Health

How Asia’s Booming Sex Wellness Industry Is Empowering Women

The message: the stigma has to go.

by Meera Navlakha
18 October 2019, 8:11am

Image courtesy of Smile Makers.

When Trina Yeung moved to Singapore from New York in 2010, she noticed a stark difference between the two cities. The sex shops she was used to seeing in the West were well-lit and beautifully arranged. Women entered them freely, sans judgment. In Asia, this wasn’t the case. There was a stigma that hovered around the dimly-lit underground sex toy stores in this part of the world, and she wanted that to change.

That’s how her online sex store Maison Mika came to be. The brand’s clientele mostly consists of women in committed relationships who want to explore another aspect of intimacy with their partners. Yeung and her team offer an introduction into the world of sex toys, lubricants, and bondage through an elegant website that leaves beginners excited and not overwhelmed.

“We wanted to tap into the market for men and women who would be interested in something like this,” Yeung told VICE. “The market here [in Singapore] is more traditional and people are generally more conservative than they are in the West. We wanted to be able to retain discretion for people and also provide a place for them to feel safe.”

“There is still a lot of education that needs to happen when it comes to sex toys,” she said. “We need to ensure people know where we are coming from.”

Maison Mika is just one of the many “sex wellness” brands that want to empower women by bringing sexuality to the surface in Asia.

There’s also Smile Makers, the brainchild of a group of women in Singapore who want to normalise female sexual pleasure through vibrators and lubricants that can help women discover their bodies. Like Maison Mika, their website is bright and welcoming, more reminiscent of trendy makeup brands than most male-centric sex toy stores.

Their products have also entered the mainstream and are now stocked in drug stores across Asia, including Watsons in Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.

“We only wanted to sell the products in stores where women are comfortable shopping on an everyday basis. We’ve never sold in sex shops,” Cecile Gasnault, Senior Marketing Manager for the brand, told VICE. “Sexual and personal pleasure has so many benefits, and truly belong in health and beauty stores.”

“We are sending the message that these products are normal, and there is nothing wrong with them.”

Sienna, 23, who asked to have her name changed, lives in Mumbai, India but also spent formative years growing up in Vietnam. She told VICE that sex toys have allowed her to have “full and total control” over her own pleasure.

“There is something different for me between the orgasm I reach with a vibrator versus with a person. They're both great but they’re different and sometimes I want one over the other,” she said. “I also feel like sex toys allow you to embrace your sex drive without having to be stressed about if it's appropriate for society or your partner.”

She also said that sex toys helped her come out as bisexual to her boyfriend.

Like Sienna, Millicent, who chose to go only by her first name, found that sex toys can improve intimacy with a partner. The 28-year-old who lives in Manila, Philippines explained that it took a while for her to understand sex toys, but that they were important in exploring her sexuality.

“Sex can be exponentially more enjoyable if you know your body better,” she told VICE.

“I believe sex has a physical and emotional aspect to it, which is why being able to explore and communicate your fetishes or desires with your partner or by yourself can be empowering. So unless you embrace your sexuality, bedroom matters might cause you anxiety instead of pleasure,” she said.

Millicent was first gifted a vibrator by her best friends “as a joke a few years ago.” But now, she feels that sex toys have become “a tool of self-discovery.”

“The first vibrator I got didn’t come with a manual on the exact steps to get an orgasm. It just came with a manual that explained the different settings. So doing my own research and carving out alone time to play with my vibrator was necessary,” she said. “I think people expect sex to be good on the get go but just like any sport, it requires practice. You’re not going to find your sweet spot on day one.”

These women and their needs always come first for brands like Smile Makers. This philosophy trickles down all the way to their products’ names like “The Fireman,” “The Surfer,” and “The Tennis Coach."

“We surveyed women all around the world about their personal fantasies in order to name the vibrators,” Gasnault said. “The product design and their names actually break the ice and make women comfortable. We really wanted to create a friendly, approachable, and clean brand that all women can relate to.”

It’s an initiative that comes at the perfect time. A study released by technology company ReportLinker in September revealed that more Asians are now looking to buy sex wellness products.

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Photo courtesy of Maison Mika.

The market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7 percent between the period of 2019 and 2024. This is based on research across Asia, including Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The sex shop trend is present in many of these countries. There’s Tenga Global, a Japanese adult store that sells vibrators, cups, and pocket-sized sex toys, and Raquel Lingerie, an Indonesian lingerie brand that’s all about being “sensual with class.”

China is the biggest manufacturer of sex toys in Asia, while the Japanese sex wellness market is expected to grow even further during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The demand for “exotic lingerie,” meanwhile, is highest in Singapore, South Korea, and Indonesia.

Two companies in Asia are also now proving to be top players in the condom business. There’s Karex, the world’s largest condom maker based in Malaysia, and Okamoto, a Japan-based thin latex condom producer.

The most popular products in Asia are sex toys, sex dolls, condoms, lingerie, and female sexual lubricants.

