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Batman of bedrooms: Trials and triumphs of an erotic ecommerce startup

Batman of bedrooms is an avatar Raj Armani is forced to don often. And no, it’s not some kinky role play he does to make sex more fun for him and his partner.

Armani is the co-founder and CEO of erotic ecommerce startup ImBesharam. He is on a mission to make sex more pleasurable for as many people as he can possibly reach with his e-store. But that’s not why he plays the “Batman of bedrooms.”

There are forces out there bent upon making his mission tough to impossible. Persistent prejudices about sex drive away potential customers; taboos stop happy happy customers from talking about it; and upholders of law throw a spanner in the works once in a while. Armani’s ImBesharam has been battling foes of many kinds for five years now.

Last year began with customs officials in Mumbai seizing ImBesharam’s shipment of sex toys worth US$120,000, Armani tells Tech in Asia. “Do they have the authority to do so? Yes, because their powers are not questioned by many. Did they have the legal grounds to do so? No. But they went ahead and did it because they believe adult toys are a stigma on Indian culture and that Indian values will get corrupted if people use them,” Armani says.

The startup went to court to reclaim its shipment. The legal battle was on when trouble struck again. The same team of officers raided its warehouse in Delhi and took away inventory worth over US$150,000 (valued at sale price, which includes costs of imports, shipping, and operations), Armani says. “That incident got me staying up at night like I was ‘Batman of the bedroom.’”.

The use of sex toys is not illegal in India. But there are laws that prohibit distribution, marketing, and sales of products that look obscene. “This law was coined in 1947, long before the internet, Google, or Fifty Shades of Grey happened. So it (the law) applied mostly to books and catalogs, which our forefathers thought was the end-all of obscenity. Oh boy, if they’d watch PornHub, they would roll over in their graves at least a dozen times,” Armani chuckles.

Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code states: “A published image is deemed to be obscene if it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest, or if its effect may tend to deprave and corrupt a person.” That leaves enough room for interpretation, and therein lies the trouble.

In 2015, Snapdeal was taken to court for selling sex toys. Last year, there were reports about the Customs department in New Delhi seizing parcels containing sex toys. But lawyers say that online selling of sex toys is not banned in India, and that there are no clear laws regarding this.

Indians don’t have sex
ImBesharam, which has been importing sex toys and other erotic products to India for five years, is India’s oldest adult ecommerce store. Over the years, it has expanded to cater to South Asians – people from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – worldwide.

ImBesharam has often found itself in a tight spot. At one point, it had over 3,000 orders that it couldn’t fulfill because of the aforementioned raid on their warehouse. “But we picked ourselves up and resumed operations, sometimes investing our own money to make sure that the customer’s order doesn’t get affected and gets delivered in time,” Armani recalls.

“With no warehouse in place, we had to set up a makeshift location and had employees work out of hotel rooms, packaging and labeling orders all day while we managed customer service and other operations in the US in both time zones – 10am to 8pm and then again 12 midnight to 6am. This event dealt a severe blow to our finances, but we were again shipping orders and fulfilling customer requests the following morning.”

Armani says that ImBesharam pays its attorneys and brokers to coach officials on how importing sex toys for personal use in private space isn’t illegal. “But who can fight the perception of the law that most people have instilled in themselves, founded on their upbringing and their definition of morals which at most times supersedes what the rule book says?”

Even James Bond has fallen foul of the Indian authorities’ strict social conservatism. A couple of years ago, when the Bond movie Spectre released in India, the country’s film censor board slashed half of the movie’s kissing scenes and some swear words in an attempt to make the spy chaste and better behaved.

Armani cannot help pointing out the irony of India’s massive, and still growing, population of 1.3 billion, which wouldn’t have got there if sex was so taboo.

ImBesharam and other companies have a big opportunity right there. India has the largest population of young people in the world, and their purchasing power is on the rise. India has 253 million adolescents – equal to the combined populations of Japan, Germany, and Spain, according to IndiaSpend.

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