Courtney is on a first date. While her focus is on the man sitting across from her, every so often she glances beyond him, where sex-advice guru Shan Boodram sits at a discreet distance.
The Toronto-bred YouTube personality is holding up various flash cards for Courtney: A smile (make sure that’s the first thing he sees!), a newspaper (share good news), an XXX (expose your neck and stroke your glass suggestively). Finally, she holds up a picture of a toilet. It’s a reminder for Courtney to excuse herself to the washroom, making sure to caress her date’s shoulder on the way. Once there, she is to reapply her vaginal fluids in lieu of perfume, dabbing them on the neck, collarbone and wrists.
Yes, really. Boodram swears this technique makes her feel like a “an enchanted goddess with a delicious secret.”
This is how Boodram’s latest book, The Game of Desire, opens. And the scene, despite Courtney’s divided attention, ends successfully. She scores a second date before the evening is over and declares, “This sh-t works!”
Courtney is one of six women who spent a summer with Boodram to try out her “scientific method” for gaming the dating game. This “sh-t” is Boodram’s five-step system to “empower single women everywhere to have more fun than they can imagine while using tangible tools and a strategy to fulfil their wildest intimate aspirations.”
Boodram calls The Game of Desire — already a bestselling dating book on Amazon — a “female answer” to pickup artistry, the male-dominated subculture that suggests the dating “game” is ruled by laws of human psychology that can be reliably deployed to get women into bed. Boodram says she leaves the misogynistic elements of the culture behind but retained its core message: “The art of seduction” is a skill that can be learned.
There’s a big problem with this approach, says Lori Brotto, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sex and intimacy issues: “The notion is super-appealing: That (attraction) is under your control and you can change it. And not only your own (ability to attract others), but others’ attraction to you,” says Brotto. But that’s just not true, said Brotto, who is also the director of the sexual health laboratory at the University of British Columbia. There’s no proven way to make someone feel attracted to you if they don’t.
Boodram bristles at this contention. “What about the simple research that even walking into a room and smiling makes you more attractive?” she asks. “Some colours are more attractive than other colours. They evoke different emotions via colour psychology.”
Boodram promotes the “sexy triangle” technique: Look someone in the eye, let your gaze wander down their body, meet their eyes and smile again. There is some evidence that heterosexual men rate women who are smiling as more attractive, but it’s based on their impressions of photos. As for colours, research suggests men are more attracted to women who are wearing red, but later studies cast doubt on this, and attempts to replicate the findings failed.
The idea that you can make other people like you is just one of the many myths and half-truths that persist in an online culture where pop psychology reigns and influencers are influential. According to Brotto, most people don’t want to talk about or seek help for sexual difficulties, but they do want to learn about them. Hence the rise of the online sexpert. Boodram is one of many. The trouble is, there’s confusion and disagreement about what constitutes expertise in love and sex.
Boodram, for instance, calls herself a sex educator, clinical sexologist and certified sexologist. She earned certificates in sex education and clinical sexology from California’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Human Sexuality. However, the school was shuttered in 2017 by the state’s private-college regulator, who claimed the program “consists entirely of self-paced, remote learning and involves no in-person interaction with faculty members or other students” and “did not establish how the Institute measures students’ progress.”
The field is replete with private, for-profit educational organizations with names like Loveology University, Sex Coach U and Passion University. They offer certification in as little as one to six months and courses in subjects like “life-force energy” — all with the promise of a lucrative career in private practice and additional income from speaking fees, product sponsorships, writing books and even referring other people to take the certification.
We see this lack of formal education in The Game of Desire when Boodram mentions the Kinsey scale, the seven categories of sexual orientation defined by sex-research pioneer Alfred Kinsey in 1948. She refers to the categories X, for grey asexuality, and XX, for asexuality. But the scale includes no such categories. Kinsey did label people with an “X” if they had “no socio-sexual contacts or reactions,” but the term asexual was not used then.
“I’d really want to know if (Boodram) read the scientific literature. The reference to Kinsey being completely wrong suggests that she hasn’t. That’s like Sexuality 101 reading,” Brotto says.
Boodram quickly concedes the point. She says she drew on modern, inclusive adaptations of the scale she’d seen online. “I know (asexuality) was not something that was in the 1950s version,” she says. “I’ll take that on the chin. It’s definitely something I should have said.”
The Game of Desire is as much a tale of self-improvement for the six women Boodram took under her wing as it is a log of their dating experiments. Boodram introduces them to experts, from a hair guru to an executive from the dating site OkCupid. Then, together, they try out different techniques — like the vaginal-fluids-as-perfume trick or whether asking nosy questions fosters intimacy or turns people off.
Boodram found the participants by putting out a call on social media for single women in the Los Angeles area who were frustrated with dating. She interviewed scores, aiming for diversity and eliminating candidates based on disagreeable personality traits, being insufficiently committed to finding a long-term partner, and having life transitions, travel plans or distractions going on that could prevent them from committing to her system.
The method is “not scientific whatsoever,” Brotto says. “There’s no comparison group. The participants were not selected in a systematic way.” In other words, Boodram may have chosen people who were already comfortable in their sexuality and predisposed to succeed. This is potentially a pretty big problem when the point of the project was to develop dating secrets that are applicable to anyone who picks up the book. Boodram said she used the term “scientific method” to refer to the project overall, not the selection of the women.
While Boodram’s philosophy raises Brotto’s eyebrow, the psychologist says that there is hope for people who feel they’re unlucky in love. A sex therapist — a qualified therapist such as a psychologist, psychotherapist or social worker, not a “sexologist” or a “love coach” — can absolutely work with someone who believes they’re unattractive and struggling with making connections, Brotto says.
Natalie Rosen, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist who runs the couples and sexual-health research laboratory at Dalhousie University, agrees. Boodram chose to focus her book on six women who “have their sh-t together.” In reality, most people who seek sex therapy have more than one problem, Rosen says. Issues with sex and love, she adds, often relate to anxiety, depression, trauma or relationship issues outside of sex.
That’s why so little sex advice is universally applicable, and one-on-one assessment is key. Rosen sees clients all the time who’ve picked up misinformation from the popular media. Many are hung up on the idea that male and female brains are fundamentally different, or think they’re having less sex than everyone else when they’re exactly average.
There is one thing Boodram, Brotto and Rosen all agree on, however: Sex matters.
“The science tells us — the actual research — that there are direct links between having a satisfying and pleasurable sexual relationship and your health,” Rosen says. She adds that sex helps foster strong intimate relationships, and intimate relationships are just as important for overall health as things like having an active lifestyle, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight.
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Boodram says she wrote her book “because I wanted people to understand how massively important connections are. There’s a (part) of the population who don’t look at themselves as desirable, don’t look at themselves as attractive. I’m trying to empower those individuals.”
Brotto says most people who are having difficulties with sex and love don’t seek help, and books like Boodram’s — which she praises for its stigma-smashing approach and accessible writing style — are filling a gap. She just wishes they would draw more from the large body of scientific literature on the topic and ditch the “secret recipe” rhetoric.
She compares it to the celebrity-backed, but unsubstantiated, wellness advice from Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP. It’s so much more appealing than the idea of going to therapy and working on yourself, long-term: “I just can’t compete.”