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Opening upbehind closed doors

In the Western world, the movie based on the Fifty Shades of Grey book trilogy is releasing this week, ahead of Valentine’s Day. In India, even as extreme right-wingers threaten to summarily marry off couples out on dates tomorrow, and as the movie awaits a censorship certificate, web sites in the country selling sexual health and/entertainment products have added BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) merchandise to their list of wares, hoping that the book, having attained something of a cult status, will influence sales. Make way red roses, jewellery and chocolate, for it’s with edible body paint, handcuffs and whips that romantic India can choose to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
ThatsPersonal.com, an adult online shopping site, has the exclusive rights to sell the Fifty Shadesofficial movie merchandise in India. Samir Saraiya, a former executive at Microsoft who founded this venture in 2013, says this category is going to be a ₹10,000-crore business in India in five years’ time. Saraiya’s decision to set up a business in this field of e-commerce stemmed from his own hesitation to buy contraceptives at stores in person, and realising that shopping online could give buyers the anonymity they wished for. Vivek Raja, co-Founder of Shycart.com, another adult online shopping venture, says Westernisation and travel, as well as porn, which is freely available, are fuelling demand for erotic products. “Various products such as blindfolds, lingerie and such are being used in these movies, and people want to try it out,” he says. Of course, while the accessories he mentions are possibly the extreme end of the range, there are others, such as a range of condoms, lubricants and gadgets, which are available only online.
Raja adds that beyond condoms, few stores stock the rest as they are afraid of a traditionalist uproar.
What’s smuttier, what’s not
Not that it has been a smooth run for some of these sites so far. Some have got into trouble for stocking what are claimed to be illegal products, the illegality arising from an interpretation of obscenity laws. ThatsPersonal’s Saraiya says there are four thumb rules to safe selling: Sell products made in India and meant for sale in India; made abroad but imported under the Customs Act 1956 with due documentation and duty payments; do not have lascivious and obscene pictures on them; ensure they are over-the-counter items and not those that need a prescription. ThatsPersonal stays away from ingestibles and aids and accessories such as dolls, flesh lights and dildos, which are “definitely over the top for India”, he says. In a phenomenon many shopping sites will confirm, and in the case of these sites too, business comes mainly from Tier 2 cities, such as Coimbatore and Madurai, says Shycart’s Raja, who claims that only his site sells sexual health products (as separate from sexual entertainment items) including contraceptives and sanitary napkins, which account for about 70 per cent of its sales. The segment is worth ₹800 crore now, and business at Shycart is growing 30 per cent month on month. The other sites in this sector include privatelyurs.com, IMbesharam.com, OhMySecrets.com and Kaamaastra.com.
This is music to New Delhi-based Titiksha Chapra’s (name changed) ears. “I had to buy my dildo in Prague,” she rues. It should be mentioned that some sites sell products under not quite these names to circumvent obscenity concerns.
Open (?) sesame
The ‘openness’ to these matters manifests in surfing and sales online, but is also visible in advertising. One of the early ads for condoms showed a shopper breaking into a sweat at the pharmacy but now the commercials are bold and straightforward. Santosh Desai, long time ad man and social commentator, says cinema in India is a visual benchmark that sets basic expectations about what is legitimate and what is not and there has been a sea change in what is acceptable. The old aversion to physical contact is disappearing and even in small town India, there is easy acceptance of young people forming pairs. “There’s very little question about Indians now being more open about romance and sex,” he says, adding that the threat to marry off dating couples is an extreme reaction to what is seen as destabilising and unsettling change which gets a boost of righteousness from the government that is in power. “It is very difficult to fight the market, you can fight politics but not economics, once the market gets into it and promotes it, it has to happen,” he says. He points out that advertising is a reflection of the openness in these matters that has pervaded society. Dumping a partner, a rather familiar theme in today’s ads aimed at the young, is a matter-of-fact phenomenon; earlier it was a past burden to have had a relationship. There is real change. It may not be as dramatic as the claims of the sex surveys that do the rounds of media once in a while, but it’s there, he says.
Agreeing with him, Vishal Vyas, General Manager – Marketing, Skore Condoms, TTK PDL, says society is more open and individuals are clear about what they want in many areas – and this attitude is influencing sexual health as well. The rise of online shopping is a welcome sign and is helping the ₹860-crore condom category grow.
Taboo talk
The openness has also resulted in condoms coming out of the closet – earlier they used to be hidden away in stores, now they are displayed for everyone to see, he points out. Nitish Kapoor, Managing Director, RB India, says Durex is seeing an increasing trend in the consumption of not just condoms but the larger range of sexual wellbeing products for both personal and gifting purposes. Skore even organised a fashion show in Mumbai recently where the apparel was made of condoms, to create more awareness. While the brand currently makes only condoms, future launches include accessories which will be sold mainly online, says Vyas. The company even has a mobile app to make it easier for customers to buy condoms anonymously. Condoms are a growing market though sales have stagnated in the last 3-4 years, but Vyas expects it to regain its 8-10 per cent growth in the next few years.
The comfort with shopping online also spills over into the marketing and advertising, with some brands preferring the digital media to conventional. Says Kapoor of Durex, which has a largely online and social campaign called Do The Rex: “It allows us to reach out to our target audience across the country more effectively and provides us more flexibility.” With approximately 35 million people across the globe infected with HIV/AIDS, of which a large portion comprises individuals infected through sexual contact, it is time we start treating this seriously. But none of this will be remotely even possible if we continue to treat sex as taboo, he adds.  “The commoditisation of sexuality and the wider availability of sexual products, including sex toys, is certainly a sign of opening up the discursive space of sex, pleasure, and sexuality,” says Anjana Raghavan who has a doctorate in Culture Studies (with a focus on Genders, Bodies and Sexualities). However, she points out that it is important to be mindful of the fact that the market of sex products in India is extremely niche, and it would therefore be quite misleading to see its proliferation as an opening up of the realm itself. Also, it tells us nothing about the nature of this curiosity, nor does it suggest that the sexual exploration and discussion is equal across the spectrum of gender, sexuality and class, she adds. 
Bangalore-based Arjun Singh (name changed), an employee in the financial sector, resisted using a condom because he found it uncomfortable. His partner is on the pill. However, owing to the wide variety available today, he dabbles in their use on and off. But he still finds it an irksome process to buy them at a store. “The knowing glances and unspoken high-fives are nauseating,” he adds.
Are these sites able to raise funds easily given that, by and large, sex continues to be a taboo subject?
Some venture capitalists may have reservations, admits Saraiya, whose business has seen 70 per cent compounded growth quarterly. He hastens to add that his investors are all reputed people and he is negotiating with others to raise $5 million. “It’s a perception issue, I’m not selling porn, I am selling sexual health.”

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