Our “I Am Her” series features the female movers and shakers of the industry to learn how femininity and power coincide beautifully and seamlessly together.
Sex. For a three-letter word, it’s capable of stirring controversy and raising eyebrows. It’s a subject that, not until recently, people still considered ‘liberal’ or ‘vulgar’ especially when openly talked about by women. And even with the growing acceptance for sex positivity in recent years, women-led conversations about the matter still meet a lot of stigma.
For Dr. Martha Tara Lee, founder of Eros Coaching and the only American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) certified sex educator in Southeast Asia, sex shouldn’t be treated as a hushed-up topic because “sex is not everything, but it is important” and that sex isn’t just about the act itself but also other aspects like self-intimacy, proper intimate care, and relationship dynamics with one’s self and one’s partner.
However, with the rise of so-called ‘sex experts’ popping up on social media platforms like TikTok, it is also important to discern the advice we’re getting to ensure that younger individuals and those looking to explore more about their sexuality can get truly empowering and not misleading information.
We chatted with Dr Martha Tara Lee on the importance of proper sex empowerment, combatting the stigma about sex positivity, and more below.
Fill in the blank (be as creative as you like): I am a sexologist, a relationship counselor, and a .
“I am a Relationship Counselor and Clinical Sexologist, and a woman, daughter, friend, lover, and human.”
What exactly is a sexologist? Can you highlight misconceptions about your job/career?
“A sexologist is usually a person who has at least an academic degree in human sexuality (I have a doctorate in it). However, there are also different people claiming to be sexologists so do ask about their credentials. A Clinical Sexologist would be somebody who works with clients in a private practice.
Some misconceptions about my career are one, that I have sex with my clients. I don’t. I don’t touch or get naked with my private clients whether individuals or couples.
Two, I watch people have sex. I don’t. We might talk about sex as explicitly as needed but there is no need to watch.
Three, it’s just academic or theoretical and therefore useless. We don’t know what we don’t know. Getting the history and understanding what is going on means being able to take concrete steps to navigate the relationship and sexual differences and conflicts.
Lastly, it’s embarrassing or difficult or awkward. It might be the case for when clients come in, but I am trained, certified and experienced in working with clients around their personal lives for a long time and if anything, they say they feel comfortable very quickly.”
Why are informed conversations about sex important, especially with platforms like YouTube and TikTok having so many ‘experts’ on the subject nowadays?
“Sex sells. One of the easiest ways to draw attention to oneself is being very vocal about topics that others might not wish to talk about. Sex and our sexuality are part of our human experience and expression and indeed there is nothing wrong per se — except when one pretends to have expertise that they don’t, speak about other’s experience based on their own limited experience and knowledge, and then emotional harm and psychological damage onto others can be caused. This is my worry.
Another reason why the niche of sexuality is gaining traction on social media is that our younger people are fed up or “done” with the lack of it. It is true and unfortunate. As long as they aren’t misrepresenting their expertise, I don’t see anything wrong with them expressing their thoughts and feelings — it is their point of view and opinion.”
Before you became a sex-positivity advocate, who or what encouraged you to be more open about these conversations? Were there any hurdles or challenges within your own circle that discouraged you to pursue a sex-related career considering the stigma/conservativism in Singapore?
“I have always innately felt that sex and sexuality is an important part of our human sexuality. I was tired of the lack of any real and meaningful conversations about sex and sexuality. If sex was this wonderful, beautiful and intimate act between two people in love, why is it always talked about so negatively? Nobody was acknowledging the importance of sex and sexuality to one’s sense of well-being, not to mention the role it plays in a relationship.
I had been doing volunteer counselling work for three years by then and realised that there was a jarring gap in the dialogues revolving around sexuality in Singapore. I knew as a professional sexologist; I would have the unique expertise that would allow me to contribute to the well-being of men and women — including helping them develop an understanding of their sexuality and better express themselves through sex and intimacy. I also knew in my heart of hearts that I could make a difference, but I had to get the training. And I did.
For most of my life (even whilst in the corporate world), I have been told: ‘(audible gasp first) You are a woman. You shouldn’t be talking like that.’ I know! Whatever does that mean? And who defines what a woman should say or do?
As a woman, am I supposed to be one or several steps behind men (or all men?). And the ones who say so are invariably men — including my bosses. And why shouldn’t I speak up? Don’t I have a say if something affects me directly? I wasn’t trying to be a man. I was being me.
