Still out of bounds? by The Star

Posted On: March 14, 2010

I partnered with holistic shop and therapy centre, ‘The Violet Flame’ in giving a preview in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last month. The Star attended the talk and interviewed me subsequently. This is the article which just appeared on Saturday, 13 March.

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In a land of taboos, an unassuming woman decides to follow the path of legendary sex therapist Dr Ruth Westheimer. But just how far will she be able to go?

louisa@thestar.com.my

MOST Malaysians will be able to tell you that the closest thing we ever got to a proper sex education happened during our Form Three science lessons. After all, who can forget a poker-faced Ms Tan reciting words from the neatly labelled diagrams depicting both the male and female reproductive organs as if she was reading off a menu?

But did we learn anything, aside from the fact that a woman’s fallopian tubes bear an uncanny resemblance to a wilted shrub? I daresay not.

“Maintaining a passionate sex life doesn’t come naturally to most people, so that’s why people seek help,” says Dr Martha Lee.

Fast-forward a decade or two later, and we’re no wiser when it comes to sex. Sure, we know the technicalities of it, but that is never quite enough, says Singaporean clinical sexologist Dr Martha Lee.

“I did not receive any sex education growing up in Singapore, either. The compulsory annual school assemblies I attended through my secondary school were on why women bled monthly and how we young ladies had to pay particular attention to personal hygiene,” she announces to a room of fidgety 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds.

“But today, we will speak about sex. Like it’s never been spoken about before,” Dr Lee announces.

Immediately, one lady beside me has to stifle a giggle. It is, in a sense, our very first official sex education after years of sneaking information off magazines and the Internet. And who better to learn it from than someone who has a doctorate in human sexuality from the Institute of Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, the US, and a certificate in sex therapy from the Florida Sex Therapy Institute, Florida?

With her honesty and approachability, Dr Lee (who’s also affiliated to AASECT, or American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists) has become something of a celebrity back in her home country, Singapore. Her enthusiasm is palpable.

Her credentials, wrote one writer, read like an Annabel Chong resume.

Since becoming a certified sexologist in July 2009 and starting a sex and intimacy coaching company, Eros Coaching, she has worked with a number of individuals and couples from varying age groups.

Body of work

Sex. The mere mention of it makes Asians, and more specifically Malaysians, clamp up. Only last week, Malaysian teachers were saying “no” to teaching sex education in schools, citing reasons such as “lack formal confidence and training due to the complexity and sensitivity of the subject” (The Star, March 2).

While this does not come as a big surprise, it indicates a significant step backwards for a society that is seeing an increasing number of unwed mothers, many of them still children themselves.

“It’s become this big, white elephant in the room that nobody talks about,” says Chim Li Yen, the founder of holistic shop and therapy centre, The Violet Flame. “Even if they do, the images I’ve been getting are all very negative.”

This was why Chim decided to collaborate with Dr. Lee on her first working trip to Malaysia.

“In my line of work, I have seen clients with unconsummated marriages, ladies with problems with sex due to a bad experience, abuse, beliefs, religion and couples who are facing relationship challenges due to differences in sexual desires.

“So far, I realise, they do not have any outlet for therapy with regard to this area and they just live their life unfulfilled. A sexologist would be able to assist them in overcoming these challenges in their lives,” Chim says.

Similar reasons drove Dr. Lee to give up her eight-year career in corporate communications and pursue a doctorate in human sexuality.

“For a sexologist to be certified, they must complete between 300 and 500 hours of training in the field of human sexuality. A sexologist who possesses an academic degree such as a masters or a doctorate would have completed between 3,000 and 5,000 hours of training in human sexuality,” she was quoted as saying in an interview.

Classes, it is said, are not suitable for the timid or faint of heart. It involves significant legwork like getting down and dirty with some practical assignments.

“This does not mean a hands-on thing with our fellow schoolmates. Rather, we would do home assignments by ourselves or with our partner,” Dr Lee clarifies.

But contrary to what you might believe, the study of human sexuality is no laughing matter. The most renowned sexologist from the early era was probably the notoriously wacky Sigmund Freud, who developed a theory of sexuality based on his studies of his clients.

