Upfront With Sex Coach Sara Tang On Her Midlife Career Change
Welcome to Upfront With, where we get real with groundbreaking women about their career paths and what it takes to do what they do
It’s hard to imagine now, but Sara Tang had a very sheltered childhood as part of a culturally conservative Chinese family in Singapore’s Methodist community. She felt the impact of that repression when she first became sexually active.
“I made extremely bad decisions and felt very alone because I was too ashamed to buy condoms or talk to anyone,” says Tang, 42 and based in Hong Kong. “Those experiences really shaped my eventual motivation to become a sex coach.”
For many years, Tang worked on and off in sex education, largely as a side hustle while her day job was in brand marketing and strategy. It took some soul searching and courage to commit herself fully to being a sex coach—owning that profession when she introduces herself at dinners and airing personal stories publicly on her podcast.
If you need a thick skin to work in the sex industry, you can expect a sense of fulfilment in return, according to Tang. “It’s a privilege when people let me into their intimate lives, and it lights me up when I see them make transformations around how they view sex or their sexual confidence.”
Learn more about what it's like to be a sex coach in Tang's words below.
On realising that sex coaching can be an actual job
Studying at Stanford in the San Francisco Bay Area, people were very open with their sexual identities and, at 18, it blew my mind. I took a class in human sexuality, but just as an elective. Back in Singapore, I started doing erotic writing and sex researching and blogging; I met a lot of interesting people, and it opened me up to talking about sex.
When I moved to Hong Kong in 2008, I befriended a woman Heather who was studying to be a sexologist, and I shadowed her for a few years. She mentored me in how to talk to people about common sex questions, and she was running a sex toy online store and party business on the side—we called them Tupperware parties, but with a different kind of plastic.
It wasn’t enough to say, “here’s a sex toy, want to buy it,” because people had so little education about sex and anatomy. So the mission became much broader than selling toys, and through hosting these parties, I realised what I really enjoy is talking to people about sex and their intimate lives. When Heather moved back to the US, I took over the business and ran it as Passionately Yours from 2011 to 2015.
What I learned from burning out with my first business
My primary job was in brand and marketing strategy, and for the first two years I did Passionately Yours as a side hustle. It was very labour intensive. I’d bring the toys and a few educational tools to people’s hotel rooms or homes and I burned out from running so many events. I think I did all of the typical things you do with your first business. I threw my heart and soul into it and wasn’t efficient with my energy because it meant so much to me.
When you're starting out, you do often have to do everything. But to scale the business, one of the things I wished I had done earlier was to empower other people to do the parties for me. I wanted to do it all because I had extremely high standards and for the first time my work felt so aligned to my purpose.
How being laid off from a corporate gig became motivating
After shuttering Passionately Yours, it was a relief to go back to a corporate job because it was steady pay and in my comfort zone. But after a couple of years on autopilot, it became boring. In fact, in 2017, I started my podcast on the side because I was feeling unfulfilled. When I got laid off in a cold way, it was the final death knell for my corporate career.
There are so many ways to respond to being laid off. I know it's incredibly disempowering for a lot of people, but I took it as a sign from the universe that I needed to go back and do something meaningful. So I got certified in 2019 and became a full-time sex coach. The great thing about doing a midlife career change is everything feels new and you’re constantly learning again.
Hosting the podcast: “it's been a huge test of my vulnerability”
I didn't know how the podcast was going to be received, and I also thought, wow, I’m sharing a lot about my relationships and struggles with sexual confidence. It feels vulnerable to be so open when you don’t know who is listening. But I knew that if I was going to normalise the way we talk about sex, then I had to share.
This whole journey to being sexually empowered is lifelong work, and it flows and changes and grows. The stories that have caused me the most shame are often what resonate with people most, because shame is something that we don't really talk about. Yet, in terms of sex, I would say almost everyone has felt shame at some point. When we shine a light on topics that are taboo, we bring them out in the open and it's really powerful.
See also: Sex And Intimacy In Hong Kong: How Attitudes Are Evolving
Why being a female sex coach can be an advantage
I'm going to say something that might be quite provocative: I think there are a lot of men who will not work with a male sex therapist because of the masculinity wrapped up with sexual issues. They prefer talking to a woman. More educators and more therapists tend to be women anyway. And interestingly, a lot of the founders of sex tech companies are women. So I don't see being female as a hindrance and I don't feel judged particularly.
A common misconception: “that my sex life is great all the time”
That’s totally unrealistic. I also have dry spells, mismatched libidos and dating disasters—and I also get complacent and stressed. The thing is, I take them as opportunities for growth and I have good tools now to be able to identify the issues and communicate with my partners and find solutions as a team.
Why you need a thick skin to work in the sex industry
It's not an easy industry because ultimately there is the stigma of working in sex in any capacity. There will be people who will not understand what you do—even family and friends—so you have to be prepared for that.
I was very rebellious once I turned 17 and went through a bad patch where I did not get along with my parents. In my later 20s, there was a softening on both sides. I realised that my parents brought me up in a conservative and religious way because that was what they knew and felt was best for me.
When my mom turned 50, I took her out for dinner to celebrate. I remember she said: “I know we've not had the best relationship, but I'm really proud of you because I think that ultimately your stubbornness and rebelliousness, which drove us crazy, is what’s going to make you successful in life.” That was a big shift and meant a lot to me.
Advice for my younger self: “the permission to not be perfect”
When I was younger, I was trying to prove something to the world. I wanted to look like I could do it all, like I knew everything and never made any mistakes. As you get older, you realise you can’t do it all, and you don’t know everything and that’s totally okay.
This growing acceptance and self-awareness has helped me immensely. It’s made me ask for help when I needed it, driven me to keep learning and updating my skills and made me kinder to myself and more empathetic with my clients.
See also: Treat Yourself: Where To Go For Self-Care In Hong Kong
My ultimate goal: “to inspire a sex-positive movement”
I want Asia to be somewhere you can easily access the best sex educators; where we can have open, honest conversations about sex; where parents bring up kids with good sexual values; where women are empowered to understand consent, pleasure and asking for what they need; where we accept the diversity of sexual expression and orientation; and we create a far happier, healthier world because we're all having great sex.
I know I can't do this alone, so if I get to use platforms like my podcast to profile people and promote brands that are also doing great work in this space, then I'm all for it.
Check out our IGTV interview below for more real talk from Sara Tang, including tips for sexual confidence and how to keep it fresh in small Hong Kong living spaces.
Front & Female is Tatler's platform for female empowerment: a resource for women to become their best selves. Click here to sign up to our newsletter to join the community and stay informed.