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Erotic ecommerce gains steam in India, despite ‘culture police’ and shy investors


Vibrating duckling. Lucky ball masturbator. Amorino – a rabbit with a twist. Pleasure tunnel. Lovers’ candy bra. S&M intro kit. Blindfold & handcuffs set. Orgy love dice. No, I am not picking them out of Fifty Shades of Grey nor making them up for kicks. They are just a few of the many sex toys that have caught the fancy of adventurous Indians discovering the joys of ecommerce – where e stands for erotic.
A big chunk of Indian society still likes to pretend sex doesn’t exist but that hasn’t yet stopped anyone from doing it for procreation, obligation, recreation, or even revenge. Lately, the recreational element of this basic human instinct has got a bit of a push with intrepid entrepreneurs launching estores for sex toys and wellness products that promise better sex.
The sexual wellness market in India is expected to grow at an average rate of 34.8 percent per year from 2014 to 2019.
Are you wondering if “intrepid” is a touch of overkill? Well, no. If you thought ecommerce was tough, try selling sex toys in India – that might have you change your definition of tough.
There is probably no other country like India with its enormous sexually active population. Just 34 percent of its 1.3 billion people are below 14 years old or above 65. Who on earth can beat that?
The sexual wellness market in India is expected to grow at an average rate of 34.8 percent per year from 2014 to 2019, according to Technavio. It estimates the current market size of the category in India to be around US$227.8 million while globally it is over US$22 billion.
Hurdles, one too many
But we’re a country of prudes. And also some archaic laws, which often prove handy for ‘conscientious’ citizens and the moral police.
Section 292 of Indian Penal Code 1860 prohibits the sale, distribution, possession, and circulation of obscene objects. What is “obscene” is not clearly defined. So every once in a while, someone will send a complaint to the courts, who will then force the police to investigate the matter and submit a report. Last year, ecommerce titan Snapdeal was pulled up for selling lubricants, massagers, and vibrators. The complainant accused Snapdeal of “abetting gay sex and exhibiting obscene products.”
The fear of such legal hassles prompted Ute Wiemer and Balaji TV, co-founders of sexual wellness estore Lovetreats to spend months on legal research before starting up. They hired a lawyer to go through all the past cases about sexual wellness products in India. They made sure they understood the legal side of the business and knew how to stay out of the grey areas, before launching Lovetreats in October 2015 in Bangalore.

Ute – as you’d have noticed from her name – is German. She came to India on a six-month fellowship to work with The FairTrade Foundation, a global organization for farmers and workers. Here, she realized that her idea of Indian women – shy, conservative, prudish – was far from reality. “I met so many cool women – they just didn’t fit into the image of stereotypical Indian women. These women were very open, sexually empowered, confident using Tinder … a lot of conversation got going. And they told me that whenever one of them goes abroad, she brings back sex toys and sexy lingerie for their friends – things which weren’t easily available in India,” Ute says.
In India, even in the cities, it’s not easy for a woman to go shopping for lingerie, condoms, or other sexual products. People tend to stare. They like to shame the ‘liberated’. Ironically, even shopkeepers aren’t always very women-friendly. A few years back, someone threw a stone at my friend for smoking a cigarette just outside the university in Chennai. In Bangalore, my friends were threatened with lashes for partying one winter evening. A bunch of girls in Mangalore were beaten up in a pub. In a spontaneous protest that spread across the country, thousands of young women sent their pink panties to the leader of the moral police. That furore died, and pub-trotting is no longer that risqué.
But by the same scale, walking down Indian streets looking for sex toys is still akin to making tiny cuts all over your arms and feet and jumping into a river full of hungry piranhas.
You may kiss. A little dispassionately, if you will.
Why is sex such a taboo subject in India? Isn’t this the country which gave the world Kamasutra, the ultimate guide to sex, love, and lust, some 2,300 years ago? A late night discussion on these topics prompted by the sudden popularity of adult performer Sunny Leone in India led Raj Armani and Salim Rajan to think about starting an adult estore for Indians, way back in 2010.

