Sex and anything remotely related to sexual health have always been relegated to a closed-door discussion in India. With a population of 138 crores, India is one of the largest manufacturers of condoms but the usage is at an abysmal low of 5.6% as per National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS 4). The cheapest and one of the most effective birth-control measures is a condom. Unfortunately, they are ridden with harmful ingredients like Nitrosamine, linked with cancer, Benzocaine, which can cause hormonal imbalance, and Casein, a milk protein that affects lactose-intolerant people. Not to mention, the parabens and sugar molecules of flavoured condoms. 60% of women complain of infection and discomfort from toxic condoms in India. On top of these chemicals, most condoms are made from synthetic latex which is not recyclable. The UN Population Fund estimates that about 10 billion male latex condoms are manufactured each year and are disposed of in landfills. Condoms, lube and contraceptive pills all have packaging that ends up in landfills. When we talk about saving the planet by shifting to sustainable products, sexual wellness usually does not figure on that list. But, few brands led by women entrepreneurs in India are changing that narrative.
Speaking to News18.com, Dr Tanaya Narendra, popular as @dr_cuterus on Instagram, said, “Our sex lives produce a staggering amount of waste - polyester costumes for role-playing, synthetic fabrics used in fancy lingerie, oodles of plastic generated from condoms and lubricants, disposable or single-use sex toys (such as the penis rings manufactured by Durex), rolls of toilet paper, and packaging. Not to forget the emissions from transporting these products (as some of them are not easily found in smaller cities). There is definitely a growing demand for vegan condoms, which can have a massive impact on our waste production.”
India’s first vegan condom brand, Bleü, uses recyclable latex from pesticide-free forests, is lactose-intolerant-friendly, and free of harsh chemicals. It was launched in 2019 by Komal Baldwa after she suffered from vaginal itching, drying and urinary tract infection from using male condoms. Komal told News18 that there is a growing awareness in the younger generation for mindful consumption and they’re seeing 19% returning customers. “From our ethically sourced latex to no single-use plastic cover on Bleu condom boxes; we are striving to be environmentally friendly in every possible manner.” Bleu also redesigned their packaging to make it fully biodegradable.
What is the first thing the word ‘salad’ brings to your mind? A healthy bowl of leafy greens and brightly-coloured veggies? That is essentially what this homegrown vegan condom brand launched in 2021 by Aruna Chawla strives to provide. Salad is fragrance and toxic residue-free and sources its rubber from 100 per cent sustainable fair trade rainforests in Kerala. A QR code in Salad’s packaging leads to a page describing each of its ingredients. With colourful, peppy designs, Salad has steered clear from the pornographic visuals traditionally associated with condom advertising. “Since ours is a b2c structure, the outer packaging is of paper, which is recyclable or degradable. Our brand ethos is very minimal impact on the environment, to the extent possible. We can aim for zero waste but sex by itself is not going to be zero waste ever,” she told News18. 47% of the country doesn’t use any form of contraceptive, so the general market for sexual health is largely untapped, she added.
Plogman of India, Ripu Daman Bevli, who leads a ‘Plastic Upvaas’ minimalist life, believes that zero waste sex is most optimal with a single partner and which requires no protection. “Eco-friendly options are recommended for all sexual activities, but it’s important to clean up after with a reusable cloth instead of wipes or toilet paper,” he said.
There are many layers to veganism. While some follow only a vegan diet, others strive to emulate a vegan lifestyle, under which sexual wellness falls. Aakash Ranison, a vegan climate activist, aims to spread awareness on the same and doesn’t believe in pushing people to sustainability. Veganism and sustainability are slightly difficult routines to get into, he told News18. For Aakash, it’s not just a subject to preach about. He has switched to sexual wellness products and shares his experience, too, with a space that’s interested in eco-friendly lifestyles. “Although the vegan community is leading conversations on sustainable sexual wellness, we need to step it up. The fear of judgment is a serious impediment.”
On the other hand, a conversation on veganism in the Indian context is lopsided without looking at the intersections of caste and class, said Apurupa Vatsalya, a lawyer-turned-sexuality educator and mental health first aider. Communal violence based on eating habits is rampant. Vegetarianism emerged from caste hierarchy and brahminical notions of purity. “Being a vegan - whether it has to do with food, clothes, cosmetics or sexual wellness products is a political choice. Vegan products are usually more expensive and inaccessible. It’s also unfair to put the onus on individuals for structural issues. Having said this, vegan products which cater to sexual health are definitely better for the users and the environment.” Since the demand isn’t very high, production costs are more for these smaller brands endeavouring to provide cruelty-free products sans big marketing budgets or margins. Awareness led by sexual health professionals and educators can go a long way to address this knowledge gap, she said.
“However, I feel like some digital content (including my own) tends to be agnostic to cultural and religious practices and there’s a need to contextualise it in the dichotomy, generational gap and expand it to regional languages. That is when we can expect a positive shift in our consumption patterns of sexual wellness and reduce our carbon footprint,” she told News18.com.
While single-use condoms are being replaced with vegan alternatives, all-natural lubes and rechargeable vibrators are also ‘making all the right noises’. A brand that focuses on ‘humans with vaginas’ in mind, That Sassy Thing is redefining the sexual and menstrual wellness domain. In a conversation with News18, Sachee Malhotra, founder of That Sassy Thing, said that the industry hasn’t been disrupted in a long time and it will take a while to undo the damage by age-old brands that fed women’s insecurities. “The narrative to keep it odour-free ‘down there’ has been deeply ingrained in our minds by brands. However, the vagina is self-cleansing and you shouldn’t be inserting anything inside to clean it. As children, we are told not to touch or talk about our privates, and they are also given nicknames, implying it to be a shameful affair. Neither is holistic sex education imparted nor are we taught to take care of our sexual health," added Sachee.
