By the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a televised address on 12 May, the economy was in a downward spiral. The migrant exodus was building up and the covid-19 growth curve was getting steeper. The pandemic had come as a big disaster, he said, but it had brought with it a message and an opportunity. The opportunity to build an “atmanirbhar Bharat”.
“When we heard about it, we realized this is the wind we needed for the fire,” says Raj Armani, founder of IMbesharam.com, an online adult toys store launched in India in 2012. For months, Armani had been considering manufacturing adult toys custom-made for Indians. To Armani, the hashtags that followed Modi’s call, and the chorus of support the concept received, seemed to offer an opportune time to implement his idea.
By December, Armani’s store aims to launch its first line of male and female masturbators made in, and for, India. “They will have India preferences on girth, thickness, colour and texture. Its branding will be synonymous with our Kamasutra scriptures to bring Indian mythology alive in a new avatar,” he says. He believes he has found the perfect names for the two lines: ‘Samaaj’ and ‘Sanskaar’. “Because f*** Samaaj and f*** Sanskaar.”
It might sound like too literal an interpretation of a “self-reliant” nation but major Indian sex toy e-tailers that Mint interviewed for this story seem primed to jump on the “vocal for local” bandwagon. The eight-week lockdown hit them hard—although inquiries were at an all-time high, they could not ship due to the embargo on delivery of “non-essential” goods and services. But as the economy opens up, and the government pushes for buy-in-India as a sequel to make-in-India amidst tensions with China, e-tailers say they will explore ways to tie up with local manufacturers and launch a range of home-grown products.
So far, most of the sex toys sold in India have been imported. A major chunk of them are manufactured in China, which accounts for nearly 70% of the sex toys manufactured in the world. Even the products sold by major brands in the US and Europe trace their manufacturing roots to China, where there’s variety in terms of products, innovation and price. India’s “sexual wellness” industry—which includes adult toys, games and health supplements—was an estimated ₹2,000 crore in 2018, according to the London-based market research firm Technavio. India is one of the fastest-growing markets in the world, an analyst from Technavio told BBC in 2018. Yet local manufacturers have barely tapped into the market.
For, despite the growth in demand, cultural taboos and archaic laws that permit broad interpretation have remained a deterrent for sellers and manufacturers. IMbesharam.com, like many of its counterparts, does not acknowledge that it sells sex toys, even when it features a wide collection of buttplugs, vibrators, love-dolls and the official Fifty Shades of Grey collection. “What we sell is a classy collection of products that can be used by adults for pleasure & relief,” the website says in its FAQs.
The reason is that Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits the sale of obscene objects, has been used for moral policing in the past. There is no specific reference to sex toys but in 2015, for example, a Delhi-based lawyer took Snapdeal, an e-commerce portal, to court for selling “sex toys and accessories” that were “aiding and promoting gay sex”. The website took down the products temporarily but has since resumed sales.
India’s sex toys market has come into its own only over the past decade, coinciding with the slowly maturing discourse about sex and desire. Today, apart from the usual lascivious fare of Bollywood sex comedies, there are mature, irreverent films showcasing female desire, from Lust Stories and Veere Di Wedding to Lipstick Under My Burkha. The female protagonists in the first two are shown using sex toys, an act which continues to raise the hackles of many.
Armani’s IMBesharam makes upwards of ₹1 crore a month. Three of its five best-selling products are female vibrators, sold for ₹4,000-23,000. Metros account for nearly 42% of sales, says Armani, but demand from tier 2 and 3 cities has been building up steadily, with 36% and 16% of sales, respectively.
His contemporaries have recorded similar sales patterns. In 2017, ThatsPersonal.com, an e-commerce adult toys store from Mumbai, collated data from 80,000 orders and 52 months of internal traffic to study consumer behaviour. While metros like Mumbai and Delhi registered the highest sales, the demand from tier 2 and 3 cities had increased by 25% in the previous 12 months, the survey found. For example, Gujarat ranked sixth in terms of overall demand. But during the Navratri festival, it jumped to third position.
If sex toys were to be manufactured in India, however, the manufacturers wouldn’t just need unambiguous legal legitimacy. They would also need a significant amount of capacity building to start the process. As Rahber Nazir, CEO of the Pune-based Kaamastra.com, puts it, “Forget biryani, we are struggling to make dal chawal.”
“Take dildos, for example,” says Nazir. “It looks like a penis but it is not a smooth easy design. You need people who know about silicone, finishing, product design, (can work with) the moulding machine, compression machine, and have staff willing to make it. Post that, to paint it and colour it, get right texture, sand down problematic parts. In India, we don’t have people who make this product. No one has prioritized these products.”
Nor is it always easy to convince manufacturers. “I had once contracted a Pune-based company to make sexy clothing with printed material. Of the 10 designs I gave them, they said they would only do eight. Their staff, they said, wouldn’t be comfortable with the rest.”
Nazir is all for making in India. His website, he claims, already stocks a number of locally manufactured products, from Ayurvedic supplements to bondage essentials like whips and chains. “A lot of products aren’t complicated,” he says. “We are already trying to cut down our imports from China over the next five years. It might be a little expensive at first but we do save on the shipping time.”
There are some areas India is ahead in, though. Condoms, for one. Local brands like Kamasutra export to 50-60 countries. A number of Ayurvedic and herbal supplements, from companies like Dabur and Himalaya, are widely available in the market. But when it comes to niche products like adult toys, “it has been cheaper to manufacture abroad because of the kind of economy and scale the international companies have”, says Samir Saraiya, founder of ThatsPersonal.com. But he adds India also imposes a high customs duty—up to 30% in some cases. “Maybe that’s why make-in-India is a long-term solution. (Right now) it’s more economical for me to import.”
Although the Indian adult toys market is still a long way off from maturing, Saraiya has seen a surge in interest lately. “We have received a lot of inquiries from people looking to get into this business,” he says. “No one has shown the capability with the highest level of quality so far but we might be looking to create a joint venture with a German company for technology and know-how. We can then start with manufacturing soft products, like lotions, creams and lubricants.”
“The smart thing to do,” says Armani, “is to ride this (swadeshi) wave and manufacture in India.”