Sexual health is moving out of the shadows in Asia.
A new generation of educators, brands, doctors, artists and media is looking to start a public dialogue on intimacy, wellness, and sex tech.
It’s part of a growing recognition that sexual health is important for overall health. In the Innovation Group’s new report, “The Well Economy: Asia Edition,” 38% of survey respondents from five Asia-Pacific countries say they associate sexual health with overall health, with men more likely to say this than women. Almost half of respondents say they would go to the doctor more often if there was less stigma around sexual health checkups for non-married individuals.
In Singapore, the movement to stamp out the stigma around sexual health this year gained a vibrant new platform: Spark Fest Asia. In May, more than 500 visitors flew into Singapore from mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Thailand and elsewhere. They included sex toy makers, magazine editors, LGBTQ+ leaders, therapists, physicians and sexologists. Topics included sex education, changing definitions of masculinity, sexual consent and the evolving modern relationship.
Erin Chin, the sex and relationships counselor who founded Spark Fest, talks to the Innovation Group about why the Singapore event was a milestone—and explains its importance as a launch pad to the rest of Asia.
How would you describe the sexual wellness sector in Asia at this time?
Overall, wellness has become more mainstream in Asia—from mindfulness to yoga to nutrition. We believe one of the missing pieces in the current wellness conversation is sexual wellness.
When we looked at what was available for people in this space, options were either porn or adult novelty-type events, product-focused expos, medical-focused conferences or tantracentric gatherings. All of these platforms are great—it’s just that not everyone feels comfortable engaging with this topic in those various settings.
Spark Fest fills a gap for those who recognize sexual wellness as a part of their lifestyle of wellness and health—a platform for the community to connect with a wide range of professionals, change makers, brands and resources that bring sexual wellness to life.
There is a perception that Asia, in general, is more conservative than the West. While this may be true on some levels, we also see from the response of the press, the attendees, and the community that perhaps this assumed conservatism is overplayed. Rather, the lack of conversation around sexual wellness in Asia is largely due to the lack of appropriate opportunities for people to explore sexual wellness safely and in comfort.
This is the significance of Spark Fest in Asia at this time: it is proof that there is an interest and a demand for educational content, products and services around sexual wellness in the context of wellness and health.
Are there any unique trends or innovations coming out of the region?
Personally, I do think there are unique trends and innovations coming out of this region. And I believe they are and will be driven by characteristics more unique to Asia, such as the urban/rural divide, a cultural emphasis on family and relationships, and common sexual challenges faced by Asian communities.
For example, many of the menstrual products startups in the region—Fempeers and Freedom Cups, for example—often include social impact in developing areas as part of their business model. Going beyond the buy one, give one model, they also take direct action in organizing educational field trips to rural regions.
A cultural emphasis on relationships has led to innovations that help people connect, not just for pleasure, but with the goal of creating intimacy. For example, Vibease, one of the first smart wearable vibrators, was created by its Indonesian founder to connect with his wife while they were apart.
Another instance is the research performed by one of the speakers at Spark Fest last year, Professor Adrian David Cheok from the Imagineering Institute based in Malaysia. Professor Cheok gave a talk on the technologies that he has been developing—in particular, technology where people can experience the five senses over the internet. Right now, we can see and hear via the internet. Professor Cheok has been working on communicating touch, smell and taste via the internet as well. These technologies, while currently not yet applied to sex tech, can fundamentally change how humans experience connection—something that has potential to impact the human sexual experience.
Are the challenges in the sexual wellness space the same in the Asia Pacific region as in other markets?
There are similar business and public policy challenges in Asia as in other markets. Brands in Asia face business challenges, such as barriers to being able to advertise and reach an audience through traditional marketing means—for example Facebook, print, outdoor, et cetera—and access to business services such as banking. Public policies differ from country to country. For example, Section 377A, a colonial law that criminalises consensual sex between men, still exists in Singapore, while it was recently struck down in India by the supreme court.
Like most other markets, “sex” is a taboo subject that people are hesitant to discuss in public or in general. This may also be related to how sex is traditionally depicted in public: framed as novelty, sensational, porn-like. It has yet to be linked to wellness and female empowerment in mainstream society, as it has been in other markets.
However, even though this topic may seem more taboo in Asia, what gives us hope is that consumers and people in this region tend to adopt technological trends more quickly—think mobile adoption or cashless payments. There is also a certain level of pragmatism and flexibility that exists in Asia that creates an exciting environment where people are more willing to try new things. For example, Smile Makers, a pleasure products company based in Singapore, shared with us that they have found it easier to start conversations with Muslim communities around initiatives to normalize and educate about sexual wellness than in certain western European countries. In such cases, sexual wellness is discussed as part of the health of a marriage or relationship.
What did the sex-tech hackathon look like?
The hackathon opening night saw more than 65 participants, mentors and subject matter experts come together to kick off the weekend. From there, nine teams emerged to complete the weekend. We wanted to instill diversity of genders, skills and cultures in the hackathon experience and we were happy to see that close to half of the participants were women. There was also a different-abled team that included one blind engineer and another that was hearing-challenged. Teams also joined the hackathon from abroad, with attendees flying in from Japan and Thailand. Of the participants, 80% had never participated a hackathon before, which told us that we were breaking new ground with a new community.
What were some of the winning concepts?
The winning idea was Closr, a wearable for couples designed to promote intimacy when lovers are apart. The team developed a vibrating necklace that could be worn by one partner and be remotely controlled by the other partner via a mobile app. The idea is unique in that it focused on intimacy rather than explicit sexual pleasure. The first runner-up place went to the team comprising the founder of TheseAbilities as well as engineers who were blind and deaf. They designed a sexual education platform tailored for ease of access for people with disabilities. The second runner-up was a team which pitched a pocketable smart therapy for vaginismus—a common condition among women in Asia—consisting of remote-controlled hardware that serves as a dilator and a software application with therapy and controls.
Team Closr have proceeded with their idea and are actively prototyping and preparing to pitch to investors. The hackathon also created post-event conversations in the press around people with disabilities and the gap in accessibility to sex ed and services.
Are you looking to target the Asia-Pacific region?
Spark Fest has started in Singapore, but we always planned it with the Asia region—and mentalities—in mind. We’ve had speakers from China, Australia, and Hong Kong, for example. At this year’s festival, we had attendees come in from Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, and more. We’ve received interest from others to bring Spark Fest to their city in the region and are trying to work out how best to make that happen.
For more on how health and wellness is evolving in Asia, see our “The Well Economy: Asia Edition” report.