While India is currently making headlines in the Western media mainly due to the attempted censorship of pornographic content and a strange treatment of women in this year’s elections, the market for sex toys and sexual health is growing rapidly on the subcontinent – and that is mainly because of women becoming more powerful in the country. It is estimated that the industry has a sales potential of three billion dollars.
The fact that the sex toy market in India is on the upswing is probably no secret in the industry. The immense expansion strategy of India’s largest online adult retailer, ImBesharam, testifies to the healthy self-confidence of a sector of the economy which, until recently, had a hard time in the overwhelmingly conservative country. But even in Western countries, the taboo surrounding sex toys and sexual wellness products has only been overcome during the last 20 years.
The opportunities in India are enormous. The country has 1.3 billion inhabitants. Poverty is still a considerable problem and sometimes extreme in India, but there is also an ever growing middle class and a vast number of millionaires. Most of the potential, according to the founder of ImBesharam, is far from being realized.
The Netflix factor: A surge in demand for sex toys due to mass-media representation
The most recent growth spurt has come from mainstream media, similar to what happened in the West. Much like the appearance of the Rabbit vibrator in Sex and the City lead to a surge and normalization of sex toys in Western societies a similar effect was seen in India after Netflix released the series Lust Stories, in which the actress Kiara Advani reaches an orgasm through a vibrator while her husband, as well as her mother-in-law, accidentally witness the scene. In India, this scene triggered a run on sex toys. The bull vibrator shown in the episode was sold out on all trading platforms in the country in no time at all. Also, some Bollywood productions recently featured several scenes featuring sex toys.
Although the actress Swara Bhaskar experienced a shitstorm on social media, as her masturbation scene in the Bollywood film Veere Di Wedding sparked many religious zealots, the demand was unleashed and the genie was out of the bottle.
ImBesharam’s founder, Raj Armani, says: »Women shoppers and sales of toys and products for women peaked all throughout July and August. That has been some of the best trends in the last five years we have been out there.« More and more women, according to the bustling businessman, are becoming more eager to experiment and try out themselves and their lust with the help of toys.
A surge in demand in the sex toy market for many entrepreneurs
The marketing manager of ImBesharam’s competitor That’s Personal is also pleased with the boom caused by the media’s treatment of the topic. Vineshkumar Kunjiraman says his company experienced 57% sales growth in June last year alone. Traffic from keywords entered into Google reached new heights, says the marketing expert.
The influence of cultural representations of sex-positive messages in the mainstream media becomes clear. Stories that have a positive impact on body images, sensuality and sexual health make taboos disappear. They are one of the main drivers of the worldwide trend to make sex education and sexual wellness a subject for the masses. Sometimes this leads to Tipping Points, from which the whole industry profits massively. At least that’s how Kunjiraman sees it: »This brought upon a certain wave of acceptance and clarity in the perception of adult toys nationwide.«
Huge potential but enormous obstacles
Others are more cautious in their assessment of the current trend. Sex consultant Pallavi Barnwal says: »It will take decades before we come to terms with accepting our sexual energy. There is hardly any forum or space where sex is being talked about in terms of sensuality, refinement, sophistication, and in person.« She vehemently emphasizes the importance of sex toys for sex education and sexual well-being.
Kaamastra, a retailer of wellness products, lingerie, and performance-enhancing products, is one of the profiteers of the emerging social change in India towards a sex-positive approach to human sexuality. Rahber Nazir works for the company and emphasizes the growing knowledge among consumers: »There is a better understanding of products now, both among men and women. They are getting to know the products more; so their requests are becoming more detailed.« In 2018, Kamaastra acquired its competitor ItsPleaZure.
Society’s opening to sexual freedom
And while the censorship efforts against online pornography may be suggesting that the country is closing itself off and radicalizing itself, there have long been certain tendencies in India that indicate that the clock cannot be turned back here either. In 2018, the Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality in India. In addition to the achievement of civil rights, legalization has also created business opportunities that have hitherto been unrealized. After all, the market for the LGBTQ community is immense.
That’s Personal’s lawyer says: »We have had a few products, for instance those that enable anal sex, which are most likely used by members of the LGBTQ community. Though these were on sale earlier, when the debate on homosexuality heated, we had taken them down for a while. We are studying what kind of products can be launched for the community in the Indian market. No one has that kind of information at the moment.«
Obscenity laws require adjustments to the Indian market
The stocking of the assortment is not as easy as in the West. Despite increasing social awareness, many products remain taboo because they are considered obscene. These include dildos with a penis-like shape. Rahber says: »If you have a dildo that is in the shape of a penis, that is a problem. But, if in a more general shape, like a banana for instance, that is fine.«
So traders sometimes find themselves in a difficult situation. Due to a law against obscenity, Indian retailers always have to weigh up the extent to which they are taking legal risks with a product. This is why vibrators in the form of lipsticks or other cosmetic utensils are often on sale and particularly popular in India.
This problem though doesn’t stop with the products themselves; packaging, marketing, and advertising campaigns also have to be redesigned for the Indian market. Under no circumstances should there be any explicit or obscene images on a package or in an advertising campaign. Similarly, as in the USA, the obscenity ban is a rather vague thing and an infringement of the ban on obscenity in individual cases is rather a matter of interpretation.
Word-of-mouth advertising only possible in an open society
ImBesharam’s Armani mentions an additional hurdle for Indian retailers, although he hopes that the current media representations could ease this. So far, at least, it has been the case that companies in the industry have rarely been able to benefit from word-of-mouth propaganda.
Most customers do not talk about their sex toy purchases. »The foremost challenge we face is reaching out to the masses. We are built for 100 percent privacy and guarantee this to our customers, and because our customers may not want others to know they shopped here, or what they bought, to avoid being judged, they don’t talk or share about their experience with us. So, we have to invest in marketing costs twice to reach to the same amount of people that otherwise a successful FMCG brand would take.«
Such hurdles create unique challenges in all areas. For a growing company like ImBesharam, this has long made it difficult to find venture capital and investors. Recently, however, the company was able to attract investors from the USA for the company’s global growth strategy.
Traditional products such as lubricants and vibrators are still among the most significant sales drivers in Indian adult trade. However, it can also be assumed that Indian consumers will become more eager to experiment over time. An immense opportunity, especially for Western manufacturers who do not shy away from engaging and addressing requirements of the Indian market.
ImBesharam is optimistic. The company wants to use the fresh money to cater to Indians living abroad all over the world. Armani, as he makes clear, sees himself as a future global player in the industry.