For a country renowned the world over as the historic land of Kamasutra and Khajuraho, India chooses to remain awfully secretive about its sex culture that is, at all times, nothing but thriving. But it thrives in the dark underbelly of its people's warped perceptions of tradition and morality. It's like contraband: always high in demand, exchanged clandestinely, but never ever to be spoken about. To be treated as if it doesn't exist and never will. So naturally, sex and everything around it, from smooches to sex toys, is all a big hush-hush affair. And when it comes to women, it's straight-up taboo, no two ways about it. Which is why female pleasure, and self-pleasure, has always been attached to notions of shame. And to use a sex toy to stimulate said pleasure? Almost sinful.
But recent reports suggest that the numbers show a surprisingly different reality. A survey by sexual wellness company ThatsPersonal.com, titled India Uncovered: Insightful Analysis of Sex Products' Trends in India, suggests India has seen a whopping spike of 65 percent in the sale of sex toys following the coronavirus lockdown period. The site saw over 22 million visitors, 3.35 lakh orders, and close to 5 lakh products sold. It also interestingly noted that while majority buyers were male, at an average, women tended to make "larger purchases." And in small towns, like Jamshedpur (Jharkhand) and Vijayawada (Andhra Pradesh), the number of female buyers were higher in fact.
What Does The Sex Bazaar Say?
So what does that tell us? Is the situation changing? Is India finally shedding its sex stigma? Are women orgasming enough?
The answers aren't so simple. India still has a dichotomous love-hate relationship with sexual pleasure. Socially, sexual wellness is still seen as a subject to be broached behind closed hospital or bedroom doors. Women, especially, are discreetly conditioned from early ages that sex as a pleasure concept is the domain of men, and women who exercise sexual agency of their own volition are "dirty," "characterless," "loose." And yet, in 2018, the sexual wellness industry in India stood at Rs 2000 crore, with a projected growth of Rs 8,700 crore by 2020.
So while the industry is booming, a pall of shame still clouds it.
Ute Weimer, founder of adult store Lovetreats based in Bangalore, told SheThePeople, "The majority of orders we deliver, we don't deliver to home addresses. We deliver them to office addresses. People say don't deliver it to my house because I live with my parents. Deliver it to my boyfriend's house or friend's house. They are experimenting, but they are experimenting in secret."
Watch the interview here:
The Prison Of Sexual Stigma
Numbers and perceptions conflated together seem to suggest sex is a not-so-secret secret in India.
But why does sexual health and wellness not figure in conversations with the reverence reserved for common colds and headaches? One would expect that in a country recorded to be among the highest consumers of porn, conversations about self-pleasure would be free-flowing. But right from childhood up until adulthood, we live jailed within moral policing imposed on us by society, family, and sometimes, even friends. Those who dare to break out of this imprisonment, and sexually liberate themselves, are denigrated to labels of "sluts" and "casanovas" - the "bad crowd" not to be mingled with.
Leeza Mangaldas, TV presenter and sex-positivity influencer, tells SheThePeople, "Sex is just something we pretend we don't do as Indians, only other people do it. When you're teaching your child the names of body parts in India, a common euphemism for the genitals is shame shame. You're telling a 3-4-year-old child that... or some other euphemistic word like nunu or chuchu. You're never giving them the accurate names, giving them a message from infancy that this is a part of your body you should never ask about, never talk about."
Inching Towards A Sexually Liberated India?
A social renovation of India's shame culture around sexual pleasure and conversation is the need of the hour. But how does such large-scale systemic change come?
One of the ways to curb sexual stigma, which stems from a variety of misinformation and prejudices held among the youth, is to boost sex education programmes within schools across India. Think tank, ORF reported, that adolescent pregnancies account for 9.2 percent pregnancies in rural India, and 5 percent in urban areas. Another report by the Population Council read, that in Bihar, only 20.3 percent of unmarried boys and 8.2 percent of unmarried girls used a condom regularly." Evidently, the lack of proper sex education is bringing a social cost heavier than the reasons for its censorship. Mainstreaming awareness about safe sex, condom use, contraceptives, etc. is the stepping stone towards telling growing (and grown) people that it's okay to embrace your bodies. In fact, it's necessary.
Another way for India to begin untying the knots in its complicated relationship with sex would be to open its arms to the sexual wellness industry. It's an industry riding on big numbers, which holds massive profit potential which could be bolstered manifold if only the silence around it was broken. Some in the business are inching towards this with plans of a sexually "aatmanirbhar Bharat". Raj Armani, founder of IMbesharam.com, an online sex toys store launched in India in 2012, is developing male and female masturbators suited exclusively for Indian preferences based "on girth, thickness, colour and texture. Its branding will be synonymous with our Kamasutra scriptures to bring Indian mythology alive in a new avatar."
Can you guess what the product tags are going to be? Samaaj and Sanskaar, he says. "Because f*** Samaaj and f*** Sanskaar."
Views expressed are the author's own.