On a global scale, people seem to be becoming more accepting of sex toys. However, there are still markets and governments that lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to sexual tolerance. India is a prime example of this. Raj Armani, the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of IMbesharam.com tells us about the situation on the subcontinent in our EAN interview.
Since the end of June, the Indian media has been hotly debating the ban on the sale of sex toys. Was there a concrete reason for this media attention? Raj Armani: That is correct. What turned this into a shock to the conservative Indian society was an information document released by the customs department in Mumbai. It revealed a shocking statistic which took many by surprise. Apart from publishing various related information, it showed that just in the last 2 years, the customs department was able to confiscate about Rs8 crores (about US $2.6M) worth of adult products – just at Mumbai Port. This number was an eye opener for the press and it led to a debate about how much was actually imported in India, a country where talking about sex or sex-related topics is taboo and people still want to believe that sex toys would lead to a debasement of Indian culture instead of being something men or women from good families indulge in or talk about. This is in stark contrast to the fact that India is the 2nd largest consumer of porn, almost the most populous nation with 1.3B people (wonder how that came about), and the birthplace of Kamasutra.
It led to the media reaching out to a few brands, but to my knowledge everyone backed out of contributing to that story for fear of retaliation or because they were afraid to step on the Tiger’s tail. However, we saw this as an opportunity to speak out about these unreasonable and antiquated laws that appear to be used as tools by the government in its attempt to sanitise the nation of anti-cultural elements such as ‘Sex Toys’. We spoke up, and we were the ONLY individuals who came out criticising this process. However, we were supported by the citizens and attorneys who contributed to the article as well.
Is it true that the laws regulating the sale of sex toys date back to 1947?
The misunderstood fact of the matter is that there is NO LAW governing sex toys in India. However, the regulators who enforce certain sections of law to restrict/prohibit the import of sex toys apply their personal moral judgement as they best see fit, freely interpreting a section of the law that was inserted in the constitution in 1947, stating: ‘As per Section 292 of IPC, if the product is obscene (as defined by Indian constitution – a book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation, figure or any other object, shall be deemed to be obscene if it is lascivious or appeals to the pruri¬ent interest or if its effect, or (where it comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items, is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt person)) sale, marketing and distribution of that product is illegal.’
This law was taken from the British Constitution when they left us after our independence, and it was specifically designed to address obscenity in paintings and erotic books. At that time, they had NO FUCKING IDEA about the internet, porn or sex toys which eventually arose because society wanted those things. So, applying a law from 1947 to the current generation and times is a joke already. Even though this archaic law was gifted to India by the British when they left, the English people have revised their laws and caught up with times in the 60’s and 70’s.
In India, however, even buying a condom has become a herculean effort. The concept of moral policing has become so woven into the fabric of society that very few dare stand up and speak because they are afraid of the immense reputational risks that such action entails. Therefore, nobody comes to question these assumed laws and the regulators enforce them at will, clearly aware that, this being a topic of sensitive nature, they will get away without anybody questioning them or holding them accountable.
And is it true that, for example, cock rings can be sold freely the sale of vibrators is illegal? How can this be explained?
On a surface level, the only argument that most Indians assume, and that explains this, is to look at the shape of the product and what purpose it is for. A vibrator can resemble a man’s organ and it is used for female pleasure so it’s definitely illegal because it’s crossing their appearance of obscenity rule. Also, in conservative India, women are not expected to have desires or crave pleasure, and therefore, these things go against the culture. Hence, they are definitely illegal. While the poor cock ring that looks like a simple rubber/silicone ring and has no shape or objectification, is at times laughed at or jabbed at but never taken seriously enough to be considered an illegal product.
However, if we break this down factually, here is what we know of: Is the label or categorisation of a product as ‘Sex Toys’ used accurately? In fact, it is NOT.
The government authorities in India use this label vaguely and unreasonably, primarily if their moral sensibilities tell them so. They get offended by the mere sight of any product that has to do with a sexual organ, no matter if it is a clinical aid for patients who are trying to conceive or if it is used to cure a sexual deficiency or problem – something that many Indians face. If a product touches or contacts with sexual organs, it triggers their moral perception of obscenity. There is NO clear logic in the way they categorise sex toy.
