"I call myself a digital pimp," says Peter Karanja, speaking to me in Kenya's capital city, Nairobi. The gregarious, 30-something man doesn't look much like a pimp—but he does have an unusual relationship to sex. To his friends and the rest of the country, he's known as Dr. Crocodilio, the same name of the site that he started with his uncle in 2009, which is among the few websites in East Africa providing and promoting sex toys.
Like many countries in Africa, Kenya is conservative about sex. Pornography is illegal, listed among the "Offenses Against Morality" in the penal code. Producing or possessing "obscene writings, drawings, prints, paintings, printed matter, pictures, posters, emblems, photographs, cinematograph films, or any other obscene objects, or any other object tending to corrupt morals" is punishable by up to two years jail time and a $70 fine. Around Valentine's Day, Kenya banned the 50 Shades of Grey movie for its "prolonged and explicit sexual scenes" and in June, the parents of five police recruits were called in to answer for the vibrators found in their adult children's bedrooms.
Even still, the law describes "obscenity" broadly enough that sex toys are technically legal. Because of this, Karanja saw an opportunity: He could build the sex toy industry in Kenya.
Karanja had first seen glimpses of sex toys in the UK, where he had earned a master's degree in business. There, female students talked about owning dildos and high street shop windows displayed fluffy handcuffs and sex dice.
It was nothing like the shoddy, under-the-counter merchandise sold in Nairobi's rundown malls, or the downtown areas also known for selling illegal bleaching creams, weapons, and stolen electronics.
"It was very dingy. You're almost made to feel ashamed by the person selling it," says Karanja. "They made you seem desperate."
He created doctorcrocodilio.com, a website "to help people, to change people's minds, and make a difference." The sex toy emporium offers "discreet packages" with free delivery within Nairobi's Central Business District filled with vibrators, dildos, lubricants, handcuffs, candy bras—you name it, and Dr. Crocodilio sells it.
The toys themselves are imported from Asia, and Karanja tries to keep a wide variety of toys in stock because, he says, "people are curious about everything."
"We African women are coming into our own in terms of our belongings and bodies." — Valentine Njoroge
That's in part because, until now, the presence of sex toys has been invisible in Kenya. It's telling that, on his website, Karanja includes a section explaining: What's a Sex Toy?
"We African women are coming into our own in terms of our belongings and bodies," says Valentine Njoroge, who writes a weekly sex column for Kenya's The Star newspaper. She says that women in Africa are "habitually treated like commodities and discussed by elders, whether it's to do with dowries or what to pay after a girl has been raped."
Njoroge says older people frequently object to the sexual nature of her column, since "most Kenyans take the view that sex is private and should be kept that way."
Traditionally, Kenyan women have not been encouraged to explore their sexuality. Around a quarter of women in Kenya have undergone some form of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), an illegal practice that involves cutting off the clitoris, labia, or worse. (Notably, the rate of FGM in Kenya dropped 10 percent between 1998 and 2008). FGM is motivated in part by the desire to curb women's libido, to keep their premarital virginity intact, and prevent infidelity later on.
With the advent and availability of toys, some women are challenging "the general take in Kenya" that their sexuality belongs to men, Njoroge says. "That if you arouse him, his desire is now your responsibility."
This is especially important in a country where rape is a quarter of women's first sexual experience. One Australian expatriate, who was brutally gang-raped in Kenya, only managed to sentence her rapists after seven and a half years and on charges of robbery. She was reportedly told by the police that "no one won rape cases in Kenya." Earlier this year, a Nairobi woman was stripped and beaten because she was wearing an "indecent" outfit. "It's really women's sexuality being criminalized, not men's," says Njoroge.
It's in this climate that Karanja's sex toy business is not just new, but also empowering.
"Everything sells, because it's a new thing and everyone wants to experiment." — Peter Karanja
After the advent of Dr. Crocodilio, other sex toy businesses have emerged. Rival sites like Raha Toys ("best cheapest sex toys in Kenya") and Pazuri Place ("Kenya's best online shop for adult products") have both grown tremendously since 2009. Pazuri Place says they are now quadrupling its product range, and Raha Toys promises both a 24-hour helpline and same day delivery—no small feat in a city rated fourth-worst worldwide for traffic. Dr. Crocodildo, for its part, pledges to process orders within two hours for those who can't wait for their toys to arrive.
"They're used to things coming easily, coming to your door," says Karanja of an industry that should be "like pizza": It arrives packaged so that strangers "don't know what toppings you like" and before things get cold.
Karanja says men and women buy his sex toys equally, and so far, there is no product frontrunner.
"Everything sells," he says, "because it's a new thing and everyone wants to experiment."
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