The secret bazaar of sex toys
Akshay Sawai | 18 Feb, 2014
The secret bazaar of sex toys
Samir Saraiya mimics the conspiratorial approach of a typical peddler of prurience found at Mumbai’s Manish Market or Delhi’s Palika Bazaar. “Maal chahiye”? (Want stuff?) A jocular 41-year-old, Saraiya left a cushy job as business development head at Microsoft Singapore to set up Thatspersonal.com, one of India’s few organised adult product websites. He knows a bit about Palika Bazaar and Manish Market. These sleazy dens were his stomping grounds for market research. After all, that is where customers would go for sex toys (okay, ‘adult wellness products’ in brochure lingo). Getting pleasure tools from abroad was an option. But that involved the risk of explaining things to beady-eyed hawks at Customs. And making such purchases even abroad was never easy. There was always a chance of bumping into someone you knew (“Uh, hello Professor Banerjee.”)
Now, thanks to e-retailers like Thatspersonal.com and Imbesharam.com, Indians no longer have to endure embarrassment. World class adult goods can be acquired in complete privacy. The order is delivered in discreet packaging at an address of your choice. There are a few other websites too, but they are still small players. Thatspersonal.com and Imbesharam.com, on the other hand, are ambitious—and legitimate—operations owned and run by serious businessmen. The investment in Thatspersonal.com is $500,000 (about Rs 3.1 crore), and in Imbesharam.com, $700,000 (about Rs 4.4 crore). The future promises more such enterprises. This is because India’s adult products market, valued at Rs 1,200-1,500 crore in terms of annual sales, is expected to double in just two years.
We are sitting in Saraiya’s cabin at the office of Digital E-Life Pvt Ltd, which owns Thatspersonal.com, in Chembur, Mumbai. Half an hour into the conversation, he gets up and says, “Come, let me show you our range.” He opens a door marked ‘Store room. Entry restricted.’ It is a medium-sized room with a wooden floor and metallic grey shelves heaving with products. Their variety and quality is astonishing. From the brand Shunga, inspired by Japanese traditions of romance and lovemaking, comes a G-spot arousal cream, among other things. There are diamond-studded handcuffs by Calexotics, a lubricant for couples called Wet Together that also warms and cools and tingles, edible bodypaint in flavours ranging from tiramisu to Cointreau.
The ‘role play’ category is especially popular among Indians, Saraiya says, pointing to uniforms of airhostesses, nurses and policewomen. Also in demand is X On The Lips, a tingling lip balm that electrifies users’ kissing experience. Made in the US, the balm sells for Rs 999. “You can use it, what, a hundred times? That’s just Rs 10 for a great kiss,” Saraiya says. In addition, there are various kinds of innerwear and adult games. With the right company, you could spend the rest of your life in that store room.
The unique thing about the company, and a sign of India’s increasing openness towards sex, is the profile of the people behind it. They are all quintessential suits who in the past would have rather embraced Marx than sell adult products. Three of the firm’s key people are from Microsoft (a gift hamper might just be on its way to Satya Nadella). The first is Saraiya. The other is Jaspreet Bindra, Digital E-Life advisor. Bindra earlier headed the Microsoft Entertainment & Devices Division in India. Neville Taraporewala, another advisor, is part of Microsoft India’s leadership team. Also on board are: Lekhesh Dholakia, a corporate attorney who specialises in internet- and telecom-related laws in India; Monali Shah, a seasoned retail industry professional; and Vikram Varma, an advertising and digital industry veteran who looks after Thatspersonal.com’s brand strategy and communication. Abhay Bhalerao, an alumnus of Veermata Jijabai Technology Institute and Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, looks after technology operations and infrastructure for Digital E-Life and the website.
Thatspersonal.com’s offer basket is more sensual than raunchy. In contrast, Imbesharam.com, as the name suggests, is somewhat in-your-face with its rather more risqué range. For one, it sells fleshlights, those special friend of lonely men. A fleshlight is a handy cylindrical object with soft rubber folds and an orifice that simulates a vagina. Imbesharam.com also has subtle variations (so that they pass legal muster) of dildos. Some of these items can’t be found on Thatspersonal.com. Rubber dolls, though, are unavailable on either site.