If it means a toy used for sex, then condoms and c-rings are sex toys as well. How come they are being sold across every department store and medical store in India? That’s because penis rings have been existing here for years, along with condoms, and somehow, they have become acceptable as products that adults use for preventing children, so the social stigma is quite lessened when it is not labelled as a sex toy.
Who are these authorities and regulators?
It’s important to know who the people are who are enforcing these rules. Most of them come from conservative backgrounds and grew up in orthodox thinking when it comes to sex and the sexual freedom of individuals, so when they see any product even remotely against their sanskar, they get offended and deem it a just punishment to confiscate the shipment and embarrass the person who ordered them. To them, this is a just penalty for going against the morality of Indian culture.
In summary, while there is NO logical explanation for this, in India the saying is, don’t mess what’s already working…. So, as long as things are going the way they are, penis rings will continue to be shown and sold across retail stores in India and vibrators will either pop the eyeballs or drop the jaw to the ground. There was an interesting video I came across where two daughters are surprised when they find out their mother ordered a vibrator and was using it. This was an eye opener for many.
Laws are one thing, but how strictly they are enforced is another matter. How do the law enforcement authorities in India operate? Do they take action against retailers etc. who offer sex toys?
So there are a few special aspects of the law, its application, and its enforcement. So far, the only place where the authorities are taking action is by preventing the import of adult toys in India. No doubt, there are many, many individuals and companies who do import them one way or other, legally or illegally, but at this time, the authorities who are at the port of import are most active in their enforcement of the so-called Obscenity Law to prevent any sex toy imports. Often, they file subpoenas for the recipients to appear and explain why they ordered/were gifted an obscene product.
Usually, no one shows up and the customs department apparently ‘dismisses the matter’ – there is no real proof that it does, but whatever. So far, outside of these import barriers, the authorities and regulators have not necessarily implemented or enforced the law in a way that impedes, restricts or prohibits doing ecommerce business in India. That’s primarily because sex toys are NOT sold openly (in retail or physical stores but mostly online), so what doesn’t come to the eye can often slide by. They are sold in underground markets along with a lot of other China-imported stuff, and apart from an occasional raid or two, law enforcement tends to turn a blind eye as it’s a lesser menace and issue unless someone brings it up with media and press.
The ecommerce retailers do tread with caution, mostly labelling themselves legal and totally in compliance with the law (it’s a white lie but it floats their boat) so until this category booms, which will happen when the 1947 laws are re-evaluated, it’s all hunky dory under the radar.
And what about the consumers? Let’s say someone orders a sex toy from Amazon, then nobody can figure out what’s in the package? Or are parcels opened by the authorities?
Consumers keep ordering from international stores all the time. We have had heard of many Indian citizens who ordered from Amazon and other websites internationally and were ridiculed and embarrassed at the hands of customs authorities, because they were made to shame for their sexual dysfunction. They were asked to approach their offices, write statements, show prescriptions and even after that, the products were confiscated.
We feel that due to the nature of products, and the fact that many citizens would rather give up on the product than go and face the customs officers and listen while they are being shamed and ridiculed, this gives customs unreasonable authority and they abuse their power as nobody comes to question them and they get away taking any decisions they please.
So, while the difficulties we face are challenges in delivering the orders to our customers in India, we ship them through our agents and they handle the clearance and delivery to the customer. Of all the websites in India, we are the ONLY website where shopping for adult toys is 100% safe & secure as the customer is transacting with a US company and site and thus NOT violating any laws in India. Plus, the import is handled by our agents, so customer information is never revealed to customs or any other authorities.
Why don’t the legislators accept to the facts that a) there is an increasing demand for sex toys, b) acceptance of these articles is growing in India and c) e-commerce makes it possible to shop anywhere in the world?
Most legislators are already inundated with other major issues like population, basic rights, and access to basic services and amenities, employment, education, inequality, the caste system, access to food and water, etc., so when prioritising their responsibilities, validating a primitive law for sexual pleasure ranks way down on the list. They aren’t interested in the argument that since last 5-6 years, anyone who reads a newspaper, has access to the internet or watches movies and shows is aware of sex toys and can buy them online.
