TW: Contains reference to sexual violence.
26-year-old Chloe Howl was a singer/songwriter for over a decade, signed at just 16 years old with a Brit nomination, she was one to watch. In 2017 in the wake of the #MeToo movement Chloe and a few other female artists chose to bravely speak out about how problematic the music industry can be for women and shared their personal traumatic experiences. She received significant backlash for telling her story and providing a much-needed voice for those who haven’t yet been able to find theirs, which had severe career affecting consequences. These days Chloe is an online sex-ed guru; she’s your go-to girl for all things sex, consent and more. She works with SH:24, the digital sexual health service, mainly working on brand partnerships and providing much-needed judgmental free sex ed advice to the masses.
We sat down with Chloe to discuss important issues such as the freedom to peg, inadequate school sexual education and her experiences with the #MeToo movement in music.
Charlotte-Rosie Creighton: Sorry this feels a bit weird; I’ve not done an interview in person for ages.
Chloe Howl: Me either! (laughs).
CC: Hi Chloe, How are you? Could you start by telling me your pronouns and a bit of yourself?
CH-: Hello! I’m good, glad that the weather is better (laughs). My pronouns are she/her. So I was a singer-songwriter in music for a decade, then I started to do some work around #MeToo in music and then I began to have more conversations in consent which is relevant to mental health. I just got more literate in that, and that's where I dedicate most of my time these days.
CC: Amazing! What does the term sex positive mean to you?
CH: I think sex-positive for me is about choice and autonomy, and empowerment. We are often told these stories about sex and relationships and these social scripts of how we’re meant to do things or how we are meant to feel.
Especially women, femme people and people from marginalised genders, you can be restricted and feel like you have to go down one path. I think sex positivity is flipping that on its head; there are so many different options out there. The most important thing is that you are safe and happy. That's all that should matter; it’s taking traditionally taboo things and turning them into something you can be proud of yourself for instead of feeling a lot of sexual shame, which I think everyone has.
CC: Yes! Everyone has! I had that this morning as I was walking for the bus, something popped in my head, and I was like ‘eww’... it's ridiculous, it happened years ago, but I’ve still got the ick!
CC: How and when did your sex-positivity journey begin?
CH: I think I've always been relatively open about it, and I've always been quite confused that it was frowned upon to talk about it more openly with your friends, peer group, or teachers. I thought it was weird that you would get penalised for it. It’s something that all of us go through, and it’s the reason that we are here. It was always a thread that ran through me; I was always the friend who people went to talk about sexual problems or if they wanted to explore. Just because I found it relatively easy to be a safe space. There's no need to judge people.
CC- Absolutely not; also, please tell me, I am incredibly interested in what people have got going on… I love it!
CC: Yeah! Laughs I’m also like this is lols, you should peg him.
CC- Exactly! Peg away! (Laughs)
CH- I was preoccupied with music, especially writing and creating a vibe where young people, particularly young women, felt empowered. That way, they could go out and ask for what they wanted. Just having that feeling of wanting to make others feel that way just crossed over into sex and sex-positivity full time.
CC: Would you call yourself a sexual person? And if so, have you always been?
CH: Erm. I would say that I am a sexual person, but I think there are so many layers to it.
Recently I’ve caught myself in a trap, thinking that I always have to feel like a sexual person. Your sexual desire will ebb and flow throughout your life in relation to your mental health, stress levels, how busy you are, your physical health, time constraints, all of these things. And sometimes you’ll be too fucking tired for months and other times you’ll be up for it all the time. So I don’t like to rigidly put myself or anyone else into much of a box. It’s not nice to feel like you should be having all this sex cause then it can stop sex from being enjoyable.
CC: Yeah, it also makes it an awkward thing where you get paranoid about not having sex and then it becomes a thing.
CH: Exactly, it is all about quality, not quantity. It’s an invisible made up quoter that people say you should be having x amount of sex in a happy relationship. The number changes all the time. It's so much pressure on your partner and yourself to perform and feel sexy all the time. Sometimes you just don't feel hot, and that’s fine, and you don’t want someone touching you in that way, and that’s cool. It’s just feeling comfortable saying no and hearing no as well. I think that’s hard sometimes.
CC: Which stigmas around sex do you think need to disappear?
CH: I think there’s still a lot of stigma around the idea of rigid monogamy. I’m personally not polyamorous, and I don’t believe that lifestyle is right for everyone. But this idea that your partner should be the only person you're attracted to and that your thoughts won’t stray sometimes is unrealistic.
