Former lawyer Mel from Voluptasse explains how she challenged academic snobbery by presenting an in-depth study of sex toys as part of her Masters degree – and discusses why sex bloggers might want to back up sex with scholarship.
I have a background in Insolvency Law, believe it or not, but seven years ago I turned my back on what I felt was a misogynist industry and opened my own online sex toy store, Voluptasse, instead. Online retail naturally led to blogging and I discovered that I enjoyed the writing side of the job more than actually selling. Within a couple of years I had established myself as a reliable niche writer in the sex toy industry and had my own ETO column too.
Much as I loved the industry, though, financial survival wasn’t easy. I have five children to support, and both sex writing and sex toy retail were becoming increasingly competitive. In addition, I was starting to find sex toy reviewing tedious – it’s hard to imagine if you’re not a reviewer, I’m sure, but trust me, nothing stays exciting when you’re forced to do it day after day!
My interest in sexual health and sex education developed naturally. Watching industry trends, I could see how sexual health services in the UK were being cut by the Government and I realised sex writers could provide information that people couldn’t access via the NHS any more. My own children were also getting a little older and sex ed for them was an issue I was starting to think about.
That was when I decided to study for a Masters of Science in Sexual Health. It was a tough choice to make because of the loss of income, but with the help of a student loan I knew my family could just about manage. A bigger fear for me was the academic challenge itself: I hadn’t studied full time for over a decade. Would my brain be up to it?
A Master’s Degree with five children and a writing career was never going to be easy, but I was unprepared for the intensity of the workload. Each module required a 4,000-word assignment and I also had to complete a 15,000-word dissertation. I chose the subject of Parental Attitudes and Understanding of Sex Education, and conducted a series of interviews with parents in my local area. This gave me a fascinating insight into sex education within the family home, and the discussions taking place between families. Just in case you were wondering, there were often none!
Throughout the course, we also tackled some really tough subjects such as human trafficking, sexual exploitation and female circumcision. I found these subjects very difficult to tackle, both emotionally and physically because the real-life stories were quite harrowing.
The course also opened up a wealth of different networking opportunities. From volunteering with the Brook Charity, or attending a Female Genital Mutilation conference and undertaking additional training in the subject, I met many different organisations who could help to further my career within sexual health.
It was during one of these meetings that I found myself having a personal crisis. I loved the flexibility that writing gave me, especially with childcare, but could I really manage on the long hours and meagre income that writing provides forever? As I got older, and other writers with better jokes, more product knowledge and more time to write came along, would the writing work still be forthcoming? Could I continue to hack self-employment, with no job security?
I discovered my answer, oddly enough, through sex toys. I strongly believe that using sex toys promotes good sexual health. However, academic snobbery on the subject of sex toys for masturbation means that this is a subject that is NEVER covered. I asked my tutors whether they would allow me to study a module on sex toys at an academic level and they agreed.
Writing academically about sex toys completely changed my perspective on the subject. I could delve deep into the science behind the use and creation of sex toys and the ways that they can be used to promote a more fulfilling sex life, for example where one partner is unable to maintain an erection or struggles with vaginismus. This is when I discovered PULSE. Because PULSE DUO stimulates a flaccid penis and pleasures both partners, it is an ideal solution for those who still want to enjoy a fulfilling sex life despite health challenges.
I presented the results of my findings to a panel and received one of my highest grades for this subject. The audience (composed mainly of sexual health nurses) was intrigued at the different ways of using sex toys to assist with problems such as weak erections, premature ejaculation and female sexual dysfunction. Suddenly the academic snobbery was out of the window when it was seen how genuinely useful these products can be.
It was during my study of this topic that my love of sex toys was rejuvenated. Rather than focusing on sexual pleasure and masturbation, looking at the more practical aspects of sex toys unleashed a whole new area of interest for me. I actually started to enjoy writing about them again.
Since completing my MSc in Sexual Health, I have noticed other sex and sexuality writers dipping their toes into academia, whether it’s writing courses themselves or embarking on further study. I believe that the reason for this is that there are more funding opportunities for post graduate study (in the UK at least) now, and because it is becoming increasingly clear that writers need to do more than just write in the current market: they need to STAND OUT. We need an area of expertise, or a back up plan, in case things don’t quite work out.
Before starting an MSc, I was literally unemployable. I never used a pseudonyn during my work as I ran the business throughout the whole of my local area. However, when it came to employment, I had a great CV but wasn’t taken seriously. After graduation (and some volunteer work), I received three job offers and took up a job in sexual health with a busy GUM clinic. I also received paid hours for a charity specialising in sex education. I now also have the tools to work on my own projects and have spoken in schools about the importance of taking care of your sexual health.
Building upon my interests with an academic qualification has helped me to develop my interests and career in new ways. That’s not to say that I think every sex writer should have a qualification: quite the opposite, it’s a personal choice. For me, I found that taking the plunge helped me enormously and will continue to do so in the future. I have exciting projects in the pipeline, I have a new career that I love and I still have the time to write and connect with an audience who have been fiercely loyal to me since I started in 2011.
As we say up North, ‘jobs a good un’ (which basically means that I am happy).