Shan Boodram and I are not on a date, but we might as well be. I’m sitting across from the Toronto-born sex educator, YouTube personality and author in a cozy nook of Toronto café Coffee Oysters Champagne — yes, all three things in this restaurant’s title are noted aphrodisiacs. There are sparkly lights above our heads and romantic greenery surrounding our table. It’s the perfect date spot. "I feel like I need to lean in and sit a little straighter,” I tell Boodram, laughing nervously like I’m about to fail a test and charming the teacher is my only way out. After all, Boodram assesses the dating skills of women for a living. That’s the premise of her new book, The Game of Desire: 5 Surprising Secrets to Dating with Dominance — and Getting What You Want, in which she documents the six months she spent coaching six women in an attempt to improve their love lives. There are five steps to Boodram’s system of seduction, but the overall theme is, "love and self-discovery go hand in hand."
Boodram’s brand of relationship advice is a welcome departure from the misogynistic Neil Strauss-sanctioned pick-up artistry we've become all too familiar with. It focuses on empowering single women with the tools they need to succeed in the digital dating era. And people are listening: She has almost half a million subscribers on her YouTube, on which she dishes out guidance on everything from sexual health to open relationships to how to dance sexily.
Even though she’s been a staple in the online sex-educator world for over a decade, Boodram’s education — or perceived lack thereof — is a topic that comes up often in interviews. In 2016, the New York Times pegged her as one of the "Sex-Ed Queens of YouTube [Who] Don’t Need a PhD." The day I meet up with Boodram is the day after the National Post published a piece on The Game of Desire that chides Boodram's “lack of formal education,” and quotes an expert who compares her work to the “unsubstantiated wellness advice from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop.” A few weeks ago, Boodram defended herself when actress Sarah Shahi dismissed her credibility on Access Hollywood. (Shahi said, “I want sex advice from someone like Dr. Ruth." She later apologized.) Boodram’s response, in which she listed off her 13 years of credentials including writing her first best seller LAID in 2009, her years of research, her certification from the University of Toronto as a sex-education counsellor, her ambassador roles for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and WomensHealth.gov and her membership in the American Sexual Health Association, went viral.
Boodram didn’t read the Post piece because she sensed it would be more of the same condescension she’s used to — criticism she says her older, whiter counterpart Dan Savage, for example, doesn’t seem to get as much, even though he, too, does not have a PhD. “If I make people uncomfortable, I'm comfortable with that,” she says. Here, Boodram addresses the haters, debunks the biggest dating myths, and breaks down what it takes to be a good flirt.
Let’s get the criticism out of the way. The National Post threw shots at your role in an “online culture where pop psychology reigns and influencers are influential.” Because you are a YouTube personality, it seems like your credibility is always being questioned. Are you tired of having to defend your right to do your job?
I'm not supposed to show up in the spaces that I do. I'm younger and I am a woman of colour. I don't have the traditional educational path. I don't have a doctor in my name so I have to expect there's going to be criticism. My thing has always been to be a barrier breaker for the average person. My ability to reach the general population and to dumb down really intellectual and often unapproachable information is a gift and I am useful to the field. I am a part of the team. I'm not competing with the team, I'm not trying to act like I'm the coach of the team, but I'm a really important part of the team.
The title of your book is The Game of Desire. I think that when people hear the word “game” in dating, they think it’s negative.
This is a reclaiming of the word "game." What's a game? It's a bonding activity that people partake in where everyone understands the objectives and has an equal shot at getting what they want. Even if they don't, they're supposed to enjoy themselves. I did a project for CBC last year and it was a multi-generational sex-ed class with people from 18 to 70 years old. Desire came up with every single person — the 34-year-old white male who lived in the Prairies who wondered if his wife desired him anymore; the 78-year-old woman asking "will I ever feel desired again?”; the 18-year-old saying "I have no idea what I desire.” The pursuit of desire should be fun, consensual and it should be everybody getting an equal shot at what they want. I just want people to start having fun with dating again.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that you should just “be yourself” on a date. What's your take on that?
If I just say, "just be yourself," I'm neglecting the fact that whatever self you've been showing up with clearly hasn't given you the results you're looking for. I use the comparison of someone failing to make the basketball team years in a row, and me saying, "just be yourself." If someone is struggling, and the advice is not to change anything, it's counterintuitive. Often times, there's something that you have to adjust. There's a part of yourself that you're not bringing to a date.
What would you say to someone about bringing their “best self” on a date?
If you know that you're best suited doing physical activities, put yourself on a date where you guys are going bowling or doing something competitive. You want to show up as a version of you that you like the best. You’ve got to set the environment to ensure that happens. If you know you're an introvert, don't go to a bar. If you know you're going to shrink in those environments, don't put yourself in a position to become the version of you that hasn't been getting results.
In the book, you write about ghosting. I think the myth is that the responsibility lies with the person who did the ghosting. You disagree.
If you go for a job interview, and you don't get it. It's not that the employer is an asshole, it's that you weren't a fit. If it's consistently happening to you, there's probably something that you're doing that's blocking your own blessing. In the book, we talk about source fractures. A source fracture is something that happened to you years ago [that stays with you]. Let’s say at a job, your boss said to you, "Well, you're just not pretty enough to be that mean" so you became a people pleaser because you thought to yourself, "I'm not pretty enough to have an opinion." You developed this whole persona around this lie that was told to you. A lot of the women in the book, something like that happened to them and they developed this defence mechanism based on it. You could kind of see why somebody would... opt out of the connection. If you're ghosted, you should think like, "Damn, what did I do that was so repelling?"
In some cases though, isn’t it just that the person ghosting is a dick?
In some cases, sure, but I will say this: The lie women tend to tell each other — that people ghost because the woman is so excellent and that person's a dick because they can't measure up to how good she is — that's been true twice. The other times, it's because there's something about you that was repelling to them. But don't get me wrong, you don't have to go around fixing yourself for each person.
What do you think is the biggest myth about seduction?
That you've got to be Rihanna, that you have to ooze and drip sex. That's one small, tiny way to be a good seductress. The rest of it is how you show up in conversations, how you present yourself and, most importantly, how you feel about yourself… A part of seduction is being seduced by yourself. The outward [reaction] is a bonus.
Finally, most importantly, am I a good flirt?
You're mirroring me. You've never sat back. You're engaged. You never break eye contact. You're not looking at my body but you're looking at me in the eyes. It's respectful.
I used to be a terrible flirt.
I'm sure at one point in your life you were like, "I cannot tie my shoelaces." You learned. We act like these parts of our personality are set in stone. The book preaches that you are whomever you consistently decide to be. If you don't want to be that person anymore, it might take some work, but you can do it. I'm still trying to fix parts of myself. It'll be a long time, but I'm a lot better than I used to be.