Imbesharam.com also has a brand ambassador: Sunny Leone. And if Thatspersonal.com boasts of corporate heavyweights, Imbesharam.com is high on flamboyance. One of its founders calls himself Raj Armani (asked about his curious last name, he replies in an email, ‘Save that for another interview ’). The language of this site is youthful and conversational, if at times collegial. In its ‘About Team Besharam’ section, one of its founders, Salim, writes, ‘So here’s my motto… Life is a sport… Chicks dig scars… the pain goes away… but the glory well the glory lasts forever… Always be yourself and believe in yourself… Welcome to the world of BESHARAM. Besharam hum, You know you R too.’
Under the Indian Penal Code, any display of obscenity in public is illegal. Sex toys, therefore, are unquestionably illegal. Manufacturers of sex toys, however, get around this with a simple trick. They don’t call their products ‘sex toys’. Imbesharam.com has a YouTube page on which some of these questions are tackled. One FAQ goes: ‘Is it legal to shop for sex toys on Imbesharam.com? Are these products allowed to be imported in India?’ A blonde model, acting all coy, has this answer to offer, “First, let us address the fact that we do not sell any sex toys,” she says, “What we sell is a classy collection of products that can be used by adults for pleasure and relief. A bunch of products that we carry in the adult category section are merely household electronics that can be used by adults for various functions like neck massage, head massage, ear massage, feet massage, back massage and hand massage.” (It hasn’t struck the company that it refers to its own products as ‘sex toys’ while posing the frequently asked question.)
Asked to clarify Indian law on sex toys, advocate Tarak Sayed says, “As per Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, they are illegal without doubt. However, items such as edible paint, gels or underwear are technically not illegal. In the case of more graphic products, I would say at least prima facie there is enough reason to register a complaint.”
Armani explains how his company ensured it did not flout any law. ‘Initially [the rules] seemed to be our biggest challenge,’ he responds over email. ‘But as we spent six months in research and meeting with [Certified Public Accountants], attorneys, customs consultants and ex- commissioners and other e-commerce pioneers, we came to realise… a huge misinterpretation [of the difference] between what restricted products are and what not-restricted products are, so we built our collections while staying under those domains as we want to build a brand that can be synonymous with a pleasurable adult lifestyle. Once the domain was clearly identified, all that was needed was to hire the team, sign the contracts with reputable and reliable shippers and go for the first test run.’
Since the company that runs Thatspersonal.com is based in India, it was at greater risk of running afoul of the law. Saraiya agrees he faced “challenges”, but he also had some amusing experiences. Sitting in his office in an untucked white shirt, jeans and grey Nikes, he narrates some in his pally, college-buddy manner. Refreshingly, he bears no trace of the snobbery one may expect of someone with a blue-chip corporate resume, schooling at Mumbai’s Cathedral and a South Bombay home.
“For edible body paint, the Customs guys called me and asked, ‘Boss, what are you up to, yaar?’ I said, ‘Boss, this is edible body paint.’ They were like ‘Okay’. They knew it was legal. I think it was more amusing for them to see the guy who was doing this [business]. They said, ‘What is the end use of the product?’ What do I say? The end use is fun, yaar.”
Saraiya says, “And then we went to the Food Ministry once. We said, ‘This is edible body paint; do I need a food licence from you?’ So the guy says, ‘No, the funny part is, for this product you don’t need a licence because the way we have defined food is [by its delivery of] nutrition. People don’t consume this for nutrition.”
Asked how many permits he needed, Saraiya says, “Less than ten. But a lot of people are trying to copy us and I don’t want to reveal how we did everything. But it was challenging and took time. We were fortunate we dealt with a good set of officials, rather than people who are only out to fleece businessmen.”
Moreover, as Sayed says, some products are perfectly legal. “If you want to make crotchless underwear, you are allowed to,” says Saraiya. “Lubricants… there was just Johnson & Johnson’s KY Jelly in the market. Today, I have 51 lubricants— silicon based, water-based, tingling, flavoured. That’s all legal.”
There are a couple of other players in the Indian adult products market, like 24funtoys.com and masalatoys.com. These are not in the same league as Thatspersonal.com or Imbesharam.com. Nonetheless, interactions with them reveal something about the industry.