Being that people still have access (even though its limited) and that nobody wants to boast or talk about sex toy shopping, the only real need to validate this censorship and intrusion into one’s privacy is by either adult toy businesses/brands or by non-profit and social organisations that see this as an encroachment on their civil rights and basic freedoms. Though this is a heated topic among many groups and communities, it will only rise to the top as it gains momentum over a period of time. We know it’s very close, and the time is ripe now to challenge the unreasonable actions of the import authorities in a court of law.
We are working on gathering substantial information and documentation and raising funds to pay for the cost of litigation. Hopefully, we will be ably to open up a market of $1.2B to adult toy brands and sellers worldwide.
You founded IMbesharam.com seven years ago. Would you say that this grey area that you have to operate in because of the above-mentioned legislation, is the biggest obstacle for the development of your company/brand?
It is absolutely the biggest challenge we face, but the good news is that it can be overcome with a suitable application of grit, determination, and investments. No victories have come without struggle and perseverance. We have been standing up for the cause and the rights of men and women in India, because at one time, we were in the same position. Now, we are blessed with the opportunity, the platform, and the voice to be heard.
From a strategic perspective, the timing couldn’t get any better. Demand in India is exploding, every person who has access to the internet wants a slice of life, the shipping and delivery processes are getting better, the ecommerce know how and habits have already fallen into place, and the people in India are speaking about this in all forms – news, blogs, movies, TV, internet, social media, influencers, etc. The Supreme Court has shown time and again that its aligning the laws with the times; great examples are the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and even the legal recognition of same sex marriages is in the cards – we could not have launched the brand at a better time.
One strike of the pen, and an immense opportunity would burst open, with almost every major brand and retailer in the adult sphere waiting and watching, keeping an eye out for when this happens.
For all entrepreneurs out there, this is the time to make the hay, and the sun is shining the brightest it ever has on the adult products category in India.
What do you think will happen in the next few years? Is there reason to be optimistic or will politicians refuse to change archaic laws and bring them up to date with the sensibilities of the 21st century?
The former, absolutely. We are literally on the cusp of a major change in this era, and soon, censorship and government interference could be a topic of past. The momentum has been building for a long time, now aided by the voice of people as seen and shown in the ways society engages on social media, in movies, and on TV. All we need now is that spark that lights the fire.
My optimism comes from being deeply involved in the conversations happening in India, not only in the news or social media, but also with respect to what real people think and want. Within my network of family and friends, there are entrepreneurs, industry disruptors, law experts, political professionals, attorneys and advocates, friends and relatives, and almost the majority of them concur that it is high time the government quit dictating the rules of conduct inside the privacy of people’s bedrooms.
This is also made evident by the mass acceptance and discussions concerning topics like self-pleasure (as shown in LUST Stories on Netflix, Veerey di Wedding – Bollywood Movie). These things are shown and discussed in open by women of all ages and social spheres. There are more and more women coming out to speak about their bodies, their freedom, their choices in life – not just the necessities, but the choice of who they want to date, who they want to marry, whom they want to have sex with.
Tinder and a dozen of dating apps have been booming in India, the LGBT community is organising some of the their biggest and most well-attended events, topics such as sexual preferences, menstruation, monogamy and polygamy, infidelity, etc. make it onto front page of news magazines. People are talking, speaking up or silently revolting. This is a sign of a change.
We are all just waiting for a trigger.
You have been working hard for years to give Indians access to sex toys and information about sexual health, etc. Have you been declared ‘persona non grata’ by the Indian authorities?
Haha.You hit the nail on the head with this question. I am not sure how welcome or unwelcome I am in India, but as per my team, I am the MOST WANTED person for the customs agencies as they assume I am the Pablo Escobar of adult toys. I have spoken up against them quite a bit and they don’t like their authority being challenged.
However, as a US Citizen, and operating the business out of the US, we do not have to comply to the laws in India, nor are we considered under the judicial territory of India. I have not visited India in a few months now, but being that I was pitched against the Top Cop in Mumbai, I would rather wait and go on vacation to other sunnier places like Phuket or Bali.