Sexologist Shan Boodram On Intimacy And Pleasure In The COVID Era

Shan Boodram really wants you to buy yourself a sex toy, but mostly, she would really like to reframe the antiquated way you’ve been thinking about sex toys and maturation. “It’s not just this thing that you do because you don’t have a partner or not just a thing you do that you’re embarrassed by, it’s a thing that you do for yourself as a way to meet the challenges of the world dead on.”

Boodram knows sex, in fact, she’s an expert. A highly sought-after certified sexologist, intimacy expert, sex educator, author, and internet personality. Boodram describes herself as “Dr. Ruth meets Rihanna” thanks to her ability to present sex education in a way that is as titillating as it is informative.

As the host of her Quibi show, Sexology, Boodram drops daily doses of knowledge on all things sex, from information on the mythical G-spot — and why it should really be called the G-Region — to how to perform better oral sex, to discussions about the importance of foreplay.

But what makes Boodram such a refreshing voice in the sex education space is that she doesn’t lecture you in front of a whiteboard with a bunch of facts and figures. She sits down with real people who share their real intimate desires and frustrations and presents the whole thing in a fun and sexy way.

Which is why TENGA — a Japanese brand of sex toys that are trying to reframe the devices as a tool for wellness rather than a pornographic apparatus that you keep hidden under layers of clothes in a dresser drawer — partnered with Boodram as an ambassador for their 2020 Global Self Pleasure Study.

TENGA’s 2020 Global Self Pleasure Report surveyed 5,000 men and women aged 18-54 across 5 countries to take a deep dive into their habits related to sex, masturbation, and sex toy usage. They found that not only are Americans now more open to talking about masturbation and sexuality than ever before, they’re also more likely to use masturbation as a form of self-care, especially in relation to the added stress we’re feeling as a result of the pandemic. The New York Times also reported that during the pandemic online retailers saw sex toys explode in sales, and who could forget this famous moment when an understandably frustrated Amazon employee declared “Dildos are not essential items!” Boodram, TENGA, and the receivers of those toys would have to disagree.

80 percent of Americans in TENGA’s study admitted to using masturbation as a form of self-care, a 30 percent jump compared with the previous year. Interestingly, 68 percent of that 80 percent said that they’d continue to use sex toys once social isolation was over, which also really shouldn’t surprise anyone.

So we reached out to Shan Boodram for a phone chat about all things sex and talked about intimacy in the age of COVID-19, why you need to change your old feelings about sex toys and masturbation, and how we can continue to revolutionize the way we think about and depict sexuality.

Shan Boodram

You’re approaching sex education from a totally fresh perspective, why did you feel like the way we’ve learned about sex needed that refresh?

I was extremely sexually tenacious at a young age. I also went to a Catholic school and had parents who were very afraid of that tenacity. So as a result, I self-educated myself on sexuality through whatever backdoor method I could find in my teen years, which tended to be porn and fiction, and that’s how I learned about sex. So when I entered the world as a sexual person in my mid to late teens, all of my information was based on lies and myths and, as a result, I had a really negative teen sex life.

So I re-educated myself when I was around 19-20 years old just by reading books and every scholastic text I could possibly find in my local library. I noticed there was a massive gap happening — the books I was reading had awesome information that was life-changing, that set off all these light bulbs that helped me to understand why I had all these negative experiences and misgivings about my experiences, but I also noticed it was incredibly boring. I noticed that it was very dry information, sex education in many ways is bad sex: it’s dry, monotonous, faceless, emotionless. The media uses sex to sell their message, but sex ed doesn’t sell because they’re not using sex to sell the message. Why should learning about factual information be any less enticing than watching porn? Or your favorite TV show, or reading about your favorite characters in a novel? The conversations can still be exciting even though it’s factual.

How do you go about making sex education sexy?

You just lean into the same principles that already exist: use real people, real stories. We are inherently storytellers and story listeners. It can’t just be facts, figures, and numbers. You’ve got to see the people behind them, you have to feel connected to them, which is why I use so much of my personal story in my messaging because people have come to know me and feel a connection. It’s so much easier to learn when you feel like you can empathize or relate to somebody. I also make it a really big point to use other people’s stories. I’m constantly casting my work around diversity. It’s about being able to see yourself reflected back — even if there is a factual stat that’s grounded in why you’re sharing that information — the conduit for that information is someone who looks like you and sounds like you or has been through something that you’ve been through. Engage all the five senses. It has to be visual. I put a big effort into production for that reason, even in my partnership with Tenga. I think for so long both sex education and sex toys have been extreme. Sex education is really dry, and then sex toys are really pornographic and really almost shock value embarrassing.