Some people may want to snog someone in a club, which may not be cheating if you decide that within your partnership. There’s this idea that you have to find the one and get married and have kids. And if you deviate from that, there’s something wrong with you, or you're the problem. Shaking up that idea a little bit will help people communicate more with their partners about their likes and dislikes. Not hate yourself if you’re looking at someone else. We all know people who have strayed into certain ways, maybe they were caught texting someone else or using a dating app, and they're doing that outside the terms of the relationship, and that’s bad. But I think we should be having more open conversations about cheating and what cheating means to us. I think it means different things to different people.
CC: I completely agree; it’s utter madness to me to think that you’re going to be in the same relationship for the rest of your life; it’s lovely but rarely works, and of course, you’re going to find other people attractive that’s human nature. You don’t have to act on it, but you have to acknowledge it’s there.
CH: Also, people have been hurt. There are many reasons people may feel jealous going into a new relationship or feel like somebody being attracted to someone else means something terrible will happen. All of that could be helped by communication and discussing what cheating looks like for you. I think its good to build a structure and format that works for you and your partner and it doesn't have to look a certain way.
Chloe wears dress PRISTINE
CC: What was your sex education like at school? Can you remember anything specific?
CH: The most I remember was in year 6, which was the first one. It was all about periods, and the boys were sitting there like ‘haha, sucks for the girls’ and we were just like ‘what is our uterus gonna do to us, this sounds terrible!’ I think I had one sex ed lesson at secondary school; an external educator came in; I can’t remember it. People were sniggering at the back of the class; they touched on masturbation but in terms of this is a way that *specifically* people with penis’ cum. There was no talk of pleasure or what your body can do in that way. It was very much, this is what's going to happen, you need to use protection, or you're going to get pregnant. And if you do get pregnant, you’re the problem. You know?
CC: I only remember 'how to put a condom on', and 'you’ll get a period', and that's it. I was like, great, I don't know what anything is called in my body, but I know all about a penis.
CH: Thats it; it’s very hetero normative because there are so many different types of sex; very few queer people have heard of dental dams, which is a barrier method that’s hard to find and is very never spoken about. It’s really important; you can get STIs from oral sex, you can get it from fingering, just the idea that penetration is the only culprit for STIs is ridiculous. It perpetuates the idea of who’s to blame. There was not a comprehensive conversation on protection either. Loads of people go out into the world with the style of sex they like to have completely underrepresented. They’re not equipped to have safer sex. There’s a real gap there that puts people in high-risk groups.
CC: We’ve established that our sex education wasn’t great, so where do you think people learn sex education?
CH: I think the issue is that so many people learn from porn. There’s a good dialogue around porn now which is good for this generation, and there’s a lot less stigma around people who engage in sex work, and that has changed, and we talk about the importance of paying for porn. This generation is really progressive, but when I was younger, someone would get some bootleg video on their phone, and that's how everyone would think blow jobs went down. I would be like, ‘oh, you’re meant to be able to fit a deodorant can up your vagina?’ I don’t think I can do that?
CC: (Laughs) I don’t think many can…
CH: Hopefully, there will be sex-positive parenting which doesn’t mean you need to have that awful chat where everyone feels uncomfortable, which can be pretty fear-mongering. Hopefully, it means just being more honest about sex and answering questions without some fear of “corrupting” your child. Also, more understanding of how many different types of sex there is to have. I have no idea how the current generation is figuring it out; maybe still porn?
CC: The Gen Z’s are clued up.
CH: Social media! There’s a lot more sex positivity influencers, musicians and people in the public eye who talk about consent more. I think #MeToo has had an interesting impact on how much people know about sex ed now. Consent suddenly became a thing that everyone understood. I don't think I understood what consent meant until I was 23. I knew you couldn’t force someone to have sex, but I didn’t know the layers - that it had to be enthusiastic; that you could withdraw consent at any point. I didn’t know about stealthing. Now that’s more understood and spoken about on a very public scale. We’re already seeing teens that are way better at asking for what they need and what they deserve.
CC: If you could give your younger self some sexual advice, what would it be?
CH: Oh, that's a tough one; no one has ever asked me that before. I think I would tell myself to learn the difference between actually desiring someone and just wanting their approval. And I think that was a huge thing, I’m 26, and it’s only been in the last 2 years that I have felt comfortable to say, yeah, I am bisexual. For most of my life, I think the heteronormative lifestyle was so thrust on me that I felt like I needed a lot of male validation. I found myself in positions that were not as pleasurable for me as they could have been and didn’t make me as happy as I should have been. I struggled to turn away from them because I thought I needed that approval. I just wish I'd learnt the difference between that a lot earlier. (Laughs)
CC: (Laughs) That is a good one. The old thirst for male validation, I know it well.
