In the words of Salt-N-Pepa’s iconic 1991 hit: let’s talk about sex, baby. We speak to three industry experts in Asia about the stigmas surrounding self-pleasure, and how we can start normalising conversations on sex

When it comes to conversations surrounding the birds and bees in Singapore—and for the most part, in Asia—talking openly about such topics remains largely frowned upon. In our conservative society, bringing up the topic of sex can often seem almost as taboo as doing the act in itself. 

“In the modern world, we are caught between layers of influence that impact the way we have conversations around sex, our genitals, and in turn, vaginal health. These layers could be external (from cultural, racial and religious influences, to your upbringing, peers and media around you), or internal (your past experiences and how you make decisions based on those experiences),” shares Andrea Tan, a certified sexual wellness and relationship coach.

One of the many taboo topics includes conversations concerning self-pleasure, which in turn hinders sexual empowerment. A recent study by Womanizer found that the masturbation gap—a term coined to reference the rate that which those who identify as male and female masturbate—between both genders in Singapore is at 79%. On average, men in Singapore masturbate 136 times per year. Women do it 28 times.

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But while the disparity remains, there has been a notable mindset shift within the past few years. Sex toys are now stocked on the shelves of mainstream retailers, while online sales have also peaked—especially during the lockdown period of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

According to Meryl Lim, founder of online sex toy retailer Good Vibes, which markets itself as a “beginner-friendly focused brand that offers a curated range of toys for women starting their pleasure journey”, sales increased nearly five-fold in 2021 during the lockdown. 

“We are more than just a brand that sells sex toys,” asserts Lim, who’s also the co-founder of Apogee Collective, the parent company for Good Vibes and local women-forward e-commerce store Hedonist. The company, founded in 2021, aims to have diverse sexual wellness brands under its belt for a range of pleasure seekers. “Our mission is to help people explore their sexuality without any shame or judgement, and most importantly, to encourage everyone to stop apologising for how they feel. It’s all part of being human.”

We caught up more with Tan, Lim, as well as Viv Kan, a Hong Kong-based mindfulness and corporate wellness coach and former TEDx speaker, as they delve candidly into topics surrounding sexual empowerment, sexual wellness and how one can stay attuned to their body and desires.

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On why it’s important to normalise conversations on self-pleasure

“With the stigmas about sex and pleasure, most people find it more comfortable searching for answers about it on the internet. But sometimes, such information can be misinforming and that can put more pressure on young people to think or act a certain way; which can be harmful in developing their views on future sexual experiences,” notes Lim. “By normalising such conversations, you allow more room for a deeper connection with yourself and with your partner on an emotional and physical level.” 

She acknowledges that bringing up such topics is never easy, but also points out that many would be surprised by how many people would be able to relate once you take the first step. “Staying silent leaves room for your critical inner voices to fester, but the more you talk about it with your partner, confide in a close friend, or speak to a therapist, the better you’d feel about yourself and your sexuality.”

Kan concurs with Lim. She highlights that the more open conversations there are about sexuality and self-pleasure, the more natural such topics will be in the future. “Sexuality is in our nature and pleasure is our birthright,” she asserts. “When my clients open up about their intimacy struggles, there are often tears because they’ve never told anyone about their pain and feelings of disconnect. We need to hold a safe space for each other to freely express what’s innate to us as human beings with an open mind without judgment.”

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On how one can initiate such conversations

The start is always the hardest, and it’s important to keep an open mind, says Kan. “There isn’t enough education or conversation around sexuality and vaginal health, and our parents never received that education either. Because we’ve been conditioned to think a certain way, we need to be consciously aware of the way we judge ourselves and others,” she advises.

If you’re curious but uncomfortable with approaching the loved ones around you for such conversations, try turning to intimate workshop groups where you could possibly find like-minded people. “Educate yourself on experiences other than your own,” says Lim. “This is one of the main reasons why Apogee Collective always makes it a point to constantly host and conduct various sex-positive talks online and in physical spaces to create a safe and intimate space for people to explore.”

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Self-pleasure = part of self-care

Scientifically, orgasms—ones that are not mired in guilt, highlights Lim—can lead to stress reduction due to the release of endorphins. Self-pleasure is one of the most natural and ultimate physical expressions of self-love that rewards your body and overall wellbeing, says Lim. 

“It not only helps to relieve stress, anxiety and elevates your mood, it also helps you to explore your body and teaches you to become better communicators with a sexual partner,” she shares. “When you claim responsibility for your own pleasure, your self-esteem gets boosted, you’re happier and you’ll express yourself better as confident lovers.”

Kan notes that self-pleasure, in its way, “allows you to prioritise yourself first”. “Self-pleasure has a positive impact on our mood, weight, stress and concentration—so why wouldn’t we prioritise it?”

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Get to know yourself

How can one stay attuned to their body and desires? For Tan, “one stays attuned to our body through conscious intention, presence (being in the moment) and exploration”. “Desires, on the other hand, are discovered by being open and learning how to express these desires.”

The methods are endless, according to Tan. Some of which include movement (exercise, dancing), somatic practices, meditation, visualisation, working through belief systems or practising being intentional about what we do and choose. The key is to become more attuned to your body through such activities.

“We become more attuned when we become conscious of our choices and set boundaries— what does a yes or no or maybe feel like in your body,” she shares.

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Don’t be afraid to explore

For beginners who are starting to venture into toys for self-pleasure, there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to finding a pleasure toy, assures Lim. “For a start, don’t compare yourself to anyone and make sure to do your research, find a toy that interests you and go for it! It is best to go for something simplistic, small and versatile unless there is something very specific that you have researched prior and are curious to explore,” she says. 

For those who prefer having a feel of the sex toy before committing to them, you can purchase them at physical retailers. Lim’s hot tip? “If it’s allowed at a physical store, you can do a “nose test” by placing a vibrator at the tip of your nose to test it’s intensity. It will give you a sense of how that vibrator’s power will translate elsewhere.”

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On the one thing you need to know about sexual wellness

“That pleasure is your birthright,” declares Lim firmly. “Sexual wellness is about being mindful of your physical and emotional needs, inner desires and ultimately being kind to yourself. By understanding and being self-aware of our sexual wellness, we bring our physical health in tune with our emotions and it helps to improve our overall wellbeing; boosting our self-esteem and allows us to respect the relationships we develop with ourselves and with our sexual partners.”

For Tan, the most improtant aspect she’d like to highlight is that “it is a journey, not a look or an end goal or a status badge”. She explains: “It is a beautiful and rewarding journey that lasts an entire lifetime with its highs and lows. And it’s a journey that will allow us to integrate parts of ourselves that we often deny so we can live a full life.”

Kan agrees, noting the the unexpected benefits that getting acquainted with one’s body can bring about. “I wished more people knew that their lives can drastically improve if they prioritised sexual wellness in their self-care repertoire. Sexual wellness is not about the act of penetrative sex. It is a daily, evolving practice of self-discovery and self-love.”

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