By: Susannah Jaffer
ERIN CHEN, professional sex and relationship therapist, seeks to dramatically change our approach to sex. The founder of Lila Sutra hosts events and workshops to get women and men to talk more openly about love and loving – and we couldn’t be more intrigued.
I met Erin for the first time at a motivational speaking event in Telok Ayer. She’s tall, vivacious and easy to talk to, and at first I couldn’t place her accent.
“I’m very much a product of East meets West cultures and values,” she explains. “I was born in Taiwan, and my family emigrated to Vancouver when I was eight.”
Before starting her sexual wellness company Lila Sutra, the serial expat had spent almost a decade in management consulting, travelling around and living in various Canadian cities, in Paris and in Southeast Asia, before moving to Singapore and meeting her husband-to-be. “He’s a wonderfully tall, half-Chinese, half-American man – a perfect blend that matches my East-West-ness,” she laughs.
Good friends know her as a sex geek, she says, who delights in pun-based jokes and a good coffee. She told me more about her unusual career path, her increasingly popular events, and her tip for better sex and relationships.
Tell me more about the concept behind your business, Lila Sutra.
Society as a whole gets so weird when it comes to sex, and the way it’s currently talked about and portrayed around us doesn’t really help. We don’t have many opportunities or spaces in Asia to discuss the topic of sex authentically, or access to information that isn’t sensationalised.
Take shopping for adult products and toys, for example. In Vancouver we had the usual seedy-looking shops, but there were also places that offered a more tasteful and educational experience. I observed that in Singapore the options were mostly limited to online shopping or passing through a black curtained entrance to enter a shop (Lucky Plaza, anyone?).
Beyond selling products on my website, I wanted to help change the dialogue on sex and relationships, and my journey to founding Lila Sutra involved figuring out how. One day, I discovered a woman called Emily Bendell. She was an Oxford University graduate who had started a similar business in the UK.
I found her profile really inspiring. Unfortunately, there is a perception that businesses related to sex are dodgy, and here was someone successfully breaking the stereotypes. It inspired me to do the same in Asia. I started out running workshops about sex that were fun, tasteful and informative for my girlfriends, and their enthusiasm and encouragement gave me the impetus to go for it.
How does the business work?
Up until now, Lila Sutra has focused mainly on curating appropriate products and organising workshops, which we call Lila Socials. It’s still evolving, and continues to focus on sparking a healthy dialogue around sex and relationships. For every product and event ticket sold, a portion of the profit goes towards a social cause related to women’s heath, education or sex trafficking prevention and rehabilitation. It’s a cause that’s very close to my heart.
I’ve not met many sex therapists! What led you down this career path?
This wasn’t a direction that I had planned on! At the same time, once I’d made the decision, it felt so right. Growing up, I was always that friend who people felt comfortable with to talk openly and authentically about sex.
When I started running workshops, I was startled by how little most women and their partners knew about their own bodies and sexuality, across various age groups and cultures. Even those who were somewhat satisfied with their sex life seemed to be missing out on a whole spectrum of experiences, simply because they weren’t aware of them. That’s like going through life without ever having tasted chocolate or knowing that it existed!
For others, sexual dissatisfaction was starting to interfere with the quality of their life and relationships. Both women and men started asking if I took private clients, for more in-depth advice and support. That’s what prompted me to get a Masters qualification in sexual health counselling.
Along this path, I’ve become a firm believer that sexual wellbeing is just as important as nutritional and physical wellness. It’s all part of a healthy and happy life.
How do you run your workshops and events, and what do they involve?
They create a space that inspires people to approach their sexuality and relationships in a healthier, more empowering way. Our workshops focus on different topics such as foreplay, orgasms, self- and couple pleasure, toys and techniques.
Some groups book a private workshop, while a lot of women book for a ladies’ night. I’ll admit that there are those who come in expecting silly and gimmicky games, and are surprised at how informative and genuinely fun the events are.
I occasionally hold open-RSVP workshops as well, announced through our social media pages. Each session is tailored to the type of questions that the group comes up with. We aim for people to enjoy themselves and learn something they can apply easily in their own sex life.
Since last year, Lila Sutra has been hosting larger scale events, too, such as the production of the Vagina Monologues and the super-fun Sex in SingCity ladies’ night. The intention is always the same – to create a space that sparks authentic conversations about sex. The more we can demonstrate that it can be discussed in everyday conversation without shame, the less awkward it will be.
Most people are embarrassed about talking about sex, and it’s even taboo in some circles and culture. How do you break down those barriers?
To be honest, the most powerful way I’ve found to ease any discomfort around discussing sex is to be normal about it. Most people do a double-take when I tell them what I do – but because I act casually about it, they move on from their initial shock to intrigue and genuine interest.
For events, workshops or private sessions, setting the intention and context is crucial. People are curious, but also feel nervous or unsure because they don’t know what to expect. It’s important to acknowledge all of that at the start – that it’s OK to feel awkward and embarrassed, and the reason is that we’re not used to talking about sex out loud.
I often invite the audience to create an imaginary “no judgement” bubble between themselves and others. It sounds cheesy, but it works! Once everyone realises that they are all there for similar reasons and that they can be themselves in this space, the barriers naturally come down.
Do you see a connection between sexuality and female empowerment?
Studies show that our sexual health affects our happiness. It encompasses our relationship to our body, confidence, desires, capacity for intimacy and pleasure, and connection with our partners.
Sexual health gives us a sense of freedom in our own skin. If your sex life isn’t happy, there’s a high chance something else in your life is amiss. Yet, as a society, we’ve created these tight boundaries around the way we should or should not feel about sex.
