Why you should care

Sometimes a low libido can become a national crisis. 

Martha Tara Lee is a therapist whose manner is anything but therapeutic — she’s crass and combative and licensed in the most taboo of topics. Ten minutes into our conversation Dr. Lee cuts to the chase, and tells me that I suffer from something called “vaginismus,” a condition in which the vagina spasms shut during intercourse. Ouch? Well, she wasted no time beating around that bush. It’s a common sex phobia in her country, “just like the fear of flying,” Lee says.

This is normal patter for the woman who claims to be Singapore’s first sexologist. “How come the penis won’t go in?” a client recently inquired. Lee let her down easy: “Duh, you’re a virgin.” She’s described by friends as “rude” and “direct,” but she’s well versed in the language of tough love. I politely asked to reach out to some of her clients, promising anonymity. “Absolutely no fucking way,” the thirtysomething Lee told me (she also refused to divulge her age).

Her career runs the gamut from relationship counselor to dating coach to sex therapist, but whatever you want to call her, she’s well endowed with certifications and experience. Lee spent two years at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, in San Francisco, where she earned a doctorate in human sexuality. She’s certified as a professional sex coach by Sex Coach University and the Florida Sex Therapy Institute. She’s the go-to sexpert for Men’s Health magazine, and she wrote Singapore’s first sex-positive book, Love, Sex and Everything in Between, essentially 220 pages of sex for dummies.

Her workshops include ”Sizzling Strokes,” “Funtastic Fellatio” and ”Kissing Fishes”

In sum, her work is “groundbreaking for a fairly conservative culture,” says Patti Britton, a mentor and the founder of Sex Coach University. Her off-color edginess comes from a more profound place: her resolve to bring sexy back to cookie-cutter Singapore. But in a country that famously bans chewing gum, pornography and e-cigarettes, that’s an uphill battle.

Maybe it will become less so in Singapore, whose legendarily low libido has become something of a national crisis: The fertility rate is 1.2 births per woman, well below the 2.1 births required to maintain the population. Government officials obsess over fertility rates, much as bankers worry over interest rates; it’s a key factor in macroeconomic stability. These days, the government offers lump sums of baby cash for young married couples who shack up and get pregnant. For one child, you get $5,699 (S$8,000). For two, it’s $5,699 (S$8,000) more. And for three or more little ones, you hit the jackpot of $7,124 (S$10,000) each. Talking about where babies come from, though, still seems taboo. Although the Ministry of Education did not respond to requests for comment, the Sexuality Education section of Singapore’s Ministry of Education website now leads to a 404 PAGE IS UNAVAILABLE error. The Christian faith-based government program was disbanded after complaints of sexism in 2014: Pamphlets preached that “girls can be emotional” and “no means yes.”

But that’s where Lee jumps in — in between your sheets. Through S$180 45-minute sessions, she counsels clients on everything from delayed ejaculation to low sex drive, porn addictions to sexual orientation and courtship to vaginismus, which is her “bread and butter,” she says. (She diagnoses most of her clients with this disorder.) As far as the rest, they just don’t know where to start. “The questions are sad. But someone needs to do it,” she says.

Sex comes naturally to Lee, she says. Born and bred in Singapore, Lee says she grew up in a household with hints of sex positivity. She tells OZY that she started masturbating at the tender age of 5; her first orgasm came soon after. “Soft caresses” are her biggest turn-on, Lee learned. She’s strong-willed like her mother and unashamed of what her body can do, she says. It’s this same confidence that allows her to thrive in not only a profession that struggles for legitimacy, but also in a country that’s more tight-lipped than freewheeling.

No wonder Lee has her work cut out for her. Her workshops include “Conscious Vagina” and “Awakening to Tantra,” yet just a handful of people show up to each one at any given time. Sometimes Lee’s income is barely enough for her to pay her bills on time, and she sometimes faces sexual harassment from strangers. Sexual literacy is almost nonexistent, and no amount of “yogasms” from Lee’s orgasmic yoga classes can jump-start Singapore’s sputtering sex drive. In Singapore, “it’s just a different ball game,” says Ted McIlvenna, president of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, pun not intended.

For a sex doctor, the two-time divorcée feels pretty unloved in her country. But over time, she’s developed a thick skin to ward off such criticism. She’s got harsh words for the conservative climate of sex in Singapore too. “People really don’t know how to enjoy life or relax. They hardly breathe and don’t feel their bodies,” she says. By the time our hour-long sesh comes to a close, Lee is indignant, with some choice words for the Lion City: Singapore is “fucked up.”

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