Ms Erin Chen’s professional revolves around a topic that many Asians, including Singaporeans, still find it hard to talk about even in this open society. It’s about sex.

Erin is the Founder of SPARK Fest Asia. She is also a Sexual Wellness Advocate, Sex & Relationship Counsellor and Speaker. She started SPARK Fest Asia with the aim to provide a curated space to get people to begin conversations on sex, pleasure and relationships openly, and to encourage the next generation of local innovators and problem-solvers to overcome current challenges in this area. This is why at this year’s SPARK Fest Asia 2018, there will be sextech hackathon.

So how did Erin started her journey into the world of sexual wellness and why you should get your tickets to SPARK Fest Asia 2018 now? entreé checked in with her to find out more.

How long have you been in the sex therapy industry and why did you venture into it?

I’ve always been a sex geek at heart. Some people grew up loving fashion, or cars or cooking – I had an affinity for sex. Not the act of sex, but a curiosity about the human sexual experience and its connection to culture, psychology, wellness, relationships, etc.

I would be that friend who would share every new fact that I came across about sex with friends. I was that friend with whom friends felt safe confiding in when it came to talking about sex.

Though I’ve always known that this was something I was passionate about, what inspired me to take action was when I came across a company called Blue Bella, which has since pivoted to become a lingerie company. At that time, it was a home party company that did at home workshops for women where they can also purchase pleasure products. What inspired me was the woman who started it – she was Oxford-educated and the company also had a social mission to help educate and develop young women. It was the first time I saw that it was possible to do something different in this industry. And so I realized how much room there was to do things better and differently in this space.

After ten years in the corporate world, I decided to dive right into it and received my Master’s Degree in Science in Medicine (Sexual Health) from the University of Sydney.

Before starting my sex and relationship counselling practice in 2017, I owned a pleasure products company where I ran workshops for women and couples on various topics related to sexual wellness. That gave me a lot of insight into the psyche of women and men when it came to the questions and interests they had in this area. I started noticing a common theme in these workshops that also extended into my private practice – people are not used to talking about sex. There is a lot that most people miss out on because they never or rarely had the chance to explore this area without judgement. This is what inspired me to start SPARK Fest.

What were the reactions from your loved ones when you told them that about what you do?

My parents questioned me on my decision; it is, after all, an unconventional one. However, since I embarked on this career and over time, it has opened up conversations about sex with my parents. These days, they are very supportive, and my father is a business mentor for me.

What were your initial challenges starting up your business?

I’ve started three social enterprises in sexual wellness – a pleasure products retail company, a sex and relationship counselling practice and SPARK Fest Asia. And the challenges that come with each are similar, as they are related to the perceived taboos of sex on an institutional level.

For the pleasure products company, the primary challenge was the ability to advertise through traditional means. Facebook and Google have a stringent ban on anything related to sex. For example, for areas such as gambling, financial services, and alcohol, Facebook’s policy is to follow local advertising laws. However, with sex, businesses in this area often find their ads banned or removed, even when they are not explicit in nature and could be of a more educational nature.

For SPARK Fest, the challenge has been to educate and create awareness around what sexual wellness is and how it can be different than the way we are used to seeing sex portrayed in the media or porn. Seeing sexual wellness as part of overall wellness is a very new concept — similar to how mindfulness was a foreign concept to most a decade ago. It’s difficult to imagine something you’ve never experienced before. And so it takes time for people to trust what we are creating.

Sinnead Ali - Co-founder of SPARK Fest Asia
Image credit: Sinnead Ali, Co-founder, SPARK Fest Asia

That said, we do find that once people get a glimpse or experience the kind of new conversations and approach we are creating, they are very receptive and enthusiastic. For SPARK Fest, I think this is because Sinnead (my co-founder) and I have always maintained the philosophy that SPARK is not about telling people how sex should be or not be. We are not here to give positive answers. Instead, SPARK Fest exists as space for people to get accurate and diverse perspectives so that they can choose what will empower their sexual wellness journeys.

What inspired you to start the SPARK Fest as well as host Asia’s 1st sextech hackathon?

