Mal Harrison is a clinical sexologist, eroticism philosopher, relationship and sexual development coach, TEDx speaker, and founder of the Center for Erotic Intelligence. In 2011, she revolutionized the understanding of the female orgasm with her research on the internal clitoris. By conducting and participating in research herself, Harrison understands the deep power of education and has seen first-hand how knowledge empowers. In her work as a lecturer, she explores how the erotic mind can empower our everyday lives, offering fresh insights on cultivating erotic intelligence. She is one heck of a pioneering babe.
You are a speaker, writer, educator, and sexologist that is always traveling around the world. How do you take care of yourself when you're not working?
I studied opera years ago and still love to sing. I also play a few instruments and compose — this is my personal form of meditation — it puts me in a state of transcendence. Other than that, I exercise regularly and try to connect with nature as much as possible. I love hiking and being near water. Nature is pretty much a regular requirement for sanity, having lived in NYC for the past 18 years! My partner and I also cook a lot together, which I love. To me, cooking is a creative cathartic pursuit that nurtures the body and soul. Plus, sharing it with others makes me happy. And of course, masturbation is a regular part of maintaining a sense of independence, self-reliance, awareness, and relaxation.
Setting boundaries is also a major form of self-care we don’t discuss enough. Many of us are culturally conditioned to be people pleasers, so we say “yes” to everything, even at the expense of ourselves. After the exhaustion happens, resentment sets in, which isn’t healthy for any friendship or relationship. Setting healthy boundaries has become imperative. If I want time for myself and for my family, I can’t accept every invitation and I’m totally fine with that.
What inspired you to start talking and educating about sex and romance?
Watching my mother in abusive toxic relationships, including with my codependent father who has been married six times. Relationships can be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to a person, or they can literally be fatal. A big part of my work has been studying the neuroscience of love and human connection. Had my mother been empowered with knowing how the brain operates in love, she admits she would have made different decisions, rather than just believing that love conquers all.
People uproot their entire lives and make irrational, major life-altering choices under the influence of love, especially limerence — the first phase of feeling in love that stimulates the prefrontal cortex. It’s the most powerful drug available to humans and it’s 100 percent natural! Think about it — people kill and die for love! The quality of our lives depends on the quality of our relationships, but nowhere are we being taught the neuroscience behind it, what healthy relationships should look like, or advanced interpersonal skills.
Sex has always been a really easy topic for me to discuss, as it was never something shameful or embarrassing in my family. Dinner conversations were usually filled with innuendo and humor — though a lot of it probably went over my head when I was younger. My freshman year of college, I garnered the nickname “the dildo girl,” after the RA searched my room, found my toys, and gossiped to the entire dorm. I had one of two choices: hide my head in shame or own it. As soon as I owned it, girls started asking me questions: “How do I know if I’ve had an orgasm? How do I have an orgasm?” I was absolutely flabbergasted to realize there were girls my age who hadn’t orgasmed, much less tried masturbating.
That’s when I realized I had to help. As I further researched female sexuality and anatomy in comparison to my own experience and the experiences I was hearing from others, I noticed the rampant inequality that exists within the medical-industrial complex, pop-culture, media, and not to mention — the massive orgasm gap. I hate injustice. So, part of why I do what I do is to bring more justice, equality, and pleasure into the lives of all humans.
What puts the biggest smile on your face about what you do?
Making a difference in the lives of others. It’s the most meaningful part and why I do what I do!
To hear that a couple I’m working with has started having meaningful sex and connection again. To see the woman who doubts herself with negative self-talk finally practice loving herself again and truly embody her self-worth. To learn that a girl who was sexually assaulted on campus is grateful she had CEI’s (Center for Erotic Intelligence) go-to tool kit as a resource, so she knew exactly what steps to follow in order to report it and seek help (though I wish we lived in a world where we didn’t need such a tool kit). To hear from people — especially women — who are finally experiencing orgasm and owning their pleasure. It’s a gift to witness people’s resiliency and watch them unravel and transform into living their empowered authentic selves — nothing beats that!
Is there a piece of advice that someone gave you that has shifted your outlook or your perspective on something?
Stop comparing yourself to others. This is so imperative in the age of social media. As Brené Brown so wonderfully said, “Comparison is the root of all conformity.” You are unique and the only person in the entire world who can do what you do. When energy is spent focusing on the successes or failures of another, it takes away time and energy you could be focusing on yourself.
You're a huge reason that the world now knows about the internal clitoris. As clitoris-owning people, we're not really taught about our bodies or our own fertility — whether we want to have a family in the future or not. How do you think having this info can give us more power to guide our lives?
The more you self-educate, the more you’re able to be a player in the decisions you make about your body. Expertise, especially when it comes to bodies and the reproductive system, is naturally intertwined with a provider’s personal beliefs and bias. I see it all the time when clients come to me after having been to multiple marriage counselors or therapists who tried to inject their own ideas and beliefs in the clients’ lives. For example, when providers don’t know how to handle trans clients in transition or view open relationships as wrong and detrimental.
I see it when OB-GYNs are clueless about the internal clitoris or when I hear tragic stories of patients whose orgasmic capabilities have been damaged during a labiaplasty, hysterectomy, or other surgical procedure. The worst is when I hear how a doctor tells someone they’re just crazy or it’s all in their head when they complain of pain during sex or bring up other concerns. Being empowered enables us to see through bias. Keeping people in the dark about their bodies is a form of oppression, so the greatest weapon against that oppression is knowledge. We must know better than to blindly trust someone simply because they have “Dr.” before their name. There are plenty of great doctors out there, but plenty of lousy ones, too. Get second opinions. Be brave enough to talk to those in your community. I encourage people to do their own research and discover various ways conditions are treated around the world.
You work with a lot of couples and many tend to have difficulty keeping romance a priority when they have children. Do you have any words of wisdom to offer?
Just do it. Yes, you will have to carve out time and work at dating again. Yes, you will have to plan sex and it won’t just fall from the sky spontaneously like it used to — this goes for couples in long-term relationships without kids, too. Sex is like going to the gym. You’ll have a million excuses why you can’t go today — I’m too tired, I’m not in the mood, I don’t feel well, I’ll go tomorrow. Plenty of people regret not going to the gym, but I’ve never had anyone tell me they regretted going to the gym. Sex and romance are the same. Erotic intelligence is literally a creative feat in seeing your partner with a new set of eyes, and working to be creative in how you engage with each other — whether it’s planning a scavenger hunt for your partner to find hints and surprises as a date, or randomly mailing a sexy, romantic postcard to your partner at your own address.
Be conscientious about calibrating balance. Take time for yourself as an individual but take time as a couple, too. Plan date nights where the rules are: You can’t talk about the kids, bills, work, the house, or any of that life-building stuff. Talk about what’s inspired you the most the past six months, your dreams, your fears, your fantasies, places you want to travel to together. Dive into all the magical, uncomfortable stuff with your partner — that’s the sweet spot where you grow closer. And by all means, have lots of maintenance sex. It might seem weird or boring, but the same way going to the gym makes those moments of spontaneously running a mile on the beach possible and fun, it also makes those moments of mind-blowing, WOW-WHOA-OMG sex possible!