Inside Pakistan’s Thriving Black Market for Dildos, Butt PlugsMay 24, 2021
Ehtisham Qamar was in college when he decided to set up a small business with his friends manufacturing and exporting steel butt plugs from his hometown in Sialkot, Pakistan.
“We arrived in this industry relatively early and quickly started making good money,” Qamar told VICE World News.
“We never could have imagined that this type of work could take place in Sialkot,” the business owner said. “We used to do this work very secretively. If you ask most manufacturers they say they produce surgical products.”
In Pakistan, conversations on sex are taboo, and manufacturing and selling toys for sexual pleasure is illegal. Local authorities regulate the sex toy industry in Pakistan through the country’s old colonial-era laws, which prohibit “obscene material and objects.”
Qamar says he has since stopped manufacturing and selling sex toys, adding he was young when he set the business up nine years ago and no longer wants to be part of the industry.
Sialkot, the city where most sex toy manufacturing takes place, is known to produce and export steel surgical instruments and is the world’s leading manufacturer of leather footballs.
It is that leather and steel production expertise that has apparently paved the way for Pakistan to become, ironically, an underground exporter and online seller of steel sex toys and leather fetish gear to consumers in the U.S., Australia and the UK.
Under Pakistan’s obscene objects law, buying, selling, advertising or manufacturing of sex toys is punishable by a fine and a jail term of three months or more.
However, the law does not seem to be a deterrent for importers, exporters, or local suppliers of sex toys, who skip physical stores and completely rely on online sales in Pakistan.
“This industry is so huge that you can pay off a year’s worth of debt from your profit. It is like bitcoin or cryptocurrency,” said Karachi-based sex toy supplier Nasir Qureshi, who requested anonymity to protect themselves from legal repercussions.
Qureshi receives more than 100 local orders a month. They didn’t share their revenue, but based on prices, Qureshi could earn profits that are 5-10 times the average monthly income in Pakistan. “There is a problem in selling locally. Due to Pakistan's internet policies we aren't allowed to post ads on Google or Facebook,” Qureshi added.
But that doesn’t stop some individual sellers in Pakistan from selling sex toys through social media sites. One of the more popular accounts has about 9,000 followers on Instagram with unboxing videos of sex toys that are sold for $100 to $300 - apparently in Islamabad - with a prominent note in the videos that has a contact number and business name for interested buyers. The account turned down a VICE World News interview request.
Amazon finally added Pakistan to its sellers’ list which will enable Pakistanis like Qureshi to sell on the platform. Despite being a major triumph for small businesses, local sex toy sellers remain skeptical. “The rules and regulations around what can even be sold on Pakistani Amazon is another issue entirely,” said Qureshi.
Qureshi is right. In 2017, a college student was arrested for selling sex toys. Local distributors have even faced covert sting operations from authorities.
“They will order products as fake customers and then when we deliver them they register police reports and start legal proceedings,” said Abdullah Chaudhary, another sex toy business owner from Islamabad, who also requested anonymity for legal reasons.
Chaudhary said their highest selling items are dildos, vibrators and strap-ons, and that their customers are mostly men. “They are from all around the country, some are from more conservative areas like Swat, Peshawar, and Multan,” Chaudhary added.
While Chaudhary mostly sells Pakistani-made sex toys, and has to worry about local crime enforcement, customs authorities can also be an obstacle for sellers importing sex toys.
In 2020, Qureshi’s stock worth $6,500 was detained by customs. Qureshi claims customs officials asked for a bribe to continue the business. Qureshi admits obliging and was able to resume imports this year.
Legal issues aside, business owners have to grapple with overarching cultural taboos around sexual pleasure in Pakistan.
“Some people told us that this work is wrong. We slowly shifted into selling leather products instead and stopped selling sex toys altogether,” said Qamar, who closed the business he started in college within two years.
Due to the covert nature of the sex toy industry in Pakistan, many potential customers are largely unaware of its existence and resort to ordering products from China.
“Locally you cannot find any sex toys. You will not find even the most basic thing like a vibrator. You can actually find them and order them off of AliExpress and then you have to be very careful about it,” said Karachi resident and buyer Rubeena Ahmed, who asked for anonymity for safety reasons.
Women like Ahmed turn to Chinese sex toys sold on online marketplaces like AliBaba’s AliExpress.
Or they order sex toys online through men they trust. “I ordered a toy through a male friend of mine. I had it delivered to his workplace. There was a risk involved if it would even get through or not,” said Ahmed.
For Pakistani women in particular, the social stigma surrounding self-pleasure and female sexuality can act as a further barrier to owning and buying sex toys.
Writer and activist Zarah Haider told VICE World News that she feared bringing any sex toys with her when travelling to Pakistan from Canada. “I didn't even take the risk of bringing a vibrator with me just out of complete panic - in case someone opened my suitcase either at the airport or at home. I was very frightened.”
But she believes this needs to change. “In patriarchal societies like Pakistan, there's a lot of focus on male pleasure and not enough on female pleasure. I think that women deserve the chance to orgasm and sex toys are a great way to do that,” she added.
That may still be a long way away though.
According to outspoken Pakistani blogger Ujala Ali Khan there are few Pakistani spaces for open conversations about sexuality, especially online. The ones that exist get watered down by self censorship.
Khan would know. In 2020, she posted a sex toy unboxing livestream on a private female group on Facebook. Screenshots of the video were leaked against the group’s community standards and shared across other groups on social media. After that, Khan faced multiple rape and death threats.
“Things like poverty, corruption, terrorism, abuse, rape and assault - people don't get offended by these things as much as they do by a woman talking about sexuality,” said Khan.
“This is a very overt and overblown reaction to something as harmless as talking about a sex toy where I'm not harming anyone physically.”
Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.