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Sexual wellness industry in India booms but taboo remains

Despite the topic remaining very much taboo, the adult products industry is experiencing a surge

Deutsche Welle Published 20.04.23, 05:39 PM
Representational image.

Representational image. Shutterstock

India is known as the land of Kama Sutra, an ancient Sanskrit text which became a guide for sexual behavior. Despite this, conversations around sex, desire and intimacy are still largely considered taboo in Indian society.

Ironically, the pandemic caused a shift in one particular manufacturing sector in India — the sexual wellness industry, also known as the adult products industry.

In 2015, the Indian sexual wellness market was valued at $453 million (€414 million). By 2020, it is estimated to have reached $1.63 billion and is expected to reach $2 billion by 2030.

What led to this boom?

India's population is on the cusp of surpassing China's this year. Of the 1.4 billion people living in India, 60% are under the age of 35.

This, along with the increase in access to the internet, played a big role in the emerging sexual wellness market in India.

Despite shutting down for two months during the pandemic year of 2020, IMBesharam, a leading sexual wellness company in India, reportedly had 40% higher sales in 2020 than in 2019. Meanwhile, traffic on their website grew by 30%, its user base increased over 35% and revenue more than doubled.

Ritesh D Ritelin, founder of Manzuri, a sexual positivity company which began during the pandemic, told DW that apart from the pandemic, "the rise of pop culture and influence of Western culture" have influenced the boom.

"First we were influenced by Western food, then fashion and now this," he said.

An attitude shift

Apart from the change in data, there's also a palpable movement in the way Indian society views the topic.

"Nowadays, urban women want to control not just their own finances and family lives but also their sexual habits," Ritelin said.

Law student Suzane Kurien said that she grew up in a conservative background where sex wasn't very openly discussed.

"I had a lot of guilt about sex and masturbation in general," she said. "In fact when my mother once found my toy she declared that I was the devil's child."

When Kurien initially became sexually active, she quickly realized that she was unable to orgasm with a partner. She located the cause to be a condition called vaginismus.

Vaginismus refers to a condition where the vagina involuntarily tenses during sex and makes penetration painful. That's when Kurien turned to sex toys.

And Kurien is not the only one.

More than 80% of Indian women sexually unfulfilled

TTK Healthcare and Unomer Inc is one of India's oldest health care and consumer goods companies. According to a study conducted by the group, 81% of Indian women were reportedly dissatisfied with their sex lives while 73% claimed to have rarely reached climax. Meanwhile, 94% of men reported being able to orgasm from sex.

The sexual wellness industry has played a big role in trying to bridge that gap.

"If sex is a basic need [...] then a sex toy is a necessity for me," said Kurien.

As a sexual positivity startup that is trying to break one of the biggest taboos in the country, Manzuri now caters all over India, even remote border regions which are often inaccessible due to weather and terrain issues.

"Once we received an order for multiple products from an army outpost in Ladakh, near the Indian border. It took very long for the product to be delivered," he said.

A long way to go

Even though there has been a marked shift in the mindset towards sex, Ritelin said that 60% of Manzuri's traffic is still men.

Why is this the case when most of their products are for women?

"We believe that women still look for approval from men before using toys. So at the moment, our assessment is that toys are being used mostly by couples or in cases where men give it to their partners."

In bigger cities, the company records more female consumers.

Aswathy Manoharan, who lives independently in Kochi, in southwest India's coastal Kerala state, said that growing up as a young woman, privacy was a luxury not afforded to her.

"My mother would never allow my sister and I to close our doors," she said.

When she discovered sex toys, they were not accessible and affordable in India.

However this has changed in the last few years. Now, Manoharan lives independently and is the proud owner of sex toys.

Given the stigma around sexual topics in India, many sex toy companies now offer discreet packaging. This has made it easier for people to order toys without the fear of family or neighbors finding out.

While the move increased business, consumers like Netra Moorkoth explained that the secret packaging stopped her from buying the toys.

"The concept of 'What will people think?' is so built into our Indian mentality," she said. "The only way that will change is if we change how we talk about sex. And for me, sex shouldn't be hidden under a lot of packaging."

India's ambiguous laws around sex toys

In 2020, before adult products were so easily accessible, Nitin Sharma*, an entrepreneur, ordered a toy from an international website. The site promised confidential packaging.

However, when the parcel reached India two weeks later, it was confiscated by the customs department.

"I got a notice from the department saying I have done something illegal and had to go through a process with lawyers and pay a big fine if I want it," said Sharma.

Worried about the trouble it would cause him, Sharma decided to not claim his parcel. By law, Sharma had not done anything wrong as India does not have any legislative provision with regards to sex toys.

Nevertheless, certain archaic laws have posed a challenge to the industry. After importing some sex toys in 2011, a woman named Kavita Phumbhra had her playthings confiscated by customs, citing obscenity as the reason.

A high court eventually rejected the claims by stating that given the morals of the present day, the toys would not be counted as obscene. The court also ruled that the term "obscenity" is far too subjective.

Moreover, the right to privacy also covered Kavita Phumbhra's right to sexual privacy.

Legalizing homosexuality meant 'sex was not just for reproduction'

Ritelin explained India's move to decriminalize homosexuality in 2018 was "a big win" for the sexual wellness industry.

"The historic verdict meant that finally the law was able to recognize that sex was not just for reproduction but also for pleasure. This means you can have sex with a toy as well," he said.

Though large strides have been taken in quashing the taboo, the topic of sex and the products that come with it remain something many in India would rather keep under wraps.

*Name changed to protect identity

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