Sex toys are rising in popularity, so what advice do you have for people who are still turned off by their crazy designs or just too embarrassed to take that leap?

I think that you’ve got to look again. Whatever you think about sex products, whatever impression you’ve formed because of the experience you had five years ago or because of the embarrassing thing you found in your parent’s drawer, or at your aunt’s or best friend’s house that made you think “I don’t ever want to have this embarrassment in my life so I’m not going to engage in toys,” it’s just wrong. When I think about sex toys for men, I think about the Jankles, which is an ankle that is a fleshlight that you masturbate into and you’re like “that’s not me at all, so I don’t associate with sex toys.”

Technology is changing so quickly, the millennials are entering into the market place and really changing the look and feel of things. It’s also a global market now too so you’re getting ingenious designs from all over the world. You’re not just subject to what somebody in Utah thinks is sexy or what a sex product should look like, so look again and explore.

Sex toys can literally just be art pieces. It’s not something that if it was left out in your nightstand and the cleaner came over and you totally forgot or your best friend was in town and you didn’t put it away, you wouldn’t be mortified if they found it. It’s not all 20-inch green dildos that glow in the dark. There are many ingenious and sleek designs that reflect how you feel about your own sexuality. I don’t feel embarrassed about my sexuality, so I shouldn’t feel embarrassed about my sex toys.

You’ve shared some figures collected by Tenga that show masturbation is on the rise. Why is it important for people to engage in that self-exploration now more than ever?

Right now with the increased cortisol that we’re all experiencing as a result of the stress and uncertainty of 2020, our body is overloaded with stress hormones and so wellness takes on a whole new priority because it’s not just about balancing yourself. It’s about combating the stress and negativity that the world is naturally feeding all of us, and it’s manifesting into different people in different ways. It’s almost a survival mechanism to find ways to balance your mood back out, to bring you back to a state of normalcy. You do have the energy to tackle the stresses of the world.

I love that Tenga Self Pleasure Report because it really grounds you. It’s really cool that it’s been happening for five years now. You can see how the attitudes towards masturbation as a form of self-care have been shifting and now people are being like “yeah, it has boosted my mood, I actually feel healthier, my brain function is better, I have more confidence, I feel sexier and more energized.” It’s not just this thing that you do because you don’t have a partner or not just a thing you do that you’re embarrassed by. It’s a thing that you do for yourself as a way to meet the challenges of the world dead on.

The attitude towards masturbation is changing because the world is changing and now we see sex care as a form of self-care. Self-care is an act of rebellion against all that 2020 is throwing at us.

Right now, since we’re all living locked down more or less, why is it vital to still find ways to experience intimacy and how do we go about that in this modern world?

I think we have to reframe intimacy. Intimacy is just a close vulnerable connection. It’s something that puts you in common connect. It’s something that distracts you from fight or flight. It’s something that makes you feel understood and valued. Traditionally we think of intimacy as human to human contact, to get intimate with somebody is to get vulnerable in person, to let your guard down where somebody can literally see and touch you, but I think that we can redefine intimacy and just say it’s any method or medium that allows you to feel like a more relaxed, connected and understood human version of yourself.

Intimacy is possible to experience via technology, with yourself, or even with a toy. One-in-ten people have purchased a sex toy specifically during quarantine because they wanted to increase intimacy with themselves. They wanted to enhance their sexual experiences because you don’t necessarily have partners who are going to bring you that variety. So you have to bring that variety to yourself and that in itself is an act of intimacy. I think as we redefine it to say that there are various different forms of intimacy just like there are various different forms of love. It doesn’t have to qualify under some 1990’s version to be seen as valuable, as healthy, and as necessary.

What lasting impacts on our sex lives do you think the pandemic will have?

I think that what we can do is look for seeds of hope that despite the fact that it’s been very challenging and there was a lot of fear in the beginning, people really did find alternate routes and ways to connect and we really readjusted very quickly.

I think intimacy is resilient. I think people’s drive for intimacy is resilient. Even though I spoke to a lot of people who went through droughts or really low sex drives, they noticed that that was an issue they wanted to make a priority to solve because they realized that when nothing else in the world makes sense, something you can always rely on is the feeling of vulnerability, closeness, or love, whatever that is, whether that’s self-love or love between two people.

Not only do you approach sex education in this new modern way, you really represent a new voice and face in the space. What are the unique challenges you face as not only a woman but a woman of color talking about sex education?

Absolutely, this is not an area a lot of people want to talk about. It’s difficult to bring up topics that are touchy for people, that are taboo for people, or that they feel they aren’t great at. That’s no fault of their own. That’s the fault of a society that still has ridiculous education programs and is still extremely repressive when it comes to sexual knowledge and exploited when it comes to sexual content that we’re overwhelmed. You see these high expectations that you’re supposed to meet, and you get the information on how to get there, and as a result most girls already feel inadequate. So you feel inadequate, then you have this brown woman trying to tell you what you need to do. So just by virtue of that, it pisses a lot of people off because it sparks off insecurities.

