How sex wellness brands are redefining pleasure in India
If you wish to sell a product, adding titillation to it usually works. From bodywash to deodorant, sex sells. But when it comes to actual sex, ‘sharam’ (modesty) seems to be the watchword. Even today, openly asking for a pack of condoms or lubricants is bound to earn you stares and judgement at a chemist’s store.
When Swara Bhaskar’s character in the 2018 Hindi movie, Veere Di Wedding, used a vibrator, all hell broke loose not just in the film’s plot but across the country. Bhaskar was trolled mercilessly for deeply ‘offending’ Indian sanskaar (morals), according to the self-appointed purveyors of Indian culture. A similar treatment was meted out to Kiara Advani’s masturbation scene in the Netflix anthology Lust Stories.
But a booming market for vibrators has always existed in India — even on the streets. One just needs to take a stroll around Colaba in Mumbai or a trip to Delhi’s Palika Bazaar to hear the whispers: “Madam, toys lena hai (Do you want to buy toys)?” Or if you would rather die than be caught eyeing dildos out in the open, a simple search of ‘eye massager’ in Amazon will open a world of mini vibrators and ‘massagers’.
But away from the whispers and shadows, there are now dedicated retail sites for sex toys. ‘MyMuse’ is a homegrown brand for ‘bedroom essentials’ by Anushka and Sahil, which started in 2021 while ‘IAmBesharam’ is a US-based company by Indians that has existed for nine years now. Both the brands have diverse offerings, but at the core want to change the dialogue surrounding sexual pleasure and intimacy in India.
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A new bedroom experience
Recently married, Anushka and Sahil, who were in a long-distance relationship earlier, started their venture after realising that there was a distinct lack of products for pleasure and intimacy in India. “The goal is to normalise the idea,” says Anushka. To this end, MyMuse expands the idea of sexual curiosity and experimentation beyond sex toys. From massagers, lubricants, a card game to massage oils, the website is all about creating new experiences in the bedroom.
For most people in this country, sex is limited to penetration and the concept of an intimate and pleasurable ‘bedroom experience’ is actually alien. Intimacy has become a buzzword in recent times, and in India, partly due to the movie Gehraiyaan, is a concept that is constantly evolving and has sparked important discussions. The idea of these websites is essentially to create an atmosphere and space where you seek pleasure, for yourself or with your partner.
“I feel people are ready to talk about self-care and self-love, and sex and intimacy is also a part of it”, says Sahil. Self-care also involves being aware of one’s sexual needs and pleasure. “Self-pleasure or even partnered pleasure is beyond the biological,” adds Anushka.
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Raj Armani, co-founder of IMBesharam, which has also had actor Sunny Leone as its brand ambassador, says the idea of the company came up in 2013 when he along with his brother-in-law and business partner were having a discussion. Based in the US, Armani realised India is a market for sex toys waiting to be explored, but people were not willing to cross the line of sanskaar.
The name itself was also a nod to the concept of ‘why not’ when it comes to pleasure and accepting that part of yourself. “As entrepreneurs we are constantly looking to invest in a new venture, and we realised this is a huge market,” says Armani. ‘IMBesharam’ came out of the founder’s own experiences of how sex is a taboo topic and sex education of any kind is awkward at best in India. “We thought let’s do something anti-sharam (modesty), anti-sanskaar (tradition), anti-samaaj (society), and we thought the only word that would work, is besharam.”
“Besharam is about expressing who you are, without fear of judgement.” When you believe that your needs are real, you won’t be in the shadow of shame for wanting the needs fulfilled,” notes the co-founder. IMBesharam has tie-ups with some of the most well-known names in the manufacturing of sex toys. The products are shipped to the warehouses in India before the logistics team ensures delivery or pick up, depending on what the customer has opted for.
From role-playing accessories to even a golden bunny vibrator that costs a whopping Rs 7 lakh, the website is an online version of a sex toy store that Indians probably get to visit in real life only if they travel abroad.
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MyMuse also wishes to engage with its customers through feedback, and also has a blog that discusses “sex, love, intimacy and everything in between”. Sahil says that the feedback to their venture has been extremely polarised.
“There was a couple married for 11 years where the husband wrote that he had the best moment of intimacy in the entire duration through use of our products,” says Anushka. The couple adds that they wish to continue to initiate and sustain conversations and questions about not just which products to buy, but also queries about pleasure.
IMBesharam, meanwhile, has an Instagram page that regularly shares content that discusses topics such as kinks that Indians have, pleasure points in the spectrum of human bodies and several others. Armani says that social media is a big marketing tool and with Sunny Leone as the face of the brand, it was especially true. But, he adds, the idea now is to not use social media simply for marketing but also for open and honest discussions about sex without taboo. With the kind of discussions that are initiated on the page, there is a definite increase in footfall on the website itself. However, there have also been special media restrictions when it comes to content. “That is the pros and cons of doing business in India,” he says.
While the brand may have started out as an entrepreneurial venture, the idea has evolved over time. “It is about accepting that pleasure is my right, not a taboo or sin. It is also about promoting a sex-positive community in India and promoting equality,” notes Armani.
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Mummy-Papa kya kahenge
One of the major concerns in engaging with sex in general and buying a sexual wellness or pleasure-related product is the concern — ‘log kya kahenge (what will people say)?’ To combat this, both MyMuse and IMBesharam ensure discreet packaging and delivery so that untoward situations do not arise. For IMBesharam, there is also the option of pick up, in case delivery at home is not feasible.
But there is also an interesting twist. The customer base itself is not necessarily young, as one would have assumed. According to Armani, “We even get a lot of dadajis and dadijis (elderly people) asking what is suitable for us? And they are beginners in this journey. Our original target was the age group 18-40. But it has now crossed to 60 and above.”
Armani also notes that the cross-section of people buying various products off the website has also changed with people across professions choosing to explore the world of pleasure. The fact that his company has completed 7,50,000 orders in India, delivering to almost every city, town and district in the country since its inception in 2012 stands testimony to the fact that India does invest in pleasure, despite various concerns.
Both the brands are of the opinion that the market will only continue to grow in the coming years, with more players entering it. Armani says that customs have increased almost 120 times since 2012, with the emphasis on ‘local’ production, and consequently they are also engaging with local manufacturers.
Anushka and Sahil, meanwhile, believe that the industry needs to definitely grow, because it is not simply about availability of a wide range of products related to pleasure and intimacy, but also the visibility, which ensures more open discussions and safe spaces for them.
(Edited by Rachel John)