The debut season of The Trainee Sexologist was a stand-out hit, picking up fans of all ages around the country AND winning Best Entertainment Podcast at the 2020 NZ Radio Awards. Morgan Penn is the sexologist half of the presenting pair, alongside The Edge’s Sharyn Casey, and she absoluuutely loves her job as a somatic sexologist/pleasure activist. She talks to Capsule about her journey to picking this career path, why good sex comes down to curiosity and what it’s like dating when this is your day job.
When people ask Morgan Penn what she does for a living, she doesn’t beat around the bush (so to speak). As a sexologist, she’s “loud and proud about it”, she laughs.
“I definitely don’t try and soften the blow. “I say, ‘I support people to be more in their bodies, to have better sex and to connect with their sexuality.’” The first reaction is most often, “Wow, what? That’s a thing!” and there’s a lot of open mouths and shocked silence. But then, she says, comes the questions.
“If I’m at a dinner party or somewhere where people are have had a couple of drinks, it’s all on,” she laughs. Sharyn Casey, her The Trainee Sexologist co-host, also gets her fair share of questions as well. “I’ll get texts from Sharyn in the middle of the night saying, ‘F—k, I’m out and someone’s asked about this… what can I say to them?’”
The whole realm of sexuality – what it looks like, how it feels, what works for other people – is simultaneously so secretive and yet so fascinating, it’s no wonder we’re all filled with such curiosity about something that almost everyone does and yet very few people ever talk about. Curiosity is, in fact, the name of the game: being curious about our bodies, our pleasure, and other people’s bodies and pleasure is what Morgan is passionate about promoting. Her journey to becoming a trained sexologist started off simply enough, she says. “I knew that I wanted to be in service to people and I’ve always just loved sex! I couldn’t understand why it was taboo and ‘bad’.”
Her first foray into the personal growth area was by training as a life coach, but she found it lacked depth. “I realised I wanted to work with the body, so I looked into that. When I found out there was such a job as a sexologist, I was like ‘That’s for me, that’s what I want to do.’” There were two directions to go in – the clinical psychology route, or the more hands-on approach. “I’m a bit of a hippy and I wanted to do that holistic work. For me, it’s important because it’s about the integration of mind and body. The brain is the biggest sex organ and then sex is something we do with the body.”
The first season of The Trainee Sexologist saw both Morgan and Sharyn getting introduced to the world of sexology, through Morgan’s training, and being – as Morgan says – “quite shocked by the things I was having to do and the places I was having to put my fingers.” Yes, when she describes it as ‘hands-on work’, it’s important you know that’s truly not a euphemism. In her introduction to the remote-learning course (the school is run out of Australia), Morgan had to have a Zoom with the organiser of the school.
“One thing he said to me was, ‘…the most confronting exercise is giving an anal massage, so at this point I’m just making sure you’re comfortable with that.’” At that stage, Morgan says, she couldn’t even imagine doing that to herself, let alone to someone else. “But there was something in my body that was still saying yes, and I just had to trust that.”
Three years of training later, it’s clear the work has been life-changing. “I call myself a pleasure activist – I want everyone to feel comfortable in their own skin, to know their genitals. If they saw their genitals in a big line-up of other genitals, I want them to know: that’s mine.” Again, not a euphemism. “My vulva had a photoshoot for a friend of mine who was making a vulva book called Flip Through My Flaps,” Morgan laughs (You have to imagine that the quality of sex-related puns in this work area is truly one of the hidden delights). “I did it because I want women to see themselves in me, I want this normalisation of what a vulva looks like. Labiaplasty is the fastest-growing surgery in the Western world and, to me, that’s heartbreaking.”
The rise of internet porn and the incredibly easy access to it have shaped an entire generation’s idea of what genitals are supposed to look like and – perhaps even more disturbingly – what sex is supposed to be like. “Probably one of the most dangerous aspects is that something like 80% of porn has got violence towards women in it – and you never see normal things like putting on a condom, or asking for consent.”
“Porn can be useful as a medium – there are some people out there making beautiful, ethical porn – but when kids are using it for sex education or to see if they’re normal, to see what’s going on in the world, then it’s dangerous. It’s a show – it’s not real. And we need to look at it that way.”
