parikh, a partner at law firm Nishith Desai Associates, told Quartz in 2015.

This means websites must remain cautious. Kinkpin’s Singh is clear that his website sells massagers and doesn’t promote them as vibrators. Its inventory of 92 brands mainly features condoms, lubricants, and lingerie, and it refrains from selling products that resemble any human body parts.

Marketing is restrictive, too, so the first six months after the launch of Lovetreats were nightmarish for Wiemer and Bala.

“While we did extensive research on (the) legality part of it, it’s not out in the open that there are restrictions when it comes to buying paid ads for such products online,” Lovetreat’s Bala said.

For starters, as part of a global company policy, Facebook does not allow paid advertisers to market sexual wellness products. In fact, Google does not allow adult or non-family-safe advertisements on its site in India. These include ads for the “promotion or sale of merchandise that’s intended to enhance sexual activity.”

As a result, companies must rely on e-mail marketing, tie-ups with websites such as Agents of Ishq—a multi-media project that features articles on sex and love, pop-ups at music festivals, Facebook pages, curated blogs, and informative articles on social media to get the word out.

Regulations aside, most companies feel the need for a lot more to create awareness, especially since for most users, expressing their sexual desires and demanding such products openly is still a taboo.

As Armani explained, while most of India’s youth and middle-aged consumers know of the products—at least the basic ones like a dildo or a vibrator—they haven’t yet explored the variety. “So while it is a learning curve for most of them, the rest of them do not know something like this exists or morally feel that anything related to sexual pleasure is dirty,” he said.