The study noted that the presence of female-centric products is a driving force behind the increased demand in the sex wellness market, proof that women in the region have come a long way from shying away from their sexuality—an attitude dictated by traditional perceptions of femininity.

In Asia, sex has long been taboo. Sex education is still developing across the region.

While Singapore schools teach the importance of consent and contraception, they mostly leave out how sex can be a source of pleasure. Because sex-ed is lacking in China, there is now a trend of parents enrolling their children in private sex-ed camps.

“I think in any society where female orgasm and sexual pleasure is denied, restricted, or has conditions put on it, sex toys are empowering,” said Sienna.

Other countries hold even more conservative views. The Indonesian government is considering a ban extra-marital sex. This cultural stigma prevents Indonesians from going to neighbourhood corner stores to purchase condoms.

In Malaysia, the government has said that it cannot openly push for condom use due to “religious sensitivities” and the threat of “promoting promiscuity.”

Similarly, there’s the Philippines, where condom access and use are low because of the shame linked to it. This has led to an increase in HIV cases in the country.

In Cambodia, selling sex toys isn’t technically banned, but the act can be punishable by jail or a fine.

Same-sex sexual activity also remains illegal in Singapore, Malaysia, and parts of Indonesia.

Victoria, who chose to only go by her first name, witnessed both the stigma around sex and the rise in popularity of sex toys when she lived in Malaysia for six years. The 20-year-old explained that many people still laugh in conversations about sex toys and talk about them “under the context of never using one themselves.” But she said the reality is that more people are actually using them.

“It’s really just more of an unspoken thing, I feel,” she said in an interview with VICE. “But I realise I have been brought up in a less conservative [home] environment than many. I've been able to explore couples sex toys with my partner and it’s really brought us closer together.”

Despite barriers across the continent, attitudes are changing. The approval of the Indonesian bill that seeks to ban sex outside of marriage, for example, has been postponed due to recent large-scale youth protests against it.

Millicent believes that things are taking a turn for the better when it comes to sex toy stores in Asia. “I’m happy that society does not penalise individuals (as much) nowadays for communicating about what gives them pleasure.”

According to the ReportLinker study, more Asians are “sex-positive,” which means they hold more progressive views of sex. This, in combination with young populations and greater per capita disposable incomes, has benefitted sex wellness brands.

Take Love is Love, a sex toy store in Singapore that opened in 2000. According to its Business Director Lincoln Chua, the industry’s sleazy connotation has slipped away.

“There isn’t as much stigma now in comparison with what it was like ten years ago,” Chua told VICE. “The younger generation talk about sex toys [more] openly now, discussing and exchanging opinions. Attitudes are definitely definitely evolving in Singapore.”

It might seem obvious but sex as a source of pleasure is revolutionary for women. Traditionally, sex has been a route to pregnancy, not pleasure.

The “orgasm gap” also tells us that men experience more orgasms than women in heterosexual sexual encounters. By learning about their bodies with the use of vibrators and other sex wellness products, women are finding ways to bridge this gap.

Smile Makers' Gasnault said that the #MeToo movement paved the way for women to reclaim control over their sexual experiences. They have since seen a surge in retailers and journalists wanting to share their story.

“This is all about changing mentalities and female empowerment, especially in terms of taboo and restrictions,” she said.

For them, figuring out what turns you on is part of a healthy sex life. “We want to show women that there is nothing wrong with pleasure,” Gasnault said.

Smile Makers conducts talks across the region, teaching women how to enjoy sex. They’ve worked with the Federation of Reproductive Health Associations Malaysia since 2017 by conducting workshops in their clinics and training their nurses on female sexual well-being using vibrators and lubricants. Their latest workshop with Action for Aids held in August focused on female anatomy and a holistic view of sexual health. The company has also worked with clinics in Singapore and Taiwan, as well as the National University of Singapore.

“It’s really about broadening a woman’s understanding of human sexuality. We want to empower them with a better understanding of women’s pleasure, such as teaching them the anatomy of the vulva, vagina, clitoris,” Gasnault said.

Maison Mika also holds similar workshops on topics like masturbation and sex tips for couples.

“Ultimately, if we can provide more education about sex and ensure that people are better informed, I believe we can attain a better society,” Yeung said.

Koichi Matsumoto, president of the Japanese sex store TENGA, has a similar outlook.

“The growth of the sex toy industry might be correlated to the fact that society is slowly shifting its concept of sexuality from something that is shady and shameful to something that can be pleasurable and fun for everyone,” he told VICE.

He said that their yearly global masturbation report shows that the number of people who are open to the idea of gifting or receiving a sex toy has increased.

“We have seen the market move away from seedy backstreets to embrace our vision along with us, bringing sexuality to the surface for everyone to enjoy,” Matsumoto said. “[Our toys] enhance sexual lives all over the world, by creating an environment where everyone can feel safe to enjoy their sexuality, without discrimination.”

The popularity of sex wellness products and brands is indicative of new attitude: that women can and should be able to enjoy sex on their own terms, without shame.

Millicent put it this way: “Being in-charge of your own orgasm is empowering as fuck.”

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