#014 Erin Chen: on normalising sexual wellness, female orgasms, vitamin h(ug)
Why is often so weird to talk about sex and still such a taboo topic? What does conscious intimacy look like? How to have conversations with partners about sex and how to spice things up? Big questions that we are deep diving into with Erin Chen, sex and relationship counsellor, founder of Asia’s first Sexual Wellness festival SPARK and Get Gilly an app for couples to connect, play and love.
I had the pleasure of meeting Erin Chen in Singapore and connected instantly. I admire her deeply for her ability to normalise conversations about sex and intimacy, in a way that removes all the awkwardness, skeeviness, and weirdness – and instead creates a space that is inviting, safe, intriguing and a little playful.
Erin is an advocate for the inclusion of sexual wellness as part of everyday healthy living. She holds a Masters degree in Sexual Health Counselling and helps people to discover and confidently explore intimacy and pleasure. Her career in sexual wellness began with the founding of Lila Sutra, which ran fun sexual education workshops and sold products. And SPARK – Asia’s first sexual wellness festival to advance the conversation on intimacy, sexual health, and gender. Now she is launching an app called Gilly that delivered daily, playful treats to help you and your partner connect, play, love.
In this interview, we talk about common questions and misconceptions about sex and female orgasms, how to create a safe space to discuss and explore, and why sexual wellness is an important part of overall wellbeing.
You can listen to the whole conversation on the Live Wide Awake podcast here or read the highlights below.
On having a quarter-life crisis…
When I came out of business school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I went into consulting like most people who went to business school and I did that for about 10 years. When I was turning 30, I had a late quarter-life crisis and did a lot of like personal development and soul searching. When it came to work, I want to do something that I was passionate about, so I asked myself ‘what was it that made me feel like I was playing (not working)?’ There were two things. One was travel. The other was sex. It took me off guard, but it made a lot of sense because growing up, I was always that friend amongst my friends, that they went to know what was what. And any kind of school project where we had creative free reign, I would somehow work in sex ed and human sexuality. When I started looking into the space and what careers were available, I realized like there was a lot that could be done.
On figuring out sexual wellbeing is for everyone including Asian parents…
My parents are Taiwanese Canadian, and actually, they are pretty progressive compared to others of their generation, but when it came to this topic it was a shock. When I first told them I wanted to sell sex toys and do private home workshops (like Tupperware parties), they were confused and thought I was throwing my life away. My father called me nearly every day for a year to try to talk me out of it. He said ‘this is what the mafia is involved in’, and I said ‘I am not trafficking women Dad, that’s the sex trade’.
But I kept doing it and sharing the conversations I was having with women and couples. And then eventually one day we were having tea and I started, I brought up a workshop again, and my dad just didn’t say anything got up and left the table for a smoke. Then my mom turns to me and she’s like, ‘you know, your father and I, we keep buying this toy and it keeps breaking…’. And then my sister turns to me and said ‘Erin if this is the thing for mom, it’s a thing for everyone. That was a major turning point in that journey of kind of winning my parents over. And I think then they started eventually seeing why it was needed and how the conversation had been so taboo.
On why sex is still so taboo…
Oh boy, this could be like a conversation just on this. It’s the history of patriarchy and misogyny and religion. If you look back in history, women were more like property. People wanted to know that their kids were theirs because that’s how you pass the property on. Virginity became very important because that is about control. Religion often plays a big role. And the varying education people have on the topic. Often we don’t provide education that helps people understand how fundamentally the body works, let alone like how to have these conversations or relationships or feelings. Then there is everything that pours in from the media, from porn, even Disney movies set very unrealistic expectations around romance, first time experiences and things like that. All of those components added together creates this really weird world of sex.