People are just comfortable learning from an older white gentleman. A friend of mine who is a psychologist said that his superpower is — he’s a 50-year-old white man — that no matter where he goes people always assume that he works there. People just naturally look at him as a voice of authority. That’s the opposite for me. I go to the grocery store and people ask me “Oh do you work for Instacart?” They just aren’t accustomed to seeing me in the environment I pop up in. When I pop up on a soapbox, I expect there is going to be a natural aversion but my superpower is that I’m not awkward. That’s why I can talk about these topics so freely, and I’m honest about the reality of the world we live in. That’s the world I’m trying to change and make a difference in. I empathize with people who initially have a hard time accepting me as a voice of authority or accepting my opinion. I’m a train that keeps on moving. If people don’t want to come on this stop, that’s fine. I’m going to keep going. I’ll catch you on the next one!

Shan Boodram

Where do you stand on porn and do you have suggestions for people who feel turned off by the controversy surrounding certain tube sites and the sometimes violent or incestual way in which it’s generally depicted in mainstream porn?

I think it’s great we are starting to have these issues come to light. The conversation of ethical porn is very important, if you ask somebody what they love most about having sex with their partner, they often say “I love seeing the other person.” We need to extend that into porn. What you should love most about consuming porn is that you feel the people you’re watching doing it are actually enjoying it and if that the platform that you’ve been spending your time and energy and possibly money into, you’re not getting that from them. Don’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think that porn is very important during this time. It’s erotic stimulation. It’s a way to get you going. It pairs lovely with that new sex toy you just bought!

In March, 150,000 OnlyFans accounts were created daily. There is so much more user-generated porn and that’s where the money is going directly into the performer’s pocket. That’s people who are willingly there and are setting their own conditions. They’re entrepreneurs. It’s more likely they’re doing activities they actually enjoy because they aren’t being told by a production company or a director about how they should be experiencing pleasure or how they should play out pleasure in their own home.

Porn is created to arouse not educate. The purpose is to turn you on and get you off, it’s not to get you there. Porn can’t masturbate for you, it’s not designed to do that. I can’t literally do what I see in porn and expect for my partner to get off. That’s not the purpose of it. The purpose is to get that person horny or aroused. Look at it for inspiration on how to turn your partner on, what turns you on, and draw little pieces of things you may want to try. But research outside of porn sites if you want to do it in a way that is actually pleasurable for human beings.

What still surprises you about how little people know about sex?

It surprises me that people think that it’s embarrassing to look for knowledge. I’m not surprised that people don’t know a lot because it’s not accessible. There is this bizarre dichotomy that exists where you’re not told anything and then if you look for information that in some way makes you more of a loser because you should already know it. The fact that people haven’t caught on to how stupid that is, people with penis’ in particular… I think that a lot more female-identifying people are a lot more okay being like “I went to this class, I read this book, I checked out this tutorial.” I very rarely meet men who admit they have sought out there own sex education.

It surprises me that that system hasn’t been completely dismantled. People who have a stake in being great at sex should invest energy into learning how to get better at it. Their pride shouldn’t get in the way of that.

We touched on this earlier, we’re at a point where women are more freely talking about sex and orgasms. What things that are still taboo do you wish we would tackle or erode away?

Specifically for women, I would like to see more conversations around the nuance of fantasy. There is a lot more porn for people who identify as women or for people who enjoy watching women have sex. I was speaking with Jacky St. James who is a porn director and her entire production house is women performers, women writers, women directors, and all the people on set are women.

The consumption rate of porn is also changing too. Now women feel like they’re invited to the table to view. But I think what’s really cool about porn for people who identify as male, is that there are just so many categories. No matter what you’re into, you can search it up and that tells you that there are other people who find what you find sexy or hot as well too. That same nuance for women would be really cool, so it doesn’t all look the same. We need to see what that looks like because we haven’t even seen that before! I want to see the crazy fantasies that I know women often have that they feel a lot of shame and repression over. I want to see that depicted.

I would love to see sex toys featured in TVs and movies in a way that isn’t embarrassing. They need to start uplifting and supporting the culture to show that it is cool. It is chic. It is very hot to know somebody who knows their body and feels good about it. To feature toys where the gag isn’t always “how embarrassing.” I guess I would like art to mimic reality more. People’s attitudes towards self-pleasure are changing. People are feeling more confident and in control and cool. People are starting to open up more about the nuances of their desire and their pleasure. I just want to see more media that celebrates and highlights that.