By Deepika S
“Have you got a dirty, or kinky, sexual secret you’d like to share with us? Something really gross?” the woman behind the table asks my friend M. I see her shaking her head, and saying something like, “Not really”. “Really?” the woman asks again. M looks over at me. “Did you write down one?” she asks. I nod, trying to seem casual as I sip frantically at the drink in my hand. M is encouraged by this, or perhaps pressured, and takes the pen and piece of paper from her and writes for a few seconds before rolling up the paper and tying it up with the pink ribbon she’s been given. The woman takes it from her, puts it in an aluminium box on the table in front of her, and pulls out another rolled-up secret in exchange for M to read; that’s the deal this evening. (Well, that’s part of the deal. The secret I picked up in exchange said, “I like it when my boyfriend puts his finger up my butthole.) We’re at a women-only, by-invite-only event at Humming Tree, a performance venue and bar in Bangalore, and while we’re waiting for the evening’s comedy act to begin, we’re hanging out at the tables set up by the sex-toy store Lovetreats, and we aren’t the only ones.
I’ve seen women come up to write down their sexy secrets anonymously in exchange for reading someone else’s, but the table nearby with the large yellow bananas and flavoured condoms seems to have no takers. Sushmita Sarkhel, Content Head at Lovetreats, who is manning the sexy secrets table, and Ute Wiemer, one of Lovetreats’ co-founders, told me earlier that once the women had had a few drinks, they might organise a game that involved putting the flavoured condoms on the bananas — without using your hands.
It all feels rather unreal; glittery golden penis cut-outs decorate Humming Tree’s sealed-off lower floor, there are penis straws at the bar, and while the sexy secrets table stands to the left of the bar, to the right of the bar stand two large wooden barrels, with carefully-arranged sex toys sitting on top of them. Vibrators of different sizes and intensities and price ranges — ones that look somewhat penis-shaped, but not quite, ones that function as vibrating dildos, rabbit vibrators that stimulate the G-spot and clitoris — Kegel exercisers and a slim magazine by Lovetreats that includes pieces by users and a code for 15 percent discount for people buying off their website sit on one barrel. The other has the stuff they target towards bachelorette parties and playful items for couples: penis straws, penis-shaped ice-cube trays, nipple tassels made of candy and so on. One barrel has a glass tumbler filled with pink, sugar-rolled marshmallows shaped like penises. Soon all the penises, even when glittery and sugar-coated and defanged, get a bit overwhelming. When I ask about the decorations, Sushmita says with a twinge of regret, “I should have brought some vulvas too.”
Ute tells me she expects that people will come over to look at their stuff before the comedy act begins. I’m not planning on pushing any products today,” she says. She’s happy to let people come up to the toys and touch them, and ask as many questions as they’d like. She knows even if they don’t buy anything from her tonight, it’ll still translate to sales online in the next few days.
Tonight, Humming Tree’s taken the women-only thing very seriously: their female volunteers have been trained to fill in for their male bartenders tonight — reading cocktail recipes off printed sheets of paper — the sound and lights crew is all-women, and even their bouncers have been replaced by women for the show. The doors open at 7.30 pm, women mill in, chat with friends, buy themselves drinks from the bar, and settle in. As each woman enters the hall after being checked off the guest list they’re garlanded with slim ribbons that have what look like tiny dildos strung on them. When I look closer at mine, I see it’s in the shape of a smiley green caterpillar.
Sumukhi Suresh arrives on stage to cheers, hoots and a packed room, and begins her routine. “We’re not here to complain about men,” she says, going on to make whiny noises for a few seconds, before saying, “Too much time-waste.” One hour later, though it seems like barely 20 minutes have passed, and the routine, which has seen plenty of mention of nose droppings, sex, and itchy groins, is over. When I leave around 9.30 pm, I see a small crowd around the Lovetreats toys, women picking up the vibrators, chatting animatedly, and some reaching for their purses. Ute, beaming broadly, is too busy to look up from the stall.
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It’s been nearly a year since Ute and Balaji TV (you read that right) formed Lovetreats. They first met in December 2014 at a party in Bangalore. Bala, from Mumbai, had a background in gaming, while Ute, from Berlin, worked for Fairtrade. While chatting, they found that they both dreamed of selling sex toys in India. Bala laughs when he says that Ute didn’t believe him at first, and he was scared that she’d think he was using it as a pick-up line. But they clicked, and after months of groundwork, officially launched in October 2015.
