Michele Ernsting will tell you that satisfying sex is a human rights issue.
A journalist for 25 years, she became a free speech activist when she started building sex-positive, fun, myth-busting websites in countries that frown upon, discourage, or even forbid sex education. “Love Matters” targets 18 to 30-year-olds in India, Latin America, Africa, China and the Arab World. When Love Matters was translated into India’s first-ever Hindi-language sex education site, the local team had to invent vocabulary to describe practices like female masturbation and address a number of core myths such as the belief that masturbation will make you ill or infertile. But unlike most sex education sources, the focus of Love Matters is pleasure: how to have safe, satisfying sex told through community stories, frank and funny Agony Aunts, and a celebratory, sex-positive tone that invites and rewards curiosity.
In the last year Love Matters hosted about 35 million sessions a year and well over 100 million contact points on social media channels. Its readers bring a constant chatter of questions, advice and stories. What’s not obvious is that it’s also a direct challenge to censorship and to the stigmas that prevent people from getting the information they need to make the best decisions about their sexual health and rights.
She set out on a mission to solve daily problems for millions of financially, educationally and socially disadvantaged people. Over apple juice on a rainy day in Amsterdam, she tells me about where she goes to solve her own problems. Top of mind are her classmates from the 2012 class of THNK Creative Leadership Program in Amsterdam, who she describes with genuine love for their creativity, skills, and generosity. She fell into the course almost serendipitously: in the space of fourteen days she went from never having heard of THNK to stepping into the deep end of a very deep pool — and her life has been immersed in the benefits ever since.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says, her face breaking into a radiant smile that’s impossible not to match. “And had I known what was ahead, I probably wouldn’t have signed up.”
It was 2012 and mobile technology was expanding rapidly in Africa, along with the creative application of mobile solutions. Michele had become dissatisfied with reporting on court decisions as a journalist. “It wasn’t driving justice or impacting people’s lives in a way that felt urgent. I was more interested in the day-to-day problems people were facing around love, sex and relationships, and how to get them the information that would allow them to make super simple decisions that might improve — or even save — their lives, or the lives of their friends or loved ones.”
Michele was thinking about how mobile technology, in its ability to bypass gatekeepers, could deliver that information despite taboo and censorship. When she was prototyping concepts she had a habit of sitting smart friends down, sketching her ideas and kicking around obstacles and solutions with them.
One of her go-to sources of advice was Emer Beamer (Amsterdam Class 2), who one day told her that what she was doing, naturally, was actually a discipline called ‘Design Thinking’, and asked her if she had heard of a school called THNK. Two weeks before the next program was going to start, she got a call inviting her to apply.
“I didn’t know what was coming, but I loved walking into that place and seeing everyone prototyping their own big ideas. And I guess I just saw a roomful of valuable connections: Oh, you have a skill that I need, you have another skill that I need. I thought about in an extremely utilitarian sense: I’m going to drag you back to my cave and extract the information I need. It sounds very predatory, but it’s an exchange: I got dragged back to many, many caves myself. But It took a while before I got the bigger picture. That THNK was not just about the answer to my immediate questions. I was in for much harder work.”
That work involved digging deep, asking tough questions of herself, and working with a coach to look at her purpose and her skills, and the things she needed to change in her life. All of which made her extremely uncomfortable. There were deliberate efforts to push her out of her comfort zone. “I hate improvisation. I plan everything down to the letter.” Daughter of a marine engineer, with a military background, the idea of pulling an idea from thin air and testing it with a roomful of people didn’t sit well. “I work in the digital space where letting go of control is a path to success, and yet I personally found letting go of control extremely challenging.” Similarly, she spent her life as a journalist listening to other people. “And yet I wasn’t in the habit of listening to myself. And here I was in a situation where you couldn’t choose your level of participation: you had to jump all in. We were there to explore. And I watched people make stuff up and try things out on the fly, sometimes with ridiculous success. And sometimes not, but it was always interesting. I learned that the real artistry and mastery is letting go of the script and stepping into the unknown with the skills you have.”
Post-THNK, Michele started to share hunches, to pursue silly ideas that in the past she’d park, to drop things in front of groups of people to see how they landed. She remembers realising how far she’d come when she was hosting a brainstorm with some of Love Matters’ biggest donors. “Five minutes before the meeting started, I decided to go with a silly idea I’d had, and have everyone make up their own porn name, and introduce themselves with those. I said to heck with it, we are going to be discussing a pleasure-positive product, I want to get everyone to a place where they feel creative and off-balance, and I want everything in the agenda to occupy a fun frame. To this day, many of those donors still write to me using their porn names.”
And there lies the kernel of what Michele today considers the greatest gift her THNK experience: trust. “Stepping out of your comfort zone is profoundly scary. And I don’t think it’s really gotten easier. But you learn to trust that things will be fine.”
“I was given a gift I did not know I was going to receive” she says. “We all like to think that we’re working on our professional skills every day. But I was just renovating the outside of the house without paying attention to the foundation. THNK was all about the foundation: Is the foundation secure? No? There’s a crack there? Let’s fix that.”
I ask about who she’d encourage to sign up for the THNK experience. “Anyone with a big idea who’s just not quite sure how to make it happen. You’ll get in there and either find ways to make it happen that are profoundly stronger and richer and more impactful, or you’ll figure out it’s not your big idea. And for that reason, I’d say it’s a better experience for those who are not too early in their careers, people who’ve experienced and can draw lessons from failure.”
“And I’d love to see more people from the corporate space attend, and people from the world of finance and big money spaces. Because that’s where we really need the most innovation by far. Just look at what M-Pesa has done in Kenya, simply by enabling monetary transactions by SMS. It’s taken 200,000 people out of poverty. And we’re seeing fascinating disruptive innovation from Bitcoin and the blockchain. But where governments may facilitate or cede to people a degree of control over their lives, and the internet allows them to seize much more, money is the last big holdout. We need to fundamentally get away from a model that just makes the rich richer and find one which gets the poorest out of these daily struggles. I’m convinced we’ll do that by giving people more control over their own lives.”
If you’re interested in joining THNK’s creative leadership programme, start a dialogue with a member of the Global Adviser team here.