Through my work in private practice and also hosting workshops and events related to sexual wellness, it became clear over time that there is a general need for better access to understanding and exploring the area of sexual wellness. Sinnead, my co-founder, also made similar observations when she worked in the mental health area and now as a yoga instructor focused on women’s health.

There are so many myths, misconceptions and unnecessary shame and awkwardness accompanying this area that is hurting relationships, overall well-being and general quality of life. And when we looked at what was available for people – their options were either porn or adult novelty type events, product-focused expos, medical-focused conferences or tantra centric gatherings. All of these events are great – and not everyone feels comfortable engaging with this topic in those various settings.

We saw a gap that needed to be filled – making sexuality fun and normal! Like any other area in wellness be it yoga, nutrition, mindfulness – no one has yet to take this approach and we wanted to provide that platform for the community to connect with the multidisciplinary and wide range of professionals and change makers that bring sexual wellness to life.

Ultimately, we are doing this for our future children. For them to grow up in a world where sex is not shrouded with shame and embarrassment, and where they feel free to make informed choices that give them fulfilling sexual experience and relationships – however that looks like.

SPARK Fest Asia
Image credit: Bask Communications

In general, our Singapore’s society is still mostly conventional. What were the considerations made over the years when planning for SPARK Fest?

Our main priority is to normalise the conversations about sex. It is very common for people to think of sexual intercourse when they hear the word “sex”. That is why we emphasize that SPARK Fest is a sexual wellness festival – it looks at more than just sex (and by the way, sex includes so much more than just sexual intercourse!). There are many elements that are at the intersection of healthy sex and sexual wellness – from physical well-being to emotional well-being to self and relational well-being and on a bigger picture, a community’s well-being when it comes to the quality of life of its citizens.

Sexual wellness is something that universally affects everyone, at all stages of life – whether you are single, a parent, or retired. And SPARK Fest aims to be the place where everyday people like you and me can gather to learn and take away something that can be actionable to improve their sexual wellness.

For example, you can attend a talk on how to talk to your kids about sex and how to go about navigating it (Having the talk: Do’s and Don’ts When Talking about Sex with Your Children), or sit in on a panel discussion on how intimacy can be kept alive (THERE IS NO NORMAL SEX). You can even participate in the first Future of Sex sextech hackathon ever in Asia to innovate ways to improve challenges in the sexual wellness world.

As you can see, we’ve curated the programming carefully to address various topics from pleasure to sex ed to relationships to the various health aspect of sexual wellness to gender roles. Fundamentally, we want to empower people to fulfil the experiences that they want. We are not here to tell people how sex should be – you are the expert of your own sexuality. We are the platform that supports your discovery of that.

It is also important to involve the innovators and change makers because they are the people who will keep creating solutions that help improve sexual wellness for everyday people! We wanted to showcase these individuals as well because we believe it is powerful for people to see that there are people driving change in this area – and who knows, someone in the everyday crowd might be the next Steve Jobs of sexual wellness. How cool would that be!

SPARK Fest - Sextech Hackathon
Image credit: Bask Communications

How did the idea of hosting Asia’s 1st Future of Sex sextech hackathon come about and why is it important to organise it?

The overall mission and goal of SPARK Fest are to normalise sexual wellness as a part of the whole wellness conversation. To accomplish that, we strive to bring together a community and space for people to explore and approach the topic of sex with thought leaders, brands and advocacy groups in this space. Part of that means also to seed ideas and solutions that will improve and impact change in the sexual wellness world.

When we saw the sextech hackathon being held in NYC last year, we knew that it was a great way to help bring about more conversations in this region. Afterall, change requires action and hackathons are all about action and problem-solving.

At the same time, we knew that Bryony Cole from Future of Sex was organising the 1st sextech hackathon in Australia this year as well. What began as regular calls to exchange ideas and best practices organically turned into a natural collaboration for Singapore to be the first city in Asia to host the Future of Sex sextech hackathon.

We both believe when we start to remove the taboo and shame around sex and see it as a typical and universal to the human experience, we will naturally begin to seek solutions for the current challenges that exist in this space — that is what makes this space so exciting!

What can we expect from the hackathon?

Firstly, we are very excited to be partnering with Bryony Cole of Future of Sex and Disruptor’s Handbook to run this pioneering event in Asia.