However, Freud couldn’t be more mistaken when he declared that, “All you need for sex is just a naughty thought.” Modern sexologists like Dr Lee (meaning those who are trained in a multi-disciplinary field that includes biology, medicine, psychology, statistics, epidemiology, pedagogics, sociology, anthropology and sometimes criminology) say that such a statement is an utter fallacy.

“It’s not just a physical experience, but also a mental, emotional and spiritual one. For someone to experience sexual fulfillment, that person has to be healthy in all those aspects,” says Dr Lee.

She’s also quick to point out that being a sexologist doesn’t mean one is a pro in the sack. “However, sexologists are more likely to possess positive self-image, sexual knowledge and a healthy attitude towards sex and sexuality,” she explains.

Another fact: “A lot of people, even complete strangers, ask within seconds of knowing me about the ‘normal’ frequency of sex for couples. We are individuals, and have different levels of sexual needs, desires, and preferences.”

Love yourself

If words like “G-spot” or “testicles” make you twitch uncomfortably, then you probably wouldn’t have a very pleasant time sitting in on one of Dr Lee’s workshops. Much to the audience’s (and my) surprise, these words slip out of her mouth easily, without any tactful embellishments.

But there are also words that you’ve never heard before, words like (brace yourself) cowper’s gland, seminal vesical or vas deferens. Yes, my friends, the male anatomy is more complex than you think. With several R-rated graphs and charts to back up her talk, Dr Lee could almost pass for the teacher you’ve never had but always wished you did back in high school.

“Men, did you know that the act of self-love could reduce your chances of getting prostate cancer?” she’s fond of asking.

“Did you also know that a person’s sexual orientation can be categorised not just into two different types, heterosexual and homosexual, but seven according to the Kinsey Scale? The Kinsey report states that seven percent of single females aged 20-35 were given a rating of 3, which means equally heterosexual and homosexual, for this period of their lives.”

Her pronouncements will, no doubt, throw some of the more unprepared off-balance, but those with open minds would find themselves greatly rewarded by how much they could learn from her. Just ask her clients.

“Probably the number one issue couples have about sex relates to differences in the desire for sex. In general, women tend to have a lower desire for sex than men. Women are also more likely to have reduced desire for sex after having a baby – it’s something that often occurs as mothers become more focused on the baby. So learning how to manage the differences in desire is one area that couples come in for,” she says.

“Another issue is that, sometimes, after years of marriage, people get bored with sex. Learning ways to make some changes that make it more interesting and fulfilling for both partners can make a huge difference in couples’ sex lives. Maintaining a passionate sex life doesn’t come naturally to most people, so that’s why people seek help.”

Of course, Dr Lee says, it helps if both spouses are willing to work together on the problem. She also often doubles up as a life coach should the need arise.

“It’s ideal when both spouses come together for the first meeting because it can make it easier for things to get out on the table together and all views are expressed,” she says.

“However, often one spouse or another has an issue or problem or difficulty that they don’t feel comfortable talking about with their spouse, or they’ve raised the issue and it didn’t go over well. So sometimes what people need to do is to first understand that their needs are normal, and to be able to learn effective ways of talking about their needs with their spouse. That’s often what I help them to do.”

Still, there are many Asians who are wary of airing their grievances to a third party. This remains one of the biggest obstacles Dr Lee has to face in her day-to-day job, and one reason her inaugural workshop in Malaysia, entitled Sexual Self-Discovery For Women, had only two interested participants and ended up getting cancelled!

While public acceptance has not been as instantaneous as Chim or Dr. Lee had hoped, they are still more than happy to arrange a workshop in the future if there is enough demand. In the meantime, Dr Martha Lee is back in Singapore, playing a Cupid who’s keen on “providing compassionate, non-judgmental and positive support to individuals and couples.”

The future of Dr Lee’s career remains elusive, but I know many will be secretly rooting for her on those disappointing nights.

o For more, visit www.eroscoaching.com or email drmarthalee@eroscoaching.com

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