When Singapore sex toy shop U4Ria opened 18 years ago, co-founder Lincoln Chua had just one competitor – House of Condom, a short walk away in Lucky Plaza.

Today, Chua manages three such shops and, on his own estimates, is competing with more than 20 others.

Perhaps that growth in competition shouldn’t be surprising. The Asia-Pacific region is the fastest-growing market for sex toys, accounting for 46 per cent of all sales globally, according to a 2017 report by market research company Technavio.

Yet the growing acceptance of stores openly selling sex toys in the city state, in the face of long-lingering social mores, is nevertheless remarkable. At least part of that growing acceptance is down to a switch in how the products have been marketed. Gone are the days of sleazy branding. Clever businesses have cottoned on to a far more effective way of reaching female consumers – marketing their goods as a health and beauty product.

“The industry is changing,” said Erin Chen, a sex and relationship counsellor. “It was quite male-dominated, but now there are a lot more female designs.”

When sex toys were first introduced to Singapore, most products came in obscene “porn-star packaging” with sexualised pictures of women, said Chua of U4Ria. When U4Ria opened as one of the Lion City’s first sex toy shops in 2000, the government’s reaction suggested the Lion City was far from comfortable with the idea.

“Shipments always got detained,” said Chua, recalling frequent visits to the police station.

Trina Yeung, founder of online sex toy store Maison Mika, said the retail environment in Singapore had long been “stuck in the 1980s”, but had recently evolved to become more woman-friendly. Yeung started Maison Mika in 2016, selling sex toys and “curated pleasure boxes” targeted at women in relationships.

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She worked with a local branding agency and left out sexual connotations to better appeal to women. “We wanted something that was fresh and different – like how someone would sell you perfume or cosmetics.”

Smile Makers is another home-grown company that caters to women. Brand manager Jacqueline Husin, 25, said: “We decided to only be in health and beauty retailers because we didn’t want to align ourselves with sex shops.”

The company’s vibrators and lubricants are sold in Watsons and Guardian, and online sites such as RedMart and Lazada. According to Husin, women are often curious about sex toys, but are put off by the atmosphere in a sex shop. “We want to normalise the perception of sexuality, especially female sexuality. And we think being in a health and beauty retail environment does that,” she said.

The Technavio study also found that consumer and investor perception of sex toys had changed drastically from 2012 to 2017. During this period, retailers interviewed for this story noticed an increase in demand from women. “They are getting inquisitive, more inquisitive than guys,” said Chua. Women have formed the bulk of the store’s revenue in recent years.

Although more women use sex toys now, sexism continues to be an underlying issue for the trade.

Misconceptions arise when women use them for personal pleasure instead of with their partners. “It’s the idea that when you use a sex toy, you are more depraved or wilder,” said one user, who asked to be identified as Jennifer.

Yeung of Maison Mika said Singapore was unlike Europe and America, where sex toys were seen as a symbol of women’s empowerment. “When you think about Asia, I think women here still want to be married and have kids, and be seen as the perfect wife, the perfect mother and all of those other role models.”

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Women who visit Chua’s sex shop often come in with the same goal – to perform better for their partner.

Some people also think if a woman uses a sex toy she will become dependent on it.

“From a heterosexual man’s perspective, they think the sex toy will replace them. And the idea that if a women uses it too much she will become dependent, and will not need a man,” Smile Maker’s Husin said.

Yeung believes her products can help couples in relationships improve their communication. “What I am doing is celebrating couples in a relationship. I am celebrating how comfortable they are, and creating intimacy and important moments for two people,” she said.

“Why would you not want to be associated with that?”

Reporting by Abigail Ng, Ang Hwee Min and Fabian Loo