On positive sexual wellness…
Now I think we’re on a positive trend and a positive sexual wellness movement. It doesn’t happen alone. The me too movement, the feminist movement and women being more empowered have all helped. And women have more agency over their own bodies and what they want to experience, how they want to feel, and discover about themselves. And part of that includes sexuality. As women have more of a voice then the conversation around sex also changes. We’re seeing a changing narrative. And we are seeing new startups, new brands who are making doing the hard work, policies are being changed. The United Nations a few years ago updated their guidance on comprehensive sexual education for the youth. We are more open-minded in, that’s just how it works generation after generation.
Orgasms come up a lot. It’s still this enshrined goal that people want. Porn can also set our expectations around how sex should look. From heterosexual, CIS women, I get ‘how do I have an orgasm during sex?’ And usually, they mean penetrative sex. If there’s fact that people can remember from our conversation, it’s that close to 75% of women need clitoral stimulation to have an orgasm, which means most women need clitoral stimulation. And so when you’re expecting yourself to have an orgasm through penetration alone, you’re up against those odds and it’s not that you are broken, that’s just how anatomy works. Unless your partner’s penis is curved in a really interesting way for you figure out some like amazing aerobatics.
When women asking that question and we dig a bit deeper, it’s usually because there’s this expectation and where does this expectation come from? Movies, porn, their partners, because that’s what they’re seeing. And it’s put on a pedestal as like the ultimate sexual achievement, but it’s just not realistic. I also know people who can have an orgasm through penetration alone. And our bodies change and life has many seasons. It’s a journey, but regardless of where you are, you’re normal and just do what feels good.
On creating a safe space to explore…
If you’ve never talked about sex before then you would feel very vulnerable. When you start talking about it, you go into what feels good, what doesn’t feel good. And there’s always that fear of hurting your partner’s feelings. So to create that space I would suggest first having a genuine conversation with your partner around why you’re both interested in having a conversation. This is more to set the intention to see that you’re both on the same team here and why it’s important for you. If that feels too intimidating, starting with even simple things like sharing an article. This is a good way to start because if your partner reacts in a way that you don’t anticipate and it gives you an out, ‘I just thought it would be interesting for you to see’.
Then when you’re ready to have a more direct conversation, I would suggest first talking about why it’s important for the two of you and setting your intention. There’s actually no non-awkward way just to manage people’s expectations. It’s going to be uncomfortable and awkward and that’s normal and that’s to be expected and it just takes practice. Don’t stop. That’s just part of the journey. Then share your fears, what are you scared about from being vulnerable? And a lot of it is ‘I don’t want to hurt your feelings.’ Then once you air those out, then you can talk about how you might navigate the things that you’re you’re nervous about (e.g. ‘that you might think I’m a freak or something’). Then you’ve created that space that’s conducive to sharing.
There are tools you can use, for example, sexual bucket list that couples can look into as a way to explore the things they want to try. Basically, you each individually tick off, yes I want to try this, no not now, or maybe, and then you start to compare, you see where you overlap. That’s a fun way to kind of guide some exploratory experiences.
On the power of vitamin H(ug)…
Touch is really helpful to reduce stress. One treat from our app Gilly that couples really enjoy doing is something so simple. In the middle of the day (this is assuming you’re still working from home, but really anytime you’re in the house together) just stop what you’re doing, if you have kids go hide in the bathroom, set the timer for one to two minutes and just hug. It sounds so mundane or trivial, but you know, it feels really good to just lean into your partner, just hug and be present with each other. Even something small, could feel really good to help you feel connected. We call it vitamin H, as it gives just gives a little boost.
On living wide awake…
Personally, what I feel called to say is, I’m exhausted. This whole year has felt like Groundhog day. Today feels the same as February of last year. So, for me, living wide awake is really just being aware of the pressures I’m putting on myself. And I think parents do this a lot and not succumbing to all the inside noise that we have in our head. My mantra is just to be aware of the pressures and in each moment giving myself some breathing space. And that for me right now in the middle of a pandemic is good enough.
Listen to the full interview with Erin Chen on the Live Wide Awake podcast.