Generally speaking, women grow up with messaging on how not to be a slut, what defines “being sexy”, and when to get pregnant; men with messaging that a real man knows how to please a woman, size matters, and so on.
These messages and cultural taboos around sex prevent people from exploring their own uniqueness in this area. I believe that everyone is the expert on his or her own body, but because of the shame around sex, most people fail to realise that and embrace it.
Because of these limits and myths, many of us are ill-prepared for the many different kinds of sexual experiences we will have – such as sex when our bodies age and change, in long-term relationships, after kids or even after injuries. The human sexual experience can be beautifully diverse, but many only see a fixed slice of the spectrum because it’s so often misunderstood.
When women become more connected to their sexuality, they often discover a new sense of themselves. As a sexually empowered individual, you’re free to express yourself and experience pleasure in a way that’s authentic to who you are.
Have you met with disapproval in regard to your career?
My parents were pretty shocked when they found out, and were worried about the taboos I would encounter and what people would think. I just kept sharing my vision with them and convinced them about the importance of sexual wellness. My mother was the first to get it – she understood why it was important, especially from a woman’s perspective. Now they are really supportive and my father gives me invaluable business advice.
As for the criticism that they thought I would encounter, I haven’t gotten too much of that, at least to my face! People sometimes do a double-take because the word “sex” isn’t heard in public very often, especially as part of the response to “What do you do?”
After the initial surprise, people are genuinely interested and many start to open up. I think the controversy around talking about sex stems from people thinking it’s controversial in the first place, so we all end up walking on eggshells around each other, even though we’d secretly like to be able to discuss it.
The majority of challenges I face are from other business entities. For example, Facebook’s advertising policies restrict the promotion of adult sexual content and services, which also includes most things related to sex, so by association it’s difficult to promote many of Lila Sutra’s key talking points.
What are you looking forward to in 2017?
I’m really excited about two upcoming events! In March, we’re hosting the Vagina Monologues again to celebrate International Women’s Day. And in May, I’ve partnered with Green is the New Black to create a sister event called SPARK Festival (Sexual Pleasure and Relationships Konversations). It’s a day-long festival that celebrates love, connection and sexual wellness. We want to bring together a community who care about self love, intimacy, and pleasure, with the goal being to take part in a refreshing dialogue about sex & relationships. I’m also looking forward to growing my private practice and working with more women and couples to enjoy the relationship and sex life that they desire.
Exclusive: Erin answers your burning questions on sex and relationships.
After marriage and kids, our life routine feels very samey, and romance has taken a back seat. What can I do to rekindle the fire in my relationship with my husband?
This is a common question. Like any other area in life, things fall into a routine and before you know it, what once felt romantically reassuring has become a passion-extinguisher. This can be increasingly frustrating and worrying – “Is this what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life?” People often start to reminisce about the past because that’s the sex life they remember, but it can also be seen as an opportunity to reinvent their sex life. To kick-start the journey, try these first few steps:
- Acknowledge the state of your sex life
Being honest with each other may seem scary, but taking stock of where you are and how your sex life has changed is the first step. Check in with your partner to see how they feel about things. Share how you feel, even if this makes you nervous or awkward. Above all, avoid assigning blame.
- Find a starting point together
Rekindling the fire requires teamwork. It can be a really fun adventure, though, so take the time to discuss it and and make it a priority. It won’t work if only one person is committed.
- Be prepared to throw whatever you know to be true about your sex life out the window.
Routines change, desires change and our bodies change. Things you both assume to be out of boundaries may be just the spice that you’re looking for. Likewise, what may have turned you on in the past may not do the trick anymore. Need help with ideas? There are many “sexual bucket lists” out there with varying degrees of heat for you to try. If some activities don’t turn out the way you imagined, don’t despair – trial and error is part of the fun. Remember that you’re in it together. Reinventing your sex life is a skill that you’ll use over and over again as a couple.
Post-baby, I lack body confidence and feel uncomfortable with myself in the bedroom. Any suggestions?
I don’t want to push my partner away. Body confidence can mean different things to different people. For some, it’s dealing with their body’s physical changes after having a baby; for others, it’s less about how we look and more about how we feel. It can also be tied to factors such as hormones or exhaustion (especially if you’re breastfeeding), overall life adjustments, a loss of sense of self, postpartum depression – the list goes on.
Whatever it is, know that you’re not alone, and rather than worrying about alienating your partner, take care not to alienate yourself. Share where you’re at, and talk about how you feel, what you’re worried about and what you wish to change, if anything. Come up with a plan together.
This might mean organising your schedules so that you’re able to sneak out for regular exercise sessions while someone stays with the kids. It might mean trying different lovemaking moves or techniques to ease you into feeling comfortable in your own skin again. The options are endless, and it will take teamwork to figure it out. Involving your partner in the recovery of your wellbeing and confidence strengthens the likelihood of you succeeding. After all, sex is a partner activity, so treat it like a team sport!
I desperately want to improve my sex drive. Any tips?
I shy away from tips because there are no one-size-fits-all solutions – everyone is unique! That said, there are some common factors that impact your libido. If it has abruptly decreased, you may want to look at what’s changed in your general health (hormonal balance, nutrition, physical activity), external stresses (work and family), relationship distress with your partner, or other life changes and transitions, such as having babies. Body confidence can also play a huge factor in libido. If low sex drive is causing you frustration or distress, consider getting professional support.
This article appeared in the February 2017 edition of Expat Living. Head to the Shop to get your copy!
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