Over the past 18 months, as many of us struggled to keep the various parts of our lives together, women’s health and wellbeing fell to the wayside. But looking after ourselves — including maintaining medical appointments, resting when we’re unwell, regularly exercising, prioritising our sleep and eating nutritious meals– is a critical part of staying focused, productive and motivated in all aspects of of our lives.
Another huge contributing factor? Maintaining sexual wellness.
“Sexual wellness is a grossly underserved aspect of human health,” says Isharna Walsh, founder and CEO of sexual wellness app, Coral. “Most of us don’t have the tools or skills we need improve our intimate lives.”
But while intimacy between couples has taken a dip during the pandemic, the global sexual wellness market was predicted to grow by 7 percent, with a forecasted trajectory of reaching $39 billion by 2024. Walsh’s company is part of the growing awareness of both positive social impacts and the business opportunity within the space of women’s health tech and innovation.
Coral is tackling deep-seated taboos around women’s health, solo sex practices and sexual wellness.
“We want to destigmatise sex and intimacy for everyone,” she says. “To make sexual wellness as normalised as a healthy diet and exercise.”
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Walsh became interested in tech while working as an investor at a venture capitalist firm, where she realised that “tech was the clear tool to turn to in hopes of igniting a cultural shift around sexual wellness.”
Women’s Agenda sat down with Walsh recently for a chat on all things sex and tech:
How have you found the pandemic?
That’s a big question. It’s tough to answer succinctly because there have been so many phases and waves. I think all in all, I’ve never been more aware of my privileges. The pandemic has devastated the lives of so many across the globe. Any hardships I’ve had are hardly worth mentioning.
I’ve been in Australia since March, which as you know has been relatively stable, but most of my team is in the US, and their daily experience has been much more greatly impacted. Many haven’t seen family, or even had a friend over for dinner, for the better part of a year. Witnessing their commitment to the change that Coral is trying to make in the world under the circumstances has been inspiring.
From a personal perspective, I’ve used the extra time at home to get really clear on my priorities: my work, my health and my most meaningful relationships. I’ve kept up my meditation practice and added a daily pilates or yoga session to care for my body. I’ve also been spending lots of quality time with people I haven’t had this much time with in years. After living far away for over 7 years, I’m particularly grateful to be so close to family, especially all the kids. You miss so many lovely childhood moments when you’re far away!
From a logistical, business perspective, the start of the pandemic may have been the hardest. We didn’t know how bad the economic or social toll would be on our community, and if Coral would continue to feel relevant. I’d also just rented a new office for my team in Los Angeles, and almost immediately we were thrust into navigating remote work, not to mention fear and anxiety around a virus that was at that point almost a complete unknown. I’m proud to say that we adjusted to remote work quickly, and supported one another as best we could.
For example, our resident sex and intimacy coach Zoe Kors is also a trained meditation teacher, so during the thick of it we gathered for weekly team meditations on Zoom. Creative ways to stay connected — and calm — have been essential to morale.
What changed during lockdown for people and their sexual behaviours?
Quite a lot. Our advisors Dr. Kristen Mark and Dr. Justin Lehmiller at the Kinsey Institute published a fascinating study on the pandemic’s influence on relationships and sexual behaviour in 2020. To my eye, one of the most interesting findings is that almost half (42.3%) of people felt that their sex life had declined — and that was early on in the pandemic.
Since then, Dr. Mark has observed in preliminary, unpublished research that all sexual behaviors (from solo masturbation to partnered sex) remained incredibly low throughout the bulk of the the pandemic, and that dyadic sexual desire (desire for sex with a partner) steadily decreased from March 2020 through December. (Perhaps unsurprisingly considering those stats, there have also been some recent news items about dramatically lower birth rates during and immediately following the pandemic.)
These are staggering statistics, and considering what we know about the impact of sexual satisfaction on overall happiness and health, they’re also very concerning. What will be the psychological and social ramifications of that decline? The answer is still unfolding. The pandemic has been an almost unprecedented stressor in many people’s lives, and stress quite literally inhibits desire and arousal. Of course, also know that sex can help alleviate stess, so we’ve been caught in a challenging cycle.
I will note, however, that the Kinsey study also found that when people did have sex during lockdown they tended to be more open to trying new things. (Unsurprisingly, phone and video sex were also up; human beings are resourceful.) That willingness to try new things is really reflected in Coral’s numbers: our downloads have increased significantly over the course of the pandemic, and we’re seeing that, for example, our guided audio exercises are becoming more and more popular. I think lockdown was clearly disruptive to people’s intimate lives, but the tide is shifting.