Raj and Salim thought they were ideal for the job as they were both Indians who moved to the US in the 1990s. They were well familiar with India, its people, norms, and traditions. They were settled in the US, had other work going for them, and could afford to experiment with something new.
We don’t use the word “sex store” or “sex toys” … we knew it was a tightrope walk between what we can do and how people perceive it.
The duo did a recce in India first. “Those days, you couldn’t even rent an adult movie. Pornography was banned, moral policing was on, the rules were strict. But we noticed a big change – the perceptions of people who were reading those rules had changed over the years,” Raj tells me.
He cites an example. Ten years ago, when actors Aamir Khan and Karishma Kapoor kissed in a movie, it caused an uproar all over the country. But today, kissing in movies is acceptable. Hmm, mostly. The Indian Censor Board recently didn’t approve of James Bond kissing his girls in the latest Daniel Craig-starrer Spectre. That was a tad too passionate for India. Nevertheless, “the tolerance levels of the Indian society have improved. The rules are still what they were when India won its independence from the British, but its interpretations have changed,” Raj says. He finds those signs promising enough.

Like Ute and Balaji did years later, Raj and Salim too hired some senior attorneys in India to learn where the law stood on adult ecommerce before starting up. The initial plan was to lie low, observe the market, and learn fast. They announced their brand ImBesharam in mid 2012, roped in Sunny Leone as their brand ambassador, and launched the online store in July 2013.
ImBesharam translates to “I am shameless” but the estore has a slightly different pitch. “We are conscious about keeping our brand message as a basic need of the human body – as basic as food, water, or air. With food, you have exotic Caribbean food, Indian staple dal-roti [lentils with rice], and caviar – any of them will subside your hunger. But people like to try new cuisines, explore what is out there. Similarly, the products on our store are about exploring new dimensions which you probably never did earlier,” Raj says.
“We don’t use the word “sex store” or “sex toys”. Our approach was always more cautious because we knew it was a tightrope walk between what we can do and how people perceive it,” he says, wisely.
Can we separate sex from sleaze, please?
Although besharam means ‘shameless’ in Hindi, its connotations are wide. Mothers use that word to scold naughty children; a husband will call a wife so when she rebels; creeps scream that at girls who they find too sassy; coquettish heroines in movies utter the word when naughty heroes tease them in bed. So it gives Raj a thrill to describe the thought behind naming his startup. “‘I am Besharam. You know you are too,’ that’s our line,” he chuckles.
ImBesharam has the widest range of adult products but there are several other startups in the field as well.
ThatsPersonal, founded by former Microsoft executive Samir Saraiya, PrivateKart, YoursSecretly, and Cupid Villa are a few examples. All of them offer discreet shipping, reasonable pricing, and a lot of choice for men and women. But would you be embarrassed if your friends or parents catch you browsing through them? “Of course, yes.” says my friend, a writer who insists on staying unnamed here. She finds most of the sites oriented towards men. “Come on, most of them have women wearing next to nothing, pornstars striking poses, and even penis enlarging pumps as banners on the homepage. Do they even work, by the way?” she asks.
She means something like this:

“I find most of them objectifying women. And that I am not OK with,” she says.
This is a sentiment Ute’s familiar with. And that’s why she and Balaji conceptualized Lovetreats as a sex positive place where women feel comfortable and happy shopping. And the site does look aesthetically appealing, that’s for sure. “We wanted to take the sleaze out of the sexual wellness category, make it aspirational, stylish, and fashionable, a part of a modern lifestyle,” Ute explains.
She says most of their customers are first-time buyers. “They are all curious about sex toys, they have a lot of doubts about sex, and would love to explore products. The sleaze factor on most other sites kept them from trying them out even though they were interested,” she says.
The big, hard marketing barricade
To an outsider like me, the biggest challenge in this industry seems to be the law. That is what these entrepreneurs assumed too. And so they devoted a lot of time, money, and other resources to figure out the legalities before leaping in. But after crossing that hurdle came the real barricade: marketing.

