How Women Are Braving Dick Pics and Online Hate to Run Condom and Lube Businesses

“I was labelled a rotten apple who will spoil the society.”

11 November 2021, 8:18am

Komal Baldwa remembers using condoms a lot. But she remembers them not for their use during sexytime but for the pain that always came after. 

“Whenever my husband wouldn’t use a condom while we were planning to have children, everything would be fine,” the 39-year-old told VICE. “But when we would go back to using condoms to avoid pregnancy, the pain and skin irritation in my nether region would come back.”

Advertisement

Although it’s been years since the mother of two from the southern Indian city of Hyderabad last used a commercially available condom, she still faces toxic side-effects of regular condom use, including vaginal itching, drying and urinary tract infection. 

Like most women around the world, she went to gynaecologists and physicians to seek help for her pain. Like most women, Baldwa, too, was gaslighted. “One family doctor was so judgmental that I had to stop seeing her,” she said. “One told me I’m probably missing my parents since I’m from another city.  Another told me that I’m hallucinating, and that the pain is in my mind. Many weren’t comfortable discussing condoms at all. They would suggest either birth control, or to have more babies.”

This was around 2015. In the endless vortex of being dismissed or judged, Baldwa initially responded with anger towards these doctors. Then came research, and she chanced upon vegan condoms in the U.S. and Europe. “I learnt that for the pleasure of extra five minutes, we really don’t need to have chemicals inside our bodies,” she said. In 2019, she created what is probably India’s first vegan range of condoms for men, called Bleu

“Many weren’t comfortable discussing condoms at all. They would suggest either birth control, or to have more babies.”

There’s no conclusive data on how many Indian women are allergic to regular condoms, but anecdotal evidence such as Baldwa’s experience exists copiously on the internet. Men, too, are known to react adversely to condom use, and it’s led to dermatitis and even gangrene or rotting away of the penis

Komal Baldwa started her condom company out of her own need of condoms made of organic ingredients. Photo: Michelle Job

In a country where no such conversation exists in mainstream media, Baldwa’s decision to start a condom company shocked people, especially those close to her. “Everyone was uncomfortable,” she said. “I was labelled as a rotten apple who will spoil the society. But I did not budge.”

The story of condoms is rich but troubled. The first recorded person to have used a condom was King Minos of Crete some 5,000 years ago. Legend has it that his semen was so poisonous that it killed many of his mistresses. Turns out, it wasn’t as much his semen as his condom, which was made from the bladder of a goat. It obviously didn’t suit the women he slept with.

Condom technology has come a long way since then, and nearly 30 billion condoms have been sold around the world, which famously helped minimise global health crises such as AIDS. 

In India, which has the world’s second-largest population at 1.3 billion, condom use is largely associated with either family planning by the government, or is commercially geared towards pleasure. The latter involves antiquated and cringy “suhag raat” fantasies (the so-called night of the wedding, when the bride is supposed to pop her cherry), or porno-looking ads. 

Marketing around condoms in India are either too focused on family planning, mostly pushed by the government, or are titillating videos peddled by private condom companies. Photos via YouTube

Despite thrusts in promoting their use, condom use in the country is shockingly low at 5.6 percent. India’s first-ever condomology report from earlier this year found that 80 percent of the surveyed men, aged between 20 and 24, didn’t use any contraceptive with their last sexual partner. Only 7 percent of women and 27 percent of men “ever used” condoms during pre-marital sex, while a mere 3 percent and 13 percent, respectively, “always used a condom.” 

There are also high instances of unplanned pregnancies and STIs in India. The report found lack of awareness and societal judgment around protected sex, especially in non-marital situations, as key deterrants for people to buy and use birth control products. 

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

Meanwhile, one study found that 4.3 percent of the world’s 7.7 billion people are allergic to ​​latex. 

In this scenario, India’s sexual wellness industry – which looks into the nuances of condom use, its safety, and how it disproportionately impacts women – is not just young; it’s only just been born. 

Baldwa became somewhat of a pioneer in 2019, especially because as a woman, not only did she broach an oft-ignored subject, but she also broke the glass ceiling in a male-dominated industry.

“I approached literally every condom manufacturer in the country, and they were just not comfortable,” she said. “I was told this product is not for me, and that a woman doesn’t belong in this industry.” She finally found one manufacturer who helped her out, and since then, Baldwa said Bleu has sold to over 30,000 customers. 

“I was told condoms are not for me, and that a woman doesn’t belong in this industry.”

Baldwa’s revolution might be a drop in the ocean that is the already-existing condom industry in India, which is estimated at Rs 1,521 crore ($205 million) and which has sold an estimated 2 billion pieces. But her tribe is growing – and they’re making a mark.

A few months ago, Aruna Chawla, who lives in New Delhi and has a background in consumer psychology and law, founded Salad, a range of vegan condoms. One of the main reasons that drew Chawla into condom manufacturing was not just the health factor but also the fact that most women don’t buy condoms.