After the past year, it’s hard to take your health for granted, and as an essential pillar of health and well-being, I think there may be willingness to view sex in that context.
You studied law at ANU. What was your plan at that point?
I always wanted to have a career with social impact, but I assumed it would be through a public policy or legal lense. Through trial and error during my studies, however, I realized that law and government wasn’t my path. In my last year of law school I turned down a graduate role at a highly respected law firm. (My poor Sri Lankan Mum! She was none-too-happy at the time, but she’s come around since then.) I turned my focus toward business as a way of affecting social change as my university years drew to a close.
You grew up in Canberra. Tell us about that upbringing.
It’s a nice place to grow up. From a global perspective I had a very stable upbringing. I went to a good school. I had free access to health care and education. Money was sometimes a source of stress in my family, but my parents were deeply loving. I’m sure the fact that Canberra is the seat of government affected my upbringing and early ambitions. Entrepreneurship wasn’t on my radar at all; stable government jobs or professional services were presented as the road to happiness. There aren’t many Silicon Valley types in Canberra!
You moved to California in 2015. Why?
I was fascinated by tech and the impact it was having on our lived experience. I really wanted to work for a tech company of less than 100 people, and happened to find one that would hire me in LA!
What do you think about “Wellness” and how is CORAL trying to make it less of an elitist space?
Coral is a wellness product, so I’m obviously quite passionate about improving people’s health and well-being, but I’m also aware that wellness has come to mean various things to various people. There’s a cultural conversation happening around the idea that patriarchal tools like diet culture, for example, have been rebranded as wellness. I’m sensitive to that connotation, and to the idea that wellness can also connote luxury products or lifestyles, but I’m interested in wellness in its purest form. In other words, branding aside, I’m interested in helping people live better lives.
Coral’s an app, which anyone can access. We have to charge for it to be able to build a business, but there is free content too. I believe that everyone is entitled to a science-based resource for better sexual fulfillment. Whether we’re reaching someone who received abstinence-only sex education and is just beginning to explore their sexuality, or someone who’s taken a tantra workshop, I want empower them to prioritize greater intimacy and pleasure in their lives.
You’ve said in a past interview: “I prioritise diversity in hiring. Our team is international and varied in age, which is a huge strength: we don’t reinforce a homogenous culture or worldview within our company and by extension what we put into the world.”
How do you make sure you follow this goal?
Diversity in hiring is all about working against unconscious bias. Being aware of our unconscious biases is the first step toward accounting for them in our lives and in our businesses, they are notoriously difficult to change so I’m careful to continuously interrogate myself on that point. We also advertise in places targeted toward more diverse candidates. I’m not scared of international hires or accents. I’m not worried about whether someone is “too young” or “too old.”
We have team members from all over the globe, and they range in age from their 20s to their 50s, which is very unusual for a tech company of our stage. When we grow the business to a point when I’m not the main force in recruiting, it will be interesting to determine how we codify that, but it’s deeply important to me, so we’ll figure it out.
You’ve said in a past interview: “Our downloads have actually skyrocketed since the pandemic. Last Spring, our colleagues at the Kinsey Institute discovered that …one in five people reported trying something new.”
Why do you think people were trying something new?
I think there are a few reasons. When we polled our community about their sex lives during the pandemic, a minority (21%) of respondents reported having more sex than usual, but 82% of them attributed the boon in their sex lives to something incredibly simple: more free time. Without commutes or other responsibilities outside of the home, many people found the time to try things they may have always been interested in but never found the right moment to explore. I also think that people may have been indulging in some healthy escapism.
The pandemic is a stressor, and if you live with a partner, a sexual experience is an adventure you can have without ever leaving the home. Lastly, when we asked Coralers whether the pandemic had made intimacy and connection more important in their lives, 63% of respondents said yes. That’s another huge shift. Studies have shown that novelty improves sexual satisfaction, and I think many people began trying something new as a way to feel alive. Think of it as a YOLO effect.
What has your extensive travel given to you that has made you a better entrepreneur?
A more diverse perspective. When you’ve seen a diversity of lived experiences and ways of being, you’re more open to different possibilities outside your norm. It also expanded the types of interpersonal experiences I’ve had, which helps foster empathy for a broader range of people. That’s important because of the broad demographic that Coral is trying to serve.
Also, when you travel widely at a young age without a lot of money you learn not to panic, which is a very useful skill. As an entrepreneur, you have to not panic, even when all signs point to PANIC!