When I ring up 24funtoys.com, the man who answers the phone is evasive. Speaking in Hindi, he says the firm is based in Rajasthan, and for more information, I would have to speak to his boss. It goes without saying that this boss is not available and unlikely to be. At Bangalore-based Masalatoys.com, the phone is answered by Amit Sharma, one of its owner-partners, with a hopeful “Yes, how can I help you?” To his credit, Sharma is disarmingly forthcoming. His partner, he reveals, is one Mr Isaac. After a couple of failed experiments, they started Masalatoys.com “by default” around 2007. But business has been slow, he admits. “We’ve spent about Rs 6 lakh so far,” says Sharma, “and made just about a lakh-and-a-half—of which much is spent on operations.” If someone wanders over to the site and actually orders something, the firm sources the product from places like Palika Bazar. “We are out of energy levels,” says Sharma, “I may shut down this business very soon.” He blames it on the stringency of regulation. “Unless the Government does something to liberalise policies on selling and manufacturing adult goods, it’s going to be difficult. There are benefits for everyone if the rules are relaxed. The Government will earn money. Prices of products will go down eight times. You will see happy faces around.”
Signing off, Sharma makes an impassioned plea, asking me to spread the word about the need for safe sexual outlets. “I’m in no way interested in promotion,” he says. “But just make the point that these products are pro-society. They can bring down child abuse, prostitution and HIV. We all have sex. We were made [out of] sex,” he says, concluding with a “God bless you.”
It is also fascinating to speak to foot soldiers of this business. These are regular folk working at jobs they enjoy doing, jobs that are often met with disapproval at home. Their workplaces, though, are free of any awkwardness, since everyone is accustomed to dealing with such items as vibrators and gay underwear. Thatspersonal.com’s could be any contemporary office with an MTV or ad agency vibe. The staff, most of them in their twenties or thirties, are casually dressed. There is a table-tennis table on the ground floor and a carom board on the way up. But yes, some of them have had to lie a little at home, or at least face spells of unease as their families came to terms with their line of work.
Blossom Menezes Joshi, who looks after product development and the site’s user experience, has been working at Digital E-Life for about a year. She’d worked with Yahoo, Rediff and Indiatimes earlier. “I personally was very excited about working here,” she says. “The business was promising. Everybody wants these things, it’s just that they were not available. My husband had no problems either. But my parents and in- laws are conservative. It took some time for them to come around.” What bothers her is the hypocrisy some people display. “Somebody actually said to me ‘Please take this off your CV.’ People have weird, conflicting views. [Sex] is a part of life. Why deny it?”
Rohan Indapure, who works on the merchandising aspect of the business, smiles at the memory of losing a marriage proposal on account of the nature of his work. “I went to see a girl, but they didn’t follow up once they found out what I did for a living.”
Things have been tougher for Salauddin Kazi, who handles operations and customer service. His marrying a Gujarati had already tested his orthodox family’s patience; asked if she has been accepted in his home, he says, “Kind of. Can’t say yes, can’t say no.” For his folks to also accept his career, he figures, would be asking for too much. “So I tell them we sell bath and body products.” He often takes samples home. The company’s name, Digital E-life, helps. “It is exciting to be part of a start-up,” he says. “But no one knows in my family—not my in- laws, not my parents, nor close relatives. Only my wife and close friends know. It’s difficult to make people understand the importance of what we are doing.”
Consumers, however, are almost unanimously pleased and need no convincing of the value of such products. Sales are robust. Imbesharam’s Armani says, “We are currently doing Rs 40-50 lakh in [monthly] sales, and they are growing by at least 20 per cent every month.” The company expects to break even by the end of the year. Saraiya says the site has had over 10,000 customers since its launch a year ago, 31 per cent of them women. Delhi tops the list in terms of orders. Mumbai, Bangalore and Pune follow.
He adds that 20 per cent of the firm’s orders are from smaller towns and cities. But value-wise, these orders are much larger as they buy an average 2.9 items per order. “We have got orders from all over the country,” says Saraiya, “including Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh and Nanded in Maharashtra.” He had expected that the 40-plus age group, with their high disposable incomes and stagnant marriages, would be his main target audience. To his surprise, the 24-30 age bracket has been equally enthusiastic about his wares.
Dr Mahinder Watsa, a popular sex advisor who writes a column in Mumbai Mirror, however, considers the frequent use of sex toys best only for the older lot. “[The product category] has its own place, like porn. But there is a danger they can be misused, where people overdo it and get used to it, instead of enjoying sex the natural way. I would recommend them largely for people over 40, who need excitement in their marriages.”
Thousands follow Dr Watsa’s humorously doled out advice in the tabloid everyday. But it is unlikely they’d agree with him on this matter. As Saraiya says, “In the feedback that I get, there will be the odd mail that says we are corrupting India or India doesn’t need this. But nine out of ten are for it.”