How do startups usually market their products? Facebook and Google, of course. And both these giants have their gargantuan walls to prevent adult content from reaching the wrong eyes. Why? Because the line between pornography and erotic commerce is too thin for algorithms to spot.
They have women wearing next to nothing, pornstars striking poses, and even penis enlarging pumps as banners on the homepage.
The traditional advertising channels like newspapers, television, and billboards too are almost closed for erotic commerce.
Raj recalls a rather trying experience. He was keen to have ImBesharam ads on MTV in India. “After close to two years of negotiations and discussions, they could not get an OK from their legal department – even though our ad had no nudity, and was cleared by the censors. It was even on our YouTube channel, but still the channel’s legal team did not clear the ad because our brand has products which they thought will get them in trouble.”
He has several such experiences to cite with newspapers and even online media. “On TechCircle, for example, we had to stop our ads after they said some of their readers were offended by the ads. I was, like, Jesus! There was no nudity in our ads. It was just our brand ambassador asking: ‘Are you Besharam?’” he says.
For Ute, the marketing challenge turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “In the beginning, we thought at least we can advertise condoms or lingerie or something and spark people’s interest through that. But the effect of such marketing, we found, was very limited.” So she and Balaji were forced to think out of the box.
That’s how Lovetreats came up with their pop-up stores, which would appear overnight at events, parties, and cafes. They would conduct workshops on various topics around sex, talk to potential customers, bust myths, and even sell their products. They also started having “toy parties” at houses of friends or customers who wanted to introduce the joys of sex toys to their friends. “These parties are only for women. Someone from our team – also a woman – would show them our products, explain how to use them, clear doubts, and so on. These are very casual events for people to know about these products in a fun environment,” Ute explains.
They also experimented with video. One of their initial experiments in collaboration with a YouTube channel from Mumbai went viral. Lovetreats has an active blog, which takes pleasure in busting sexual myths – like, masturbation will have you deranged, women can’t initiate sex, and so on. They have online and offline customer support as well.
All of this, Ute says, helped build a loyal customer base, which so far has been growing organically. Now, to scale it up, Lovetreats is setting out to raise its first round of funding.
And there, you have the next hurdle.
No love from investors
Investors adore ecommerce, but this is the one online retail niche which VCs dare not touch. In fact, they don’t even want to talk about it. I have chased half a dozen ecommerce investors in vain over the last two weeks to get them to comment for this article.
“Adult commerce is a reasonable-sized ecommerce category. Not as large as electronics, fashion, home, kids, jewelry, medical, or food, but definitely in the top 20,” an investor with one of the top VC firms in Asia tells me, off the record. He has evaluated the space.

He points out the legal challenges that may arise if any startup becomes large and visible before the masses. “It’s hard to build a strong mass market brand without the culture police coming after you,” he says. Politicians, local authorities, mischief-makers, anyone can throw the morality card and cause trouble.
“Building trust is also a challenge in the category,” he adds. According to him, there are very few trusted products, Indian or global, out there. “The only way is to go private label and build your own brand, which is hard,” the VC explains. That’s because of the moral police.
Among all the startups in the space so far, ImBesharam is the only one which has raised a good amount of external capital from investors. After over two years of operation, ImBesharam raised US$4 million from a few high-net-worth individuals early this year.
Meanwhile, ThatsPersonal has been running on some angel capital to the tune of about US$500,000. That came from a consortium of angels who knew and trusted Samir Saraiya, the founder. Neville Taraporewalla, a senior director with Microsoft, Jaspreet Bindra, former CEO of Getit Infoservices, and Vikram Varma, head of Digital Driftwood are among those who invested. Deepak Shahdadpuri, founder of DSG Consumer Partners (DSGCP), joined in later. He made the investment in his personal capacity as an angel, before he started DSGCP.
The millennial generation has been exposed to sex in a very different way.
Deepak was candid with me on why investors have largely left the space alone. “Regulation is not clear in the sector, more generally in India and Southeast Asia. We have seen this first hand at ThatsPersonal,” he says, adding that prudishness wasn’t really the issue keeping VCs at bay, but “it is more a fundamental uncertainty on ability to scale and exit.”
In 2012, when Deepak made the investment in ThatsPersonal, most VCs were looking at general ecommerce stores like Flipkart or Snapdeal, not specialist ones – “although, we have seen this change in the last two years,” he says.
Sex over the counter
Deepak made that early bet partly because he knew Samir well for years. “I believed that the market would evolve and provide a large opportunity to players in the sector and that Samir had the DNA to take on the challenge of building the leader in this segment in India.” He adds that all early stage investments involve risk and one cannot plan for how the market or the regulators would react.

He believes that adult products will be a big market in India soon enough. “India has the demographics to support the market. The millennial generation has been exposed to sex in a very different way that it is not seen as taboo. I believe that the market will move from below the counter and shady sex shops to mainstream channels as the category gains more mainstream acceptance,” he says.
In India, he feels, “ecommerce may very well be a more interesting channel so that people are not seen to be buying these products” but foresees a broader shift across online and offline, and an acceptance for adult products. “Relative to other channels, I believe there will be a larger percentage of adult and sexual wellness products being sold via ecommerce,” he says.
“The market is still evolving as expected but I am positively surprised by the demand we have seen across channels and how the mainstream media is covering the sector. It is still very early days but over the next decade, I expect to see a few large businesses in this space,” he says.
That’s the same optimism fueling Samir, Raj, Ute, and other pioneering entrepreneurs. They are all betting on the unstoppable forces of modernity, which are chipping away at social hypocrisies and putting people more at ease with their sexualities. May the force be with you, fellows.

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