When it comes to the client work she does – or the questions she fields along the way – so much of it comes down to “am I normal?”, Morgan says. Lack of libido – or mismatched libidos within a relationship – are definitely the number one topic she tackles, but there’s also a tremendous amount of work done in helping people feel more in touch and comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality, particularly for mums dealing with their post-partum bodies and sex drives.
The type of therapy Morgan does is called Somatic Sexology which she describes as working with the body. “It means I can perform one-way touch on people, if they consent, and that includes genitals. Quite often it can be very powerful, especially for vagina owners, because they’ve often only ever been touched in a sexual or medical way. So being touched with no agenda and in a loving, safe way – with an educational purpose – is, like, mind-blowing. And really, really healing.”
Helping people through past sexual trauma is a huge part of the job, Morgan says. “There’s a confusion between pleasure centres, because when your tapu, your sacred places, have experienced pleasure and then have been violated, your body can’t make sense of it. And then there’s the shame that piles on top of that.”
Even for those who haven’t been through sexual trauma, the mental health aspect of sexuality is immense, she says. “It’s one of the biggest problems that people come to me with – they’re in their own head, they’re not in their body, so they’re missing out on so much pleasure.” Because so many of us are so stressed out, we’re living in our nervous system, our ‘flight or fight’ mode, which can impact our ability to become aroused. “It goes way back to our cave man days, where it’s all about survival – the last thing we’re thinking about is procreating when we’re running away from danger. We need to be getting that cortisol out of our body before we can start to think about feeling arousal in our body.”
Because so much of her work is about helping people move through their own emotions – and because, so often, there’s trauma at the heart of it – Morgan says she has to be very careful at keeping her own emotional and physical health in check. “Everything I do comes back to regulating my nervous system; that’s what keeps me grounded and calm and gives me the capacity to hold other people’s stuff.” Going for cold water swims, ideally three times a week, is a key part of that. “All these people walking around so disembodied, something like that is going to hit you and put you back in your body, real quick.”
Morgan is also single and if you think being a sexologist might be a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the whole dating world, you would be correct. “I’m single and I’m having the best sex of my life at the moment – with myself,” she grins. “I’m not an active dater at the moment; I can’t really be bothered. In the past I was a lot more free with my body but through doing this work, my self-worth has really gone up. I don’t want to share my body with anyone, unless I have a real heart connection.”
“I went on one date recently and it was a really nice date – great conversation – and then he dropped me home and went in for this hot make-out session… and then he put his hand on my throat and started applying pressure,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Ah, okay… I think we’re just going to stop there.’ And then there was this moment where he said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I just assumed you’d be into some really kinky stuff.’ That gave me a bit of a fright.”
So it’s not only navigating a world where, because of her job, men think she’s going to be “an absolutely wild brumbie out there in the sack,” it’s also dealing with the fact that potential dates have been a bit intimidated by their perception of what her expectations are going to be. “Lots of men have asked me, ‘do you expect a man who’s really skilled in bed?’ and I don’t!”
One more, she says, it comes down to curiosity. “Every new body or any time you have sex with someone, even if you’ve had sex with them for years, you can also do something new or experience something different by asking them some really simple questions: does this feel good? How can I make this feel better for you? Having those conversations can give you so much more information about another person’s body.”
Because that’s all this curiosity is leading us towards – gathering more information about what we like in bed; either by ourselves or with a partner. That’s why The Trainee Sexologist podcast has been a smash hit, by providing a safe space for people to ask and learn about all things sex-related. “The first season was about dipping my toes into sexuality and this time it’s about going deeper – I want to explore all the nooks and crannies that people aren’t talking about.” Whether it’s interviewing sex workers, talking about sex parties, masturbation or looking at the more political sides of sexuality like abortion or conversion therapy, Morgan says “there’s nothing that’s being left untouched, this season.”
While their audience tends to skew towards people in their 20s and 30s, they’ve also had a lot of feedback from people in their 50s and 60s. “I had a message from a guy the other day who said ‘I’m a 54-year-old dad, so I don’t think I can really be commenting on your Instagram posts but I just wanted to say ‘Rock on sister, you’ve changed my sex life,’” Morgan says. “It’s brilliant to be talking to such a broad spectrum of people.”
Taking sexuality seriously but taking the pressure of the act itself is a great balance to strike, she says. “I think people worry that things need to always be building, building, building but when you think about sex as an experience, as opposed to a goal-orientated thing, then you can stop and have a glass of water, have a giggle and change positions, then it’s a much nicer, expansive experience.”