Aruna Chawla from Delhi started a conversation around not just safe condoms, but also women taking ownership of their sex lives. Photo: Aruna Chawla

“My mom never did. Neither did any woman in my family,” said the 26-year-old. At the same time, she found it fascinating that a country where condoms are as cheaply priced as 15 cents has one of the lowest condom adoption rates. 

So she started researching, and found similar patterns that Baldwa observed, too. “All the marketing around condoms is so pleasure-focused. Even if these ads are fun and cheeky, their perspective is still alpha male,” she added. “Condoms are also not seen as an essential or critical product at all. The decision-making lies with men, but the adverse impact is more on women.” 

Salad's packaging is discreet, keeping in mind the massive hesitancy there is among both men and women to buy condoms. Photo: Aruna Chawla

Chawla and Baldwa add to the global discourse where public health experts are now pushing for condoms to play an even greater role. Both Chawla and Baldwa swear by the natural ingredients their products are made of: straight from the Indian forests, with as little wastage, and animal cruelty-free. 

In India, these women are driving a more nuanced conversation that confronts taboos around women’s agency, even in the sexual wellness industry. 

“Condoms are also not seen as an essential or critical product at all. The decision-making lies with men, but the adverse impact is more on women.”

Sachee Malhotra, the founder of That Sassy Thing that manufactures plant-based sexual wellness products like lubes, pubic hair oils and even underwear detergents for all genders, told VICE that while working as a brand and communication strategist with sexual health and wellness brands in India and the U.S., she realised women’s wellness space was underserved, with a lack of representation. 

“Some Indian brands led by men were claiming to make products for women that were ultimately aimed to please the male gaze and feed women’s insecurities,” said the 30-year-old. “It was the same for pleasure. Vulva owners were completely ignored. Most sexual lubes are flavoured, super goopy, sticky and have artificial sweeteners, which throw off the vaginal pH levels and cause itches, rashes and yeast infections.”

Sachee Malhotra, who runs That Sassy Thing, says India's sex industry is severely underrepresented and needs an overhaul. Photo: Sachee Malhotra

As someone who has dealt with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) since the age of 15, Malhotra was acutely aware of the discomfort talking about one’s body causes, especially if these bodies belong to women. She, too, experienced vaginal dryness, painful periods and pain during sex. “I went to look for products that were safe and good for my body, but I couldn’t find any,” she said. 

“Most intimate wellness brands are run by men, making products aimed to please men, like flavoured lubes for blowjobs. I couldn’t understand how men could decide what’s good for people with vulvas,” Malhotra added. “So I went to around 15 manufacturers until I found the one who understood my vision and the need to bring all-natural products, free of any harmful chemicals, designed keeping vulva-owners in mind. So we’re not just selling products, we’re also in the business of empowering people to own their bodies.”

In a country such as India, women owning these conversations is not easy, obviously. 

“We’re not just selling products, we’re also in the business of empowering people to own their bodies.”

Baldwa said that in the initial months of launching Bleu, the online abuse was unmanageable. She had to make her social media accounts private. “Some of the hate broke me. But I have a good support system in my family and supporters,” she said. 

Chawla, who also went private with her social media accounts, added that even in 2021, most Indians think talking openly about a subject like condoms is perceived as a solicitation. “If I’m talking about sex, I’m going to get dick pics. As women, we have to fight this additional battle, too.”

Malhotra feels that while Instagram created a “parallel woke universe” of people who talk about owning their sexuality, prioritising one’s sexual health as a philosophy is yet to go mainstream.

“To top it all off, the patriarchy and internalised misogyny are so deeply ingrained in us that this convinces most women to believe that ‘pain is a part of the package’ when it comes to sex, or that it’s okay for them to sacrifice their own pleasure for the sake of their male partner’s,” she said. 

As conversations open up further every day, at least on social media, Baldwa, Chawla and Malhotra are fuelling the movement that goes beyond just sexual wellness products.

Sex education is a starter. Chawla said she is now working with a consultant to initiate sex education programmes at schools.  

Baldwa, too, sees hope. “A few of my customers told us that their sex education comes from porn. But they’re eager to understand and accept a better alternative for their partners’ health. Change is coming.”

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.

Tagged:

women, India, Lube, taboo, condom, vegan condoms

More
like this
4 Men Gang Raped a Protected Monitor Lizard. Experts Explain Why.
What’s Your Most Memorable Penis Experience? An Art Project Is Asking People to Spill the Beans.
What Coming Out of the ‘Caste Closet’ Was Like For These People
I’m the Voice People Love to Hate
Why Indians Are So Turned On by Navels
Powerful Photos Capture the Lives of South India’s Transgender Community
Things People With Big Boobs Want You To Know
‘It’s Like I Was Possessed’: Women Reveal the Deepest, Darkest Moments of Their ‘Mom Rage’