That Sassy Thing’s phthalates-free sexual lubricant is infused with plant-based elements like aloe vera, flaxseed and lemon extracts. “It’s very important to educate people about the ingredients in the sexual health products which are being put in one of the most absorbent parts of our body,” she added. The external packaging of That Sassy Thing does not consist of any plastic sleeves. “However, since we are a bootstrapped startup, bottle packaging is not 100% sustainable. So, to do our bit, we partnered with an NGO that employs women waste pickers and launched a recycling program (Green Qween).” Investing in sustainable PCR packaging is first on their to-do list as they scale up.
Award-winning sexuality educator Karishma Swarup, agrees: “A lot of these products are designed with penis owners in mind. A person with a vagina will suffer from using flavoured condoms and almost all condoms and lubes available in a pharmacy are flavoured. I get so many DMs asking why it’s burning down there while using a strawberry flavoured lube.” She stressed on the need for sexual wellness products to be more body-friendly than eco-friendly.
A lot of companies abroad like Blush Novelties, LoveHoney and Happy Rabbit make vegan, biodegradable sex toys made of glass or wood. Toys in the Indian market are usually made of silicone which is synthetic. Sexual products associated with pleasure such as sex toys occupy a legal grey area in India due to our vague and rather outdated obscenity laws. Sellers are often forced to call them “massagers” instead of calling a spade a spade. As a result, companies would be wary of entering the sexual pleasure domain. Hence, there are very few homegrown brands that make pleasure products, even though there is a huge demand for the same. While there are quite a few sellers on online marketplaces distributing imported products from mainly China, the laws make it near impossible for an Indian entrepreneur to create a full-fledged mainstream large-scale “sex toy” brand that openly manufactures and markets its own products as such. But, unlike toys, products like condoms and lubricants don’t seem to come with these legal ambiguities since they are associated more with “wellness” than “pleasure” and so there are more brands to choose from in these two categories. But even though regular condoms and lubes are relatively widely available, in the absence of sex education and all the taboo around sex—many people don’t realize they should be using them.
In a conversation with News18, Leeza Mangaldas, India’s most prominent sex positive creator, said, “I feel it is a bit nascent to ask or expect people to use sustainable sexual wellness products because many don’t even have easy, affordable, judgment-free access to any sort of sexual product yet. A huge chunk of the population doesn’t even use condoms, given the lack of sex education, toxic ideas around masculinity, and the stigma attached to even simply buying any sort of condoms in person.”
According to India’s first-ever Condomology report by Condom Alliance, social conditioning and societal judgment about protected sex and the use of contraceptives are still barriers that India’s youth is yet to recover from. The report says nearly 80 per cent men aged between 20 and 24 did not use a contraceptive with their last sexual partner.
“It’s exciting that women and queer entrepreneurs are venturing into the sexual wellness space. Typically sexual wellness and pleasure products were created and marketed with a very crude, male gaze viewpoint as if only men could possibly want anything to do with sex and pleasure. We’re now finally also seeing products being created and marketed with the pleasure of women and queer people in mind, as well as a less crude, and more friendly, gender-neutral aesthetic which appeals to a wider range of consumers. There is an effort to normalise it all instead of hushing it up," adds Leeza. She is, however, not convinced about how much “vegan” or “sustainable” sexual products can really put a significant dent in carbon footprints. The all-natural industry mostly appeals to a very small, upwardly mobile privileged class, and the sexual wellness products industry isn’t exactly the biggest threat to the environment to begin with, she added.
“Pleasure, which was earlier considered to be a duty to be fulfilled by women for their husbands, is now becoming a priority. For women, sex has been presented as if it’s only for reproduction—we’re told women are supposed to have babies, not orgasms, right? I hope that increased visibility and accessibility around pleasure products for women and other genders marginalised by patriarchy empower us to feel equally entitled to pleasure and understand that sex is not just for men. Making people aware that sex ought to be consensual, safe and pleasurable, is the foremost priority in my opinion— when there’s no sex education at all, at this point I’m just hoping, for example, that more people understand we need condoms to protect ourselves against the risks of unwanted pregnancy and infection, or that lube can prevent pain during sex—I don’t really think for the wider population at large— that we are in a position yet to worry about whether the condoms we are using are vegan or whether the lube bottle is sustainable or not. I’ll be happy if we all use just condoms and lube at all. Sustainable and vegan are amazing addons which I’m glad for. I hope more people enter this currently niche space.”
These new-age sexual wellness brands, content creators, and educators are breaking barriers and creating a culture of sustainability and openness for people to own their sexuality and we couldn’t stan them more.
However, there exists a counterview that the amount of chemicals in a condom and lube is very minuscule to be worried about. Jen Gunther, Canadian-American gynaecologist and author of The Vagina Bible, warns that anything “natural” is assumed as better alternatives for our bodies, which is not always the case. And some green products are to be treated with caution as they may cause breakage while using condoms. Even though using 100 per cent pure condoms seems like a perfect plan, the real risk is when the fear of toxic by-products makes people skip using a condom altogether due to the inaccessibility to the all-natural one.
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