The following interview is from Episode 1 of the Rekindle Podcast: “Interview with a Sexologist”, and has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Dr Johnben (JB): Okay, here we are. So welcome, Andrea!
Andrea Koh (AK): Thank you for inviting me. Dr. Johnben!
JB: This is Rekindle's very first podcast. And we are featuring you because you have a very interesting professional background. You are a sexologist. Now, sexology is the study of sex, but in Malaysia, we're not that open to talking about sex and especially our own sexual issues. So what's it like for you to be practicing sexology in Malaysia?
AK: So, first of all, it is fun to be different in Malaysia, to be one of the few sexologists in Malaysia. But it is not easy to tell people, this is my job, this is my career. Especially when I want to fill up official documents to put in my occupation. They can't find a category for it! (laughs). So even if you ask them: “Can you help me put this in a category?”, they’ll just look at me with a weird look.
JB: You mean the government officials right?
AK: Yeah. So it's very sad and frustrating sometimes, but that's all right.
JB: That's part of starting a new profession. The same thing happened to me when I brought in marriage and family therapy to Malaysia. So now you are also ushering in a new profession.
AK: Yeah, I hope so. I hope I can help in putting us in a category next time.
JB: So what else is it like to be practicing sexology in Malaysia?
AK: I think the other issue I noticed is when I do public talks on sexual topics, not many people will openly ask questions or participate, unlike other topics that people usually do. It's just silent. Even if you do it online, they won't show their face as well. It's like everyone just wants to be anonymous.
JB: Why do you think that is?
AK: I think maybe people are still afraid of being judged for asking questions or maybe just being interested in this topic, which is very sad. I think even in this century, we are still afraid-
JB: We’re in 2022, but we're still afraid to talk about sex.
AK: Right! So it's very sad. But I guess that's where my job comes in.
JB: Yes, wow. So is sexology just about sexual activity or is it more than that? What makes a sexologist different from, say, a doctor who specializes in reproductive medicine, like a gynecologist for women or a urologist for men?
AK: So, as you mentioned earlier, sexology is the study of sex, of human sexuality. So as sexologists, we are specialized in human sexuality, and we hold specific knowledge and skills. So we study people's behaviors, their feelings, and their interactions with each other, and we assist them to reconcile any issues they have about their sexual experiences.
JB: So you also include how they feel about things? It's not just about biology?
AK: Yes, it's not just about biology. So our aim is to improve their life, their sexual life, overall.
JB: So here is the understanding that your sexual life in your relationship is a part of your relational health overall?
AK: Yes. Correct. And how it is different from a medical doctor is that they focus more on the biological and physiological side by providing interventions that aid functioning. So maybe people come and see the doctor to ask for medication for an erection, or maybe hormone pills for desire, and some may even need surgery to reduce their sexual pain. So that's a bit different. But one of the things that I found (and that research mentions as well), is the emphasis that nowadays, psychological problems and culture play a huge role in sexual issues. So it's not just the medical part or the biological part, but there are many other factors that can influence your sexual issues.
JB: Right, so as a sexologist, then, you have to be aware of these non-physical issues: like culture, mindset, attitudes, maybe even your family upbringing that has shaped your attitudes to be where it is today.
AK: Yup. So as a sexologist, we try our best to understand every aspect of human sexuality and to understand issues in a more holistic way.
JB: Great! So how did you end up in this field? Tell us about your educational pathway and how you ended up here.
AK: So, long story short, I was born and raised in Miri, Sarawak. And I come from a conservative family. I think a lot of us come from [similar family backgrounds] and we don't talk about sensitives topics like sex, relationships, or even negative emotions. But I was a very sexually active, curious girl-
JB: Ah! And we're not ashamed to admit it.
AK: Yes. There's nothing wrong with admitting it. I remember searching for information about sex and relationships from magazines, newspaper articles, movies and love novels. Those were the few resources I had at the time. And I also noticed a lot of things happening in school, like sexual harassment among students and even teenage pregnancies among my friends. And I feel very sad to see them drop out of school because they were pregnant and there's a lot of stigma around that. So it's very hard to see that and no one did anything to change this. The school didn't educate us and had no awareness about what was happening, which could help prevent this from continually happening, and to make school a safe place.
JB: Yeah, now listening to your story and why you got into this field, I'm starting to feel quite moved, especially when thinking of the lack of education that leads teenagers who are naturally sexually curious to do what they do, but then they experience huge consequences.
AK: Yes. And one of the [consequences] of lacking this education is that they don’t have information of what could happen if they engaged in these kind of behaviors. And mind you, a lot of students from my school are from rural areas. So there's also a lack of parenting and education as well; no one is doing that, basically.