CC: I think after the #MeToo movement if you are 25 + you are looking at every sexual situation you’ve ever been in and coming to terms with some complex stuff, and it’s painful for many people.
CH: I mean, when i found out what stealthing was, I was like, what? That happened to me.
CC: How would you describe stealthing?
CH: I was having sex with this guy who was much older than me; I asked to use protection, the condom was put on, and halfway through sex, I realised it had been taken off; I could see it on the floor. At the time, I had no idea that was wrong, and that was assault, in the way that we understand it now. I remember laughing about it the next day with friends; I was like, ‘men are trash lol, I had this crazy night, and it turned out he’d taken it off halfway through,’ and that's how I spoke about it!
CC: Immediately when you said that, my first thought was yeah, that's normal, and it's not, but my brain still expects that from men and, in a way, allows it.
CH: Exactly! And that's been weird too. The bravado you have to put on when you’ve experienced things that are outside the rules of consent but become so normalised. You look back on how you felt it was ok; you have to readjust your viewpoint about things you used to laugh about. There are elements of guilt and shame that come with that. The more it’s spoken about, the less it will happen, and the more comfortable people will be with calling it out.
CC: You do a lot of work with SH:24? Which is a fantastic service that I have used quite a lot, could you tell me more about it?
CH: It’s a digital sexual health service that offers home STI testing, diagnosis and treatment, as well as online ordering for oral and emergency contraception. They also provide specialist clinic sexual health support... I work on the social media and partnerships side, and I get to write a lot of posts about orgasms and penis’...
CH: Arseholes all day.
CH:Our service went up something like 445% during the pandemic.
CC: Yeah, there was a lot of uncover shagging going on in the pandemic.
CH: I think there will be a shift toward digital sexual healthcare; it’s way more accessible for everyone and frees up waiting rooms for emergency cases, which is so important. How many times have you gone to get an STI test and waited for 3 hours?
CC: Have you ever received any backlash for openly talking about sex?
CH: So when I did the #MeToo in music stuff that went out on the BBC, there were comments saying that I was doing it for attention. And I was; like, ‘I don’t want attention for this, it’s the worst thing ever to have to discuss in front of people you care about and about what’s happened to yourself. That was tough; one of the worst things that happened actually is that after that, in the industry, people would say that I was “really great, but too difficult” and that they wouldn't work with me. I was like, that's so weird because it tells me that you’re either harbouring an abuser or you are one, because why else would you be nervous about working with me if nothing is going on.
CH: I felt like the industry decided I was crying wolf, and I think when anybody speaks out about anything that has happened to them, that's your worst fear.
CC: It’s awful; it takes a lot to have that courage to say something happened to you and recognise that it wasn’t ok. Then to have various people say it didn't happen is gaslighting.
CH: That's what I was going to say. You're gaslit all over again. After someone goes through something like that, there's so much feeling of ‘did it happen’ and did I allow that to happen, was it my fault? Because there’s so much victim-blaming in our society and rape culture runs so deep. You have to work through all of that to have the courage to come forward and then go through it all again via your peers; they were people I'd worked with for years.
CC: And that courage and process sometimes takes years to develop, so when you come forward, however long later, people will always question why you didn’t say something earlier… you can not win.
CH: Yes, I still think that's something I reckon with; music was a huge part of who I was and to watch the pendulum swing so suddenly was a lot. I remember one time we were talking to this label, and they were like, ‘wow, man, this is such a great time to be a strong woman - and Chloe just is; she just speaks her mind. She calls stuff out. It’s incredible to see. So we asked if he'd like to have a meeting and he said that he could never work with me, it's too scary. How can you admire someone and something in them, as long as it's not near you? As long as it's not holding you accountable.
CC: Well, that's the whole point, isn’t it. Many people know what's going on; they choose not to talk about it or choose to ignore it.
CH: The problem with the music industry is that it's such an acceptable part of the culture, like idolising “groupie culture”; historically, loads of them were underage. Thinking about artists who had girlfriends who were way younger than them. I was signed at 16, and I was a virgin. I didn't even know who I was sexually or who I was in general. And then you’re thrust into this industry, where you’re seen as an object and a vessel for cash. And you know, it's your dream, every young person wants to be a pop star. There's a power dynamic there with them knowing they can crush your goals and feel like you have to accept specific treatment. And you look to your management and your team to protect you, and in my experience, they don’t. I think it's changing, and also, as we said, young people are getting the language to call these things out, which is excellent. It’s amazing to see artists speaking out so much more now. I was just on the cusp where it wasn't yet the case, but I think major labels still choose to sign people so young and just on a mental health level that has its ramifications and consequences. I don't think there is enough done to