Business is buzzing for online sales of sex toys in China
With China expected to overtake the US in online spending this year, university graduates have found success by abandoning traditional career paths to start internet sex-toy companies.
When Chris Wu was studying abroad at the University of Leeds, she said she loved to go to high-end sex-toy shops to admire the "beautiful" products. After she returned to Beijing with a master's degree in public relations, she was disappointed that sex shops at home sold "low quality products that lacked design".
"That was when I first wanted to start my own sex-toy shop," the 33-year-old said. "But I felt I needed more experience, so I worked at a PR company for five years and then started the business three years ago."
Wu now employs six staff, and her online store has been profitable for the last year-and-a-half. Her sleekly designed homepage proclaims that TOIs Intimacy Boutique was "established with the conviction that sensual pleasure and fulfilment are paramount to a well-lived life".
Another young entrepreneur, Li Chengze, decided to start his online sex shop, called Xiao Ye, after working in the advertising industry for a year and seeing the potential of the online sex-toy market.
"Demand is huge because most people prefer the privacy of shopping for sex toys online," said the 26-year-old graduate of the Chengdu University of Technology and former journalist.
Li launched his business in Guangdong last October and is already receiving hundreds of orders each month.
Private businesses have proliferated in China since the early 1990s, and China's first sex toy shop opened in Beijing in 1992. The demand for the toys is now so high that vibrators can be bought over the counter at many convenience stores.
But Wu complained that the best of China's manufactured toys were exported, leaving low-quality goods to flood the domestic market, with many containing cheap plasticisers linked to breast cancer and other diseases.
A 25-year-old executive assistant from Shanghai who shops for sex toys on Taobao, an online marketplace operated by Alibaba, said she preferred the convenience of online browsing.
"I'm actually not embarrassed to go into sex shops, but I can find a much better variety of products online," said the woman, who preferred not to be named.
An Alibaba spokeswoman said there were currently more than 2,500 sex-toy companies using the e-commerce platform and nearly 50 per cent were companies with no more than 10 staff.
Dr Lucetta Kam Yip-lo, a gender and sexuality specialist at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that sex businesses were no longer taboo and most Chinese would see Wu and Li simply as smart businesspeople.
"They are living in an increasingly sex-positive society," she said. "Many of the sex-toy shops are run by the government, and there's been an emergence of new sexual activities such as partner-swapping and group sex parties among both homosexual and heterosexual communities in China."
Earlier this year, nude model Zhang Xiaoyu launched a sex toy modelled after her own vagina and buttocks. It was the first celebrity-endorsed "branded" sex product in China, although the trend has long been popular in Japan. The toy is available for purchase on the popular online adult retailer Xmeise.