JB: Right. Is there anything else besides that that led you into becoming a sexologist?
AK: There is. Fast forward to my undergraduate [studies], I was studying psychology and I found out that you can actually specialise in certain fields like sexuality. So that was when I put that as my goal, that I wanted to specialise in that. I didn't know how during that time, but I was like: “I want to be specialised in sex”. And when I was searching for a Masters’ course in Australia, as usual, people recommended counselling or clinical psychology. Then I found that Curtin Australia actually offered this course called Masters of Sexology. So that was when I got interested in it. So I read the outline, did some research about it, and then I applied and got in!
JB: Great! Where is Curtin again?
AK: It's in Perth, Western Australia. And I was the only Asian international student in my batch at that time.
JB: Wow. And what year was that?
AK: That was in 2016. They were other Asian students, but they were local Australians. I was the only international student that was an Asian.
JB: Right. And what was your experience like being exposed to a Western way of dealing with sex?
AK: That's a good question. When I was there, I did a lot of volunteering, especially with the Western Australia AIDS Council. And it was an eyeopening experience because we went to different towns, different universities, public events, and we opened booths and [conducted] talks to educate and promote sex education and safe sex. It's something I wish I could do more of in Malaysia because it's very informative and people are actually interested to learn more about it. People will participate in activities, games; we even give out free condoms! (laughs)
JB: Right. So generally speaking, in the Western context, people are much more open to put in the effort and the energy to educate the public. And I'm guessing what you're saying is there’s a lot less of that here in Malaysia, is that right?
AK: Yes, a lot less. And it's a bit more secret; it’s not publicly announced that [events like these are happening]. It’s like, localised or-
JB: Word of mouth? So if you're having an event here, it would be something that is a bit more private. You whisper, whisper, whisper, and then the people come-
AK: Yes, and you would share with your network.
JB: So what we're doing here is a little bit different, just openly talking about sex and sexology?
AK: Yes. I think that's what a lot of [us] try to do in Malaysia: to talk about it. We do live IG and FB talks, so that people from all over the place can listen to it.
JB: Maybe that’s what we need to do next after this! (laughs). So you have been practicing sexology for how long? Post graduate?
AK: Around 4 years.
JB: So what has been your best and your worst experience so far?
AK: I think the best experience would be seeing my clients’ face that they can finally enjoy sex like they want to.
JB: So I’m just curious, what does that face look like?
AK: Well, usually it's a happy face. Grateful and satisfied. Like when they come back and tell you that: “Oh, we are finally able to feel relaxed and enjoy [ourselves]. It’s so different from last time”. It's so rewarding to see and hear that from them.
JB: I like the word “relaxed”. It's almost like, this is natural! Natural and enjoyable.
AK: For me [as a sexologist], I imagine it's like I'm teaching a kid to ride a bike. We will ensure they are ready first. We make sure they know how to keep themselves and people around them safe, and we teach them skills: how to ride [their bike] properly, how to take care of their bike. Eventually, they will be able to ride it by themselves after a few practices going up and down. And we trust that they know how to take care of themselves and their bike after that. So that's how I feel when I help my clients. I feel like I can finally let them go, and they are able to do it by themselves.
JB: That’s great. So what about the worst experience you've had?
AK: The worst experience that I can think of would be people who only want fast solutions in overcoming their sexual issues. So they don't feel like they need me, they don't feel like they want to see a sexologist who can't prescribe medical solutions.
JB: I see. They want a pill: “pop me the pill and then my problem should be solved”.
AK: Yes, correct. Which is very sad because sex is about the whole experience. It's not like a medical solution where you can take a pill and you're fixed, in that sense. You need to be both psychologically and physically ready to go for it, to have that sexual experience.
JB: Right, some people are impatient, or for whatever reasons, they feel like I don't want to take a few months to learn how to drive a car properly. [I want to just] download [the solution] and then I can just do it-
AK: Yes, something like that. They want a fast solution. “Can you just give me a pill, or something fast so that my problem is gone in the next few days?”
JB: So when you encounter a patient or a client like that, what's your typical response to them?
AK: Usually I will advise them about the pros and cons. Like yes, if you want medication, these are some of the benefits and these are some of the consequences. And [explaining] what's the benefit of coming for sexology sessions? So I will explain that, and let them choose and decide what they think is best for them and their budget.
JB: Right, so we need to hear, what are some of the benefits of having to see a sexologist?
AK: So some of the benefits I hear from my clients is that they feel they can finally see sex as something to do with a partner. Not a chore, not a task that I need to complete because I'm a girlfriend, I'm a wife, I'm a boyfriend, I’m a husband-
JB: I'm already thinking of who can come and see you! (laughs).