Secondly, it is important to point out that this is not a hardcore coding or technical type of hackathon. In fact, if you are not techy – you can still participate! A great team actually includes people from various backgrounds – from business, to design/creatives, to those who have a passion to make a difference in this area.

The 48-hour event will provide participants with opportinity to collaborate and get involved in the fast-growing sextech indiustry. Speakers, mentors and panellists from around the world will come together with participants to address a set of challenges at the intersection of sexual wellness and technology.

Example challenges from previous hackathons include “How to make condoms cool?” “How to make the sexual expression more accessible for the 1 million Australians with disabilities?” and “How to reinvent sex education for teenage girls?”

Other potential areas that can be explored include fertility, access to sex ed, the gender gap, sexual violence, and the list goes on! The specific set of challenges chosen for this particular edition will be shared with participants in the week before the hackathon.

Over an intensive weekend of team-building and creation, a variety of solutions will be generated.

Hackathons specifically encourage a diverse range of voices to participate in order to discover better solutions to current social issues. We will provide the tools and frameworks to bring ideas to life, along with mentors providing workshops and recommendations to help the teams deliver a final pitch – shark tank style!

According to the Guardian, sextech is a USD 30 billion industry growing at 30% a year, potentially outpacing high growth sectors like drone manufacturing. Why are we not hearing more about it?

Sextech is being discussed a lot more in the West, in particular in the United States. NYC is currently the epicentre of new and exciting female-led startups in this space. It has been covered by the New York Times, the Guardian, BBC, and many other mainstream publications. It has garnered attention in the US because issues around sexual harassment, women-centric healthcare, diversity and women at work have gained more spotlight in recent years in the American media. These conversations gained speed partly because of political and current events. As they become more aware of these issues, the natural question would be to look for potential solution and innovation ideas.

I think we are not hearing more about it in Asia because we are at the beginning of these conversations, which makes for an exciting time to come!

What’s the traditional perception and some misconception of sextech, and how can we expect it to evolve?

In the past year, The New York Times, Forbes, The Guardian, and many other global media have covered sextech. However, what you know of sextech is likely limited by three common storylines that tend to dominate media in this space: sexbots, VR pornography or female-designed vibrators. These three headlines have perpetuated the idea that sextech is only about sex itself. No doubt, innovations around our orgasms are important and fascinating conversations in their own right, but sextech goes beyond robot girlfriends, virtual reality dates and sex toys. Sextech is defined as any technology designed to enhance sexuality.

Bryony Cole from Future of Sex had shared with us that, this area breaks down into four major fields: remote sex, virtual and immersive sex, robots and augmentation. Cryptocurrency tokens for the adult entertainment industry to ensure the privacy of transactions, VR experiences to swap genders, apps to turn your smartphone into a microscope so you can measure the number and speed of your sperm. The possibilities are infinite, awe-inspiring and at times, somewhat terrifying. In many ways, we don’t know where we will go. Hackathons are a way of inviting a wider audience to ponder the future of sex and have a hand in its direction. Plenty of areas need improvement in sexual health and education, the world over. We can expect to see those innovations emerge in this second wave of sextech. Of course, there will also be unexpected ways this evolves and impacts society. Technology has always influenced how we have and think about sex and fall in love. In the last few decades, the invention of the Pill, online video streaming, and dating apps have all radically changed sex, companionship and the cultural attitudes toward it. Where we go from here, is up to us.

The participants at the Future of Sex hackathon in Singapore are pioneers in a new and exciting industry setting the agenda for human experience and sexuality in the 21st Century and beyond.

What are some of the exciting trends, opportunities and potential in the sextech industry today?

A tremendous opportunity for forward-thinking entrepreneurs is to address issues that impact sexuality beyond the obvious, from sexual violence and abuse to global health crises like AIDS and STDs, and to education models that can help us live healthier lives. This is the true intersection of sex and technology.

We can also serve grossly underserved markets for sex, such as the ageing population, and those living in isolation and people with disabilities. Dating apps for the ageing population, better access to sex education and sexual partners through immersive technologies like VR, and telehealth platforms for sex therapy are all examples of how sextech is accommodating the unique needs of these populations. There is so much untapped potential in sextech when we reach beyond the obvious.

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