A friend, who was in Australia last year, had excitedly texted me from Melbourne: “There’s a sex shop right across the street from where I live, and I want to buy you something!” Needless to say, I got a little excited too. Growing up in a more or less conservative setting, I hadn’t seen a sex toy up close before and was thrilled beyond belief at the prospect of owning one. And once I started using it, there has been no looking back ever since.
But that’s the thing with sex toys in India. They aren’t easily available, and neither are they made visible in common discussions or popular culture. Many Indians don’t even know what sex toys are, and where to find one, because it’s shrouded in so much secrecy and taboo. And when they do get hold of one (like I did), they often don’t know what to do with it (especially if they send you one without a manual!).
I was curious to know whether others had had similar experiences with sex toys, and hence, I went about asking a few women about their close encounters with these literal objects of pleasure.
Shipra, a 20-year old law student got her first sex toy a year back, and initially (like me) even she was hesitant to use it. “It was something so strange and new,” she says, “I mean, it wasn’t like I didn’t know what a vibrator looked like, because I had googled it earlier. But it was so deeply ingrained in me that these things are something bad or something warped, that I felt apprehensive.”
But once she actually started using her vibrator, all her initial doubts disappeared. “It’s like a whole world of sexual pleasure has opened up for me,” she said, “The orgasms are so intense. Better than actual sex.”
Curiously enough, the majority of women I spoke to who use sex toys while masturbating had a similar revelation- of how these orgasms are better than the ones experienced during actual sex. And even when they’re not, they’re a close enough replication.
Mugdha*, who’s a single mother of two children, says, “I’m in my 30s, and frankly, don’t have the time or the will to have sex with a partner,” she says, “But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel sexually frustrated. A vibrator is the best way to release that tension and pleasure myself.”
Mugdha, Shipra, and the experiences of countless other women who find satisfaction and release through sex toys are wonderful examples of how thoroughly the sex toy has been reclaimed as a means of sexual liberation. Historically, they were often used as a means of controlling female sexuality, but now, women are using it to pleasure themselves, and revel in their bodies on their own terms.
However, the use of sex toys isn’t limited to masturbation. A study found that 78% of women who use sex toys report being in a relationship. Sex toys can be used in partnered sex in diverse ways to enhance the experience, and in same-sex relationships, they are particularly common. “Some of the best sex we’ve had has been with sex toys,” says Namita*, a 25-year-old PhD scholar who often uses dildos and strap-ons with her lesbian partner.
Though the consensus among all of the women I spoke to was more or less that sex toys were pretty amazing and were great for orgasms, there was one recurring complaint—the lack of its physical availability.
“I’ve had to go to some ridiculous lengths to acquire my vibrators,” jokes Mugdha, “When I was younger, you didn’t really have the internet. So I had friends smuggle it from abroad, or had to make use of some of my contacts from work to find them. But things are easier now. You have online stores that deliver it to your house.”
Though some of these online stores might seem shady at first, they actually have some interesting items to offer. That’s Personal, Kink Pin and Masala Toys are some of the most popular ones and sell a wide range of products.
But sadly, there are hardly any actual sex shops in India. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code forbids the sale of any “obscene objects” on Indian soil—and though this law was initially meant for so-called “obscene” books or pamphlets, the wording of it is such that many use this law to justify banning of sex toys.
But this kind of a notion — of seeing sex as obscene and clubbing it with immorality — is so common in Indian society that our unwillingness to see the use of sex toys as normal or legitimate doesn’t come as a surprise. We as a culture find it difficult to even talk about sex openly, and in fact, often try to deny that it’s a natural, normal thing. Hence, there exist some ridiculous myths and taboos.
“Oh, I’ve heard the craziest things,” says Malvika, a graduate student who often uses the dildo, “ Since you don’t see them enough, many people don’t understand what they are and make up some random myths. They say that sex toys are something ‘dirty’, that they are ‘painful’, that they harm your genitals and so on and so forth. The stupidest one I heard was when my mum told me that women who use vibrators can’t get pregnant.”
This isn’t the least of it. The stigma gets even more incomprehensible.
“My mom found my vibrator in the bathroom and went apeshit.” says Khushi*, a management trainee and another sex toy frequenter “At first she didn’t realize what it was but once I told her, she acted like I had brought shame to the entire family. She started telling the rest of my family that I was a ‘sex addict.’”
Laughable as that is, it is also the sad truth about what society thinks of a woman’s sexual agency. From those horrifying chastity belts of yore to the taboo around sex toys, a woman in-charge of her pleasure seems to threaten the roots of patriarchy.
Sex toys have been around since The Stone Age, and from personal experience, all I can say is that they are a gift to (wo)mankind, so why the shame? It’s time to throw these obsolete ideas out of the window, and if it takes a rechargeable WiFi enabled Rabbit Vibrator to start us off, why not?!
Author’s Note: In writing this piece I had to really hunt for men and women willing to talk about using sex toys. Interestingly, it was finally the women who came to my rescue. But if you have an experience to share, don’t hesitate and share in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s all shed the shame around self-pleasure!