AK: (laughs) Yeah, so that's one of the benefits, that they can feel relaxed and that sex is something they can enjoy with their partner. The other thing they learn is about their sexual needs, or their partner’s sexual needs. They never talk about it, so they would never know that, for example, my partner actually likes this kind of touch, or that kind of sensation. So in the session we talk about that.
JB: I imagine some people don't even know what they themselves like and dislike. Well, maybe they know what they dislike, but they don't know how else it could be different. Enjoyable, like you said, relaxed, natural enjoyment.
AK: Yes! A lot of the clients that I saw last time, they didn’t even know what an orgasm is. They don’t know that they can allow themselves to enjoy [that] feeling. Which is very sad, because that is the fun part of having sex with your partner. But they don't know that they actually have the right to do that.
JB: So there are a lot of benefits and we don't know what we don't know until we start to hear some stories.
AK: You’re right, that’s true!
JB: I'm sure you have a lot of stories to tell, but maybe we'll reserve that for another podcast (laughs). So, I'm curious, you've already completed all of your requirements for your Master of Professional Counseling. Why did you choose to add on another Master's degree to your Master of Sexology?
AK: So, this is quite interesting because to be honest, counselling was not on my list. But being in the sexology field changed me. I saw so many couples who were suffering in their sex life and their relationship, and many times these issues goes hand in hand. I was stuck; I didn't know how to help them when they were also having relationship issues. And I noticed that when our relationship is affected, we wouldn't want to have sex with our partner, and we won't want to be intimate with our partner as well. And it's difficult to just fix the sexual part, if the relationship is one of the main contributors to the issue. There's so many types of emotions that could arise, like anger, anxiety, resentment, trust issues; would you want to be intimate with your partner with all this inside you? So that made me decide to study counselling too.
JB: So, sexology, even though you did cover feelings, attitudes and mindsets about sex, it was not enough.
AK: Yes, it was not enough in terms of delivering psychotherapy, but it provided a focus on handling deeper issues surrounding sex.
JB: So, counselling then gives you the ability to handle couples issues, going deeper into the emotional parts, maybe even trauma, ongoing dysfunction, couple dynamics and things like that.
AK: Yes! That's why when I was learning counselling, I noticed that there's a lot of skills I can learn and apply within the field of sexology. And it helped me be more confident and improve my therapy skills. I also feel that I can help my clients more holistically, especially couples. And change lasts longer, because you deal with not just the sexual part, but everything else that may influence that.
JB: Right, wow. So at this time, you are a Senior Clinical Intern at Rekindle, and that means you are en route to becoming an associate therapist once you get your Lembaga Counselling Licence. So I'm curious, with this dual, overlapping specialty, how do you see yourself continuing to grow in your expertise?
AK: It has been an interesting journey learning a lot of new skills. and it made me realise there is more to just sexual health. We can actually include many other things in our life that can help you improve your sexual life. The way I think about it: being a sexologist provides me the foundation to 1) be comfortable with this topic when talking with clients, 2) open up this topic with clients if needed, and 3) provide a safe space for clients so that they can explore and talk about these topics in session with me. So I’m a counsellor who specialises in topics related to sex.
JB: Right. In the field of marriage and family therapy, and counselling, we have the sex therapist. Is that something that you see yourself moving towards?
AK: Yes, I think so. I'm always interested in topics surrounding sex. And that is my goal; even as a counsellor, I want to focus and specialise in this area. So sex therapy would be the way to go.
JB: Right, and I imagine that because sex is related to so many other things, for example, how a lot of people now struggle with infertility and having sex during the IVF process, it can become quite challenging.
AK: Yes, even just talking about going through IVF can be very challenging for women. I have a client who was struggling to just accept that she needs IVF, that she can't conceive naturally. And that is also an issue that we can talk about in counselling.
JB: Recently, you have picked up training in EMDR (Eye Movement, Desensitization, and Reprocessing), which is a scientifically proven, effective treatment model for handling trauma. What are some of your emerging thoughts about that work? How can that particular training help couples or individuals on their sexual issues and questions?
AK: It's very interesting how EMDR can help clients to process their trauma or any adverse life events quickly. When they are able to process that and deal with their past, it helps them to move on and learn skills faster, and focus on the present, improving their current sexual life.
JB: Right, so the EMDR can help remove some traumatic, emotional blockages. For example, if someone was molested, they may be frozen during intimacy, but with EMDR you can clear that. But, they would still need to learn how to open up naturally.
AK: Yes, the skills are still missing, so when they are able to deal with the trauma, they can be more present to learn the new skills that can help them improve their current life.
JB: Yeah, that’s fantastic!
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