Would you do sex therapy on a podcast? One session in, I get the appeal

By Meg Watson

Chantelle Otten’s new podcast, Sex Therapy, features real patients talking about everything from opening up their relationship to premature ejaculation. Credit:Cybele Malinowski

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What are your “thoughts and beliefs about masturbation”? It’s a question I hadn’t ever really considered until a few hours before my first sex therapy session, while filling out a long intake form for new patients. And it wasn’t the only one that gave me pause.

See also: “What do you do and think about after an orgasm?” and “What does sex mean to you?”

Chantelle Otten, one of Australia’s most well-known sexologists, says that last one is often the most revealing. She’s awaiting my answer in-person, with a warm smile and a steady gaze, as I squirm around next to a desk adorned with vibrators and dilators in her East Melbourne practice.

“My life’s work is about making sex education more accessible”: sexologist Chantelle Otten.

We’re in the middle of an hour-long discussion that covers what my sex life looks like while seven months pregnant with twins (spoiler: it’s different!), how I feel about my rapidly ballooning body and similarly expanding list of life responsibilities, stress management, physical and non-physical turn ons, why I struggle to let myself be vulnerable with people (to be fair, I’m doing pretty well right now) and the state of my pelvic floor.

It’s the kind of thing you will hear – in much greater detail – on Otten’s new podcast, Sex Therapy.

I may be doing a private one-on-one but Otten has taken sessions like mine to create a 10-part series with anonymous Australians sharing issues they’re facing. That includes a married couple considering inviting new people into their bed, a woman feeling distant from her partner due to the stress of her job caring for trauma victims, and a young man struggling with erections and premature ejaculation.

It’s a show that has an obvious voyeuristic appeal: who isn’t curious about the highs and lows of other people’s sex lives? But Otten hopes it has a practical use too, giving listeners a sense of “normalcy” in their own feelings or experiences.

“No one gives us a handbook on sex, or how to have the best sex,” she says. “We rely on other people to help us … [but people don’t always feel] they’re allowed to discuss it.”

“My life’s work is about making sex education more accessible and creating a safe space for people to be able to explore their sexuality. I want people to have more fun, more pleasure, more self-confidence, more sexual self-esteem.”

Otten is well-known for this kind of work on social media, regularly posting educational and inspirational content to her almost 200,000 Instagram followers (a group she says is generally aged 20-45).

At 32 years old, I fall squarely into the primary demo for this kind of content.

Growing up, I gleaned most of my sex ed from noughties pop culture which rarely prioritised or even considered female pleasure (let alone the psychology behind it). And though I had access to expert advice in the form of Dolly Doctor – which was written by adolescent health expert Dr Melissa Kang – even the act of ripping open that sealed section felt like a daring and secretive act.

Today, it all feels more like a celebration. Countless creators are sharing practical tips and personal stories on Instagram and TikTok, and diverse and sex-positive series are front and centre on major streaming platforms like Netflix. If you’re oblivious to the increasingly frank and explicit world of sex and relationships podcasts Sex Therapy may sound novel, but it actually hews closely to the model set by other real-life counselling podcasts like Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin?

Chantelle Otten, sexologist and author of the 2021 book The Sex Ed You Never Had.Credit:Cybele Malinowski

Listening to the intimate details of strangers’ sex lives isn’t necessarily salacious; it’s also become a pretty commonplace exercise in self-development.

Otten drew on her pool of Instagram followers when seeking participants for the podcast.

“Within 24 hours of putting up a callout, we had thousands of applicants,” she says.

Yes, as she acknowledges, her own Instagram community is a “sex-positive bubble”. Not everyone is so comfortable sharing the details of their sex lives with a stranger, let alone recording it for public consumption and entertainment. But the fact that it was so easy to get people on board is still a testament to a loosening of stigma on the subject, and a growing curiosity about (and demand for) the kind of work Otten does.

“There are a lot more sexologists now than there were when I started the clinic [the Australian Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine] five years ago,” she says, reflecting on the huge influx of social media presence around sex education helping drive interest and acceptance.

“And it’s a very commercialised area now as well.”

Otten, who derives her income from sponsorships with brands in the relationships and beauty space including Bumble, Lovehoney and Kerastase, says she’s turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars from other corporations “who just want to have someone trending”.

“You have to be wary of what is their motive for having you on board,” she says. “And I think [audiences] have to be mindful of misinformation.”

“You have to come at it from a scientifically backed angle because it’s just not fair to be profiting off people that are vulnerable.” (She notes the podcast subjects have all been offered follow-up care from her or another trained professional at her practice, as well as a media psychologist).

It would be a mistake to view Sex Therapy as a substitute for actual, ongoing professional care. Nothing will compare to getting personalised guidance about your unique mental and/or physical situation. But there’s definitely value in using this kind of content as a jumping off point to ask yourself some blunt questions (seriously, what does sex mean to you!) or have an open conversation with your partner or a friend about an insecurity or fantasy or anxiety that’s been rolling around your mind.

As any counsellor or psychologist will tell you – whether they focus on sex or not – growth really comes from what you’re willing to work on yourself.

‘I want people to have more fun, more pleasure, more self-confidence, more sexual self-esteem.’

In the lead-up to giving birth, there’s no shortage of physical and mental work for me to do. I have appointments with an obstetrician to track my babies’ growth, my blood pressure and general health. I see a physio or masseuse to manage my buckling back and aching legs. And I started seeing a psychologist to get a jump on the anxiety that pregnancy and new parenthood brings.

But before my session with Otten – something I would have never done if not for this story – I hadn’t really given time to consider how all this change affects my relationship to sex and intimacy, or how that relationship formed in the first place. And that’s an important piece of the puzzle too.

Would I release that full session on a podcast? No. But the fact that I’ll reflect on it in a major masthead feels like progress as well.

Sex Therapy: Sessions with Chantelle Otten, is available to listen to for free on Audible now.

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