Sexual wellness: With risque products, e-commerce sites tread a risky path

Adult toys, are a fast rising category for e-commerce sites. But in India where the law on obscenity is unclear, this is a risky business.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | Updated: May 10, 2015 12:12 pm
ThatsPersonal.com, e-commerce, Adult e-commerce websites, Technology, ThatsPersonal.com is one of the websites that caters to the sexual wellness category in India. (Source: Screenshot)

One of the spin-offs of the e-commerce revolution in India is the easy access to products that were earlier unavailable, or even taboo. One such segment is that of sex toys, or what is sold under the branding of “sexual wellness”.

From Flipkart to Snapdeal, everyone has a ‘sexual wellness store’ to give users access to the stuff they cannot just buy off the shelf. But with the law still unclear on obscenity, the business of selling sex toys in India is a risky one. Interestingly, Flipkart has just announced that it will no longer be selling products in the sexual-wellness category.

Obscenity laws aside, the ‘sexual wellness’ category is a lucrative one too, with revenues in the US estimated to be around $15 billion in 2013 and expected to grow to $52 billion by 2020. But in India replicating that kind of financial success is not that easy as made apparent by the recent case against Snapdeal and adult site Ohmysecrets.com.

Delhi-based lawyer Suhaas Joshi sued Snapdeal and another Chennai-based website Ohmysecrets.com for selling products he said would aid homosexual sex in India. Joshi in his case, pointed out that products like lubricants or massagers help with gay sex, which remains a criminal act in India.

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Illegal or not, there is a growing market for these products in India. From Thatspersonal.com to Imbesharam, Kaamsatra.com and Naughtyat9.com, there are at least a handful of e-commerce sites selling just sexual wellness goods.

One of the larger players, Thatspersonal, for instance says its USP is customers privacy and discretion. With options for pick-ups, customers can make sure their parents, or worse kids, don’t end up opening that package of handcuffs when it arrives in their absence. They also power the sexual-wellness section on Snapdeal and were earlier selling on Flipkart as well.

And yes, they’ve also decided to make good use of WhatsApp. “WhatsApp helps the customer reach out to us. For instance, we had someone from Dubai coming in, who got in touch with us on WhatsApp, telling us, these are the products they were looking for and we were able to give them all the details and thus help the customer out,” Samir Saraiya, CEO of the start-up, tells IndianExpress.com.

WhatsApp though is just a means of reaching out to the customer and improving product awareness. For actually buying the product, buyers still have to log onto the site. And this is where the law comes back into the picture.

Saraiya explains, “We still have to be careful that the customer we’re selling to is over 18 years. On WhatsApp, it’s also not possible to do a business transaction. The advantage with WhatsApp is that if say someone does not want to talk to our customer service over call, they just have to send a free message on WhatsApp and get in touch.”

Business appears to be growing as ThatsPersonal claims to have around 30,000 customers and is seeing a year-over-year growth of 600 per cent.

The legal side

In India, the law still remains unclear on what is deemed obscene . While technically there’s no ban on importing such goods, the definition of obscenity is vague. “Fundamentally there should be no nudity. Of course we don’t offer anything that can be ingested or any prescription either,” says Saraiya.

When contacted earlier regarding this story, a Flipkart spokesperson while not commenting on the issue specifically said, “Flipkart is a marketplace which helps sellers connect with customers across the country. All our sellers are expected to adhere to certain guidelines if they sell with us… We take strict action against sellers who attract negative feedback about their service or are found to be engaged in selling products that are fake, in violation of copyright or any other applicable laws of the land.” Now the section no longer exists on the e-commerce site.

Read more: Does sale of sex toys violate Section 377, asks Delhi court

Section 292 of the IPC for instance reads, “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 prurient 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.” The law does not really define obscene or lascivious, so even a picture of a man and woman kissing could technically be seen as obscene.

Himanshu Bhatnagar, founder of Naughtyat9, another site that dabbles in the adult category, makes a relevant point that the law needs to be clearer. “We studied all legal angles before entering in this business. However, I am not very clear about how the law on obscenity works, as there are no parameters to ensure what is erotic or not,” he says.

Lekesh Dholakia, the attorney for ThatsPersonal, points out that when it comes to adult products there’s “a lot of ambiguity”. He argues that while sexual wellness categorises condoms, lubes and gels as legal to be sold over the top pharmacies in the country, but selling sex toys is not. “A retailer can import the products and even sell them if he or she manages to ensure that the packaging, the marketing content, and the literature is not offensive to anyone,” he adds.

So many sites prefer to play it safe by emphasising on sexual wellness and ensuring that the cover packaging is devoid of nudity.
Of course, as the case against Snapdeal and Ohmysecrets revealed, Section 377 is also something that these sites need to watch out again. Section 377 criminalises sexual relations that go against the “course of nature” and Joshi’s case was that while the law technically criminalises the act, these sites sell products which could aid homosexual activity.

“I am not against Section 377 as we are a religious and conservative country. But before taking any legal action the rules have to be clear. That way it will become easier for businesses like mine,” says Bhatnagar.

More and more Indians might be logging onto such sites to buy x-rated toys, but given the vague law on obscenity, this risque passion remains a risky business in India for both the sellers and buyers.

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