The sexual wellness industry in India is estimated to be at Rs 2500 crores, with several sites selling adult products tapping into a market which promises ‘exponential’ potential.
There are vibrators and dildos, masturbators and vibrating rings, massage oils and soft bondage products, condoms and lubricants, edible lingerie and personal care and hygiene goods, among the plethora of products that can be bought online from these adult e-stores.
Driving the surge in demand are consumers from across the social spectrum. While metro cities continue to dominate the scene, it is the smaller towns and cities in India that buy adult products like never before.
Speaking to The News Minute, Samir Saraiya, CEO of ThatsPersonal.com, described as ‘India’s first personal products destination’, says that in the first and second year of their operations, i.e. in 2013-14, most of their business was generated from Tier-I cities. 2015 however saw Tier-II & III cities quickly catching up.
A research conducted by the site last year found that Tier-II cities like Jaipur, Surat, Lucknow, Coimbatore and Chandigarh witnessed the fastest growth, while Tier-III cities like Kohima, Davangere, Hisar, Khorda and Bhatinda have the biggest basket size.
“While the major cities make more frequent orders, Tier-II & III cities have a larger basket size, which means bigger purchases. Also, the customers from Tier-I cities are younger than those in Tier-II & III,” shares Samir.
From left to right: ThatsPersonal.com founder Samir Saraiya, Lovetreats founders Balaji TV and Ute Weimer, and co-founder and COO at IMbesharam.com Raj Armani
Balaji TV -co-founder of LoveTreats, a sex positive intimate lifestyle site launched in October 2015, says 50% of their sales are from Tier-II & III cities.
“People are curious. It came as a surprise to us that when it comes to adult products, the urban populace is as informed as their non-urban counterparts," he says.
In the past year, they have received orders from places, the names of which they had not even heard of earlier. “Like a place in Uttar Pradesh with a population of roughly 50,000,” says Balaji.
Balaji states that while there are not many major differences in the pattern of buyers hailing from urban and non-urban cities, “we have found that single women order more products in Tier-I cities, whereas in Tier-II &III, mostly men or married women form the customer base.”
Raj Armani -co-founder and COO at IMbesharam.com, likes his company to be known as the ‘Merchants of Kama Sutra’. Though the parent company was started in 2012, the Atlanta and Delhi-based adult lifestyle web-store went live only in 2013.
Kottayam, Aizawl, Hapur (UP), Varanasi, Aurangabad and Nandyal are among the several smaller cities that feature in the site’s list of top 100 Indian cities.
While the metros and Tier-I cities shop more often, according to Raj, the orders they get from Tier-II & III cities are amazingly easier to process: “They are generally higher ticket size and more adventurous in their shopping.”
Some of the most popular products across several of these sites are dildos, masturbators, vibrators, lubricants, condoms, edible lingerie and male performance products.
And the most common queries received are consumer concerns related to privacy. Both IMbesharam and ThatsPersonal have the option of customer pick-up for their products.
There are also questions about sex and sexual health: How to increase penis size? Are you 100% sure condoms will help me prevent pregnancy? Or the occasionally amusing ones like “I like your products better than my husband, what do I do now?”
Some sites like LoveTreats have collaborated with professionals to give informed answers to customers.
Potential candidates express both interest and willingness to work in a niche but growing sector.
Samir says their employees are very comfortable in their working space, and though Raj's team "did see slight hesitation from women team-mates in the past, ironically, 70% of our team today comprise women".
The husband of a woman who had applied for a job with LoveTreats, did not want his wife to work in a company selling adult products. Another applicant said he'd have to lie to his parents about his job. He was advised not to join.
What does the law say?
Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code states that the sale, hire, distribution, public exhibition, circulation or production of any obscene material is a punishable offence. However, critics state that what exactly constitutes ‘obscene’ hasn’t been defined by the law and is a matter of subjectivity.
Amit Sharma, founder of masalatoys.com, stresses that the "law is contradictory."
Balaji however states that while the market is “grey at the moment”, the law is pretty clear regarding the same. The law does not say such sites are illegal, and as long as no obscenity is used to sell, describe or market the product, one should be good to go. For example, while having a dildo may not be illegal, one in the shape and colour of genitals could invite trouble, he explains.
“While the purpose of adult products remains the same since Day One, their visual designs, packaging and applications have made huge strides in consumer-friendliness. They are no longer vulgar or gawky, but subtle, sleek and effective objects of desire,” opines Raj.
Vivek Sood -a senior Delhi High Court lawyer specializing in Indian cyber and criminal law- told The Economic Times that "As far as Section 292 goes, such e-commerce entrepreneurs or intermediaries are susceptible. The section becomes very broad by including any object which has the potential to corrupt minds....We live in a very dualistic society where the law doesn't recognize the right of adults to life and liberty.”
The team at ThatsPersonal.com
For the same reasons, marketing one’s products becomes a dicey affair, with most relying on Google searches and word-to-mouth promotions.
IMbesharam resorts to social media interactions and the company has “consciously positioned itself as a reliable and trustworthy brand” and also signed Sunny Leone for endorsements.
In the case of LoveTreats, word-of-mouth referrals play a huge role. “A word-of-mouth referral for a vibrator is more important than that for a TV, since the former is not available everywhere,” says Balaji.
Need for liberal policies?
For Amit Sharma, business is however not good and he holds the government responsible.
"If the government liberalizes policies and opens up the markets for adult products, India holds immense business potential. It will be a win-win situation for the government," he feels.
Sharma says that at present, adult products are being sold at nine times higher than the original price. "It travels all the way to buyers through a vicious circle, since the volumes aren’t high.”
He goes on to add that at least 10% of his clients consist of senior bureaucrats, police officers and IAS officers: “None of them view adult products from a negative angle.”
Most products are imported. “The market has to be big enough for the products to be manufactured locally. It is a premium market, not an essential one like dal and rice. The price is not much of a challenge now, but awareness is,” avers Balaji.