The market for Chinese adult toys is coming out of the shadows.
- By Sue-Lin WongSue-Lin Wong is a former intern at the New York Times' Beijing bureau. She currently lives in Australia.
Instead of the faded red-and-white lettering often found atop Chinese "adult" stores, Powerful Sex Shop’s logo features the playful image of a single sperm wriggling up into a sun. Instead of dusty packs of condoms cramped into a tiny store, gigantic, bright pink lips hang suspended above a phallus-shaped, bright yellow coffee table, with different sized silicon breasts hanging on a wall. High-end vibrators that could be mistaken for Easter eggs lie in plush, velvet display cushions. Plastic cucumbers and bananas are splayed next to S&M chains, whips, and blindfolds imported from countries like Japan, Germany, and Sweden that are known for the high quality (and price) of their sex toys.
It’s all part of a bet by Ma Jiajia and Ma Wei that they can make money by making sex less grim. The two unrelated college friends founded Powerful after graduating from university in 2012. Located in the up-market Sanlitun district of Beijing, the store is different from most of the sterile, hole-in-the wall sex shops found across Chinese cities and towns. In a country where talking sex can still be taboo — one Chinese academic estimates sex education there is "at least 60 years behind" developed countries — Powerful Sex Shop’s co-founders are trying to make sex lively, bright, and fun.
So far, Ma Jiajia and Ma Wei’s efforts seem to be paying off: "Profits are high and we are selling over $1,600 worth of goods each day," Ma Wei told FP; the Sanlitun branch is their third. His co-founder Ma Jiajia says the clientele is diverse: "We have all types of people who come into our stores … office workers, migrant workers, university students, actors, celebrities, entrepreneurs." One time, a Buddhist nun came in, apparently by mistake, Ma said — then stuck around to have a peek at the merchandise.
It’s a deliberately far cry from the dark, clinical sex shops still lurking on the most unexpected of street corners in China. On the west side of Beijing lies Adam and Eve, reportedly the first legal sex shop opened in China since the Communists took power in 1949. Considered a daring novelty in 1993 when it first opened, the store is now desolate but for some drab sex toys and two sales assistants. On a recent visit, one of the assistants was napping, slumped over the cash register in a bare room that resembled a hospital ward. Fluorescent light hit the cracked, plastic floor, and dust-covered toys sat in locked, glass cabinets. "We don’t really have any customers anymore," said the other assistant, dressed in a medical lab coat, who gave her name as Mrs. Li. "I think it’s because there are too many other stores, too many other choices now."
There’s no question that Powerful Sex Shop is operating in a burgeoning market. Definitive figures for the size of China’s market for sex toys are hard to come by — a 2012 article in Chinese business magazine The Founder put it at $16 billion — but it’s certainly on the upswing, with the Chinese version of men’s magazine GQ estimating the market’s annual growth at 63.9 percent. That’s the demand side; supply should never be an issue, as China manufactures 70 percent of the world’s sex toys.
This effort to bring sex into the sunlight still retains Chinese characteristics. Next to the shop entrance sits a box of books, with the intriguingly titled Confucius and Sex sitting on top. The place feels a bit like a coffee shop, but with dildos instead of espressos. Ma Jiajia said Powerful wasn’t the type of place where a porn star would show up half-naked to "crack a whip." Instead, it was the type of place where consumers might see an "S&M Snow White" or a "Hello Kitty with big boobs."
Powerful does not sell online – the founders plan to try starting by year’s end — but it is still powered, in part, by the Internet. Ma Jiajia uses Chinese social media like WeChat, a private messaging service with about 500 million users worldwide, to engage customers and the curious. Both owners’ WeChat accounts are filled with photos of new products, musings on memorable customers, and, every so often, the obligatory selfie. In one of his photos on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, Ma Wei can be seen extending an irreverent middle finger at the camera.
To be sure, making a living in China’s sex toy industry isn’t all roses. One Beijing sex shop manager tearfully recounted how she was rounded up and detained for one month in a recent police crackdown on sex stores that sell medicine without the appropriate permits. Jason Ong, co-founder of Playroom, an online sexual health and wellness store based in Shanghai, said he had faced "sensitivities" when advertising his business in magazines.
But as China changes, so do its consumer and sex cultures. When the two meet — with sexual fantasies wrapped in hip, Technicolor packaging — the result can be hard to resist. Chinese citizens looking for that perfect, phallus-shaped coffee table finally have a place to go.