Now, I am grateful for what seems like the instant rapport and comfort women have when they communicate with me — women who would otherwise not seek my support if I weren’t a woman.
Sex is not everything. But sex is important. I became a Clinical Sexologist because I had to.”
Were there any hurdles or challenges within your own circle that discouraged you to pursue a sex-related career considering the stigma/conservativism in Singapore?
“There were people who didn’t believe I was serious or could do the job. I went ahead and got the training, supervision and credentials I needed. It has been a very expensive education and journey. I continue to further my education, and it definitely shouldn’t be something one does for fun or for money only.
My dad told me to settle for my lot — and just do a 9 to 5 job. His concern was more around financial stability rather than the subject matter contrary to what people assume.
There are the naysayers telling me to not bother with helping Singaporeans because it’s a hopeless cause. Then there are those who told me that I’d have an easier career overseas (which I agree), but it’s not their lives but mine to lead.”
You started being a sex-positivity advocate in 2007 because there was a “dire lack of positive conversations around sex and sexuality in Singapore”. Would you say that the idea of sex and sex-related conversations in SG (and Asia in general) has improved/changed over the years?
“Yes, it has improved. There are more avenues for sexual education and expression. As mentioned, more individuals are speaking up about sexual positivity and empowerment. There are more self-proclaimed intimacy coaches/ players in the scene. Then there’s also all the dialogue and education around sexuality fuelled by commercial ventures — it makes business sense to educate because it’s good for their business (think CSR i.e. corporate social responsibility) e.g. sex toy companies.”
Which aspects do you think can still be improved in 2022?
“More diverse messages around sexuality i.e. not always targeted at women or heterosexuals because that’s the market they’re selling towards. All people and genders need sexuality education.
More awareness around the need for transparency around the credentials of these self-declared sex and intimacy coaches. One can easily and quickly realise they couldn’t possibly know everything because of their lack of training.”
Based on your years of experience, what are some of the most common concerns of women when it comes to embracing/being open about their sexuality? How can women feel more empowered to talk and tap into their sexuality given these concerns?
“Many women ask questions around what to do about their sexual drives as they tend to be with partners who have a higher sexual drive. It’s about understanding themselves, finding their own unique expression, and navigating these differences.
They ask a lot of questions about how to say something out of fear of hurting their partners, including how to express themselves in the bedroom. We are so used to serving, supporting and nurturing others that we need to return to being in love with ourselves first.
They can seek relationship and sexuality coaching/counselling and support from people like me.”
What are your thoughts on the representation of women and sexuality in Asian mainstream media in recent years? Are these representations accurate or empowering?
“I think there is more awareness for the need for diversity in the media, especially in recent years — people of colour, different ages, and different body types. This is good because we need to be able to see healthy representations of people who look like us, and people who look like our future i.e. as we get older.
We are still seeing a lot of dysfunctional relationships play out in media but not healthy ones, and this is not great due to the normalisation of such behaviours. Dramas are not obliged to any of us to depict healthy relationships. By their very nature, they want to attract viewership and they want to do so through conflict. It is up to us to learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships and behaviours and to take responsibility for being the best version of ourselves.
Dramas and porn aren’t sexuality education – they are meant for entertainment.”
Talk us through your beauty routine and essentials. What makes you feel the most powerful? Beautiful? Sexy? What kind of look is your go-to if you have to battle a challenging day ahead?
“I am a highly sensitive person and believe in using the most natural and organic ingredients, including in my makeup. I can’t even wear eye shadow, much less mascara, without tearing up like crazy.
My skincare routine essentials are the Skintelligence™ Five-Piece Set, the Lumière de Vie® Renewal Gelée (Astaxanthin Treatment), and Gosh Organic Foundation.
When I put on my makeup, designated work clothes, and most importantly, my game-face. I am an introvert and the mental prep before a client or event is more important than what I’m wearing.
Meanwhile, I feel most playful on my days off when I don’t have to put on any makeup and when I can wear what I want without worrying about being too revealing for clients etc. Off-days are play days where I see who I like, do what I like, and eat what I like — happy days indeed! I like to wear pink, floral or bohemian clothes, sandals. I don’t believe in suffering (or pain) for fashion or beauty.
Finally, for challenging days, I put on my makeup, and I’ve always called it my war paint. It makes me look more presentable to the world because I’ve put in some effort. But the real me doesn’t like makeup. I believe in natural beauty and how less is always the best. I absolutely hate wearing jackets but I do so anyway out of social norms.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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