Lovetreats sells their wares both online and in person. Their website is neat, user-friendly and uses lots of pink (lots of their toys for women come in pink too), and all of their products are neatly packaged to appear neutral. No naked dudes or ladies adorn their boxes, and none of their products look “gross” or “sleazy” or “obscene”, says Bala. He had travelled abroad and seen sex shops—like Good Vibrations in the US — that were sex-positive, inclusive of women and focused on female pleasure, and that was what he wanted to bring to India. While Lovetreats doesn’t exclusively focus on women, but they make an effort to be women-friendly, which includes “classy” packaging and product design. “It’s not like a 90s flesh-coloured dildo that looks like a penis. The focus is on design — that’s a global trend. They should look modern and stylish and beautiful, right? Like, people should be comfortable using them,” says Ute.
At first, they sold more offline, at events in Bangalore like the Soul Santhe or Kitsch Mandi, where they would have pop-up stalls. And their biggest sellers within the first couple of months were items like aromatic soaps and sensual massage products. Now, Ute says, “Mostly people want the sex toys and lubricants, the soft bondage products.” These range from fluffy pink or leopard-print handcuffs to lace hand-ties and tiny paddles with tassels for some light spanking.
In the year that they’ve been in business, Ute says she isn’t surprised anymore by what she learns on the job about Indian tastes. Their orders come in from big cities like Bangalore and Pune as well as rural areas in Rajasthan and Odisha. “It’s really funny that one week we might get a order from a small town in UP, and the next week, we’ll get three more orders from the same town,” Ute giggles. Her theory is that one someone buys one of their products, they tell their friends about it, who buy from them too. “So many people are not at all shy about sex, and I find that they ask specific questions, like about the best way to get an orgasm, and I’m now surprised anymore by how much people actually do know about sex. Behind closed doors, people are more and adventurous than you would think.”
Their pop-up stalls happen at public events as well as private ones, where women might host a party in their home for friends, and invite the Lovetreats team along. “Those are really fun because they are more intimate, they’re smaller events, and you can talk to people without background noise.” Ute and Bala clearly find their work fun, but of course, selling sex toys in India isn’t always a smooth road. Job interviews, Ute says, are usually hilarious — “Once people find out what we do, you can see their face change.” The same goes with potential business partners. “It triggers the same reaction in people as it might do if we were selling cocaine,” she laughs. A common question they get (but second only to men asking them on their website’s chat function about penis size and what they can do to improve it) is about whether what they’re doing is legal. Perhaps that’s why they have a bulletin on their homepage reassuring customers that it is, in fact, legal. Plenty of sites in India sell sex toys, (including imbesharam.com, thatspersonal.com, masalatoys.com), and even Flipkart and Amazon’s “Beauty” sections include condoms, massage oils and toys.
Their chat function is to answer questions from customers, and sometimes these questions aren’t about specific products but basic sex-ed. Bala says they’ve had women ask them questions, saying they’re afraid to ask their gynaecologists, who might judge them. (And oh, do we know about that.) And sometimes Ute and Balaji get questions about relationships or scenarios that they don’t feel equipped to handle (like the one time they realised a guy was fishing for date-rape drugs). For those questions, they tie up with a counsellor who can step in. “When we write about our work we also talk about relationships, sex positive relationships, female sexuality, consensual relationships, being non-judgemental — it’s all plugged into what we’re trying to do,” says Bala.
* * *
In the four days that followed after the Humming Tree event, Lovetreats’ sales in Bangalore shot up by 70 percent compared to an average week. When I spoke to Ute on the phone on Wednesday evening, she had had a packed day of “running around”, trying to dispatch orders that had been delayed by the Karnataka bandh over Kaveri water-sharing.
Ute tells me that the all-women Humming Tree event was the most fun public event she’s ever done. “The women who came were really easy to talk to,” says Ute. Certainly the silliness of having a tiny dildo around your neck and golden penises everywhere helped break the ice. I made sure to take a selfie with my green caterpillar and send it to people I knew.
But for me, the most enduring image of the night was of a woman in a long black tunic, turning away from the rush around her at the Lovetreats stall, and gesturing to a friend to come join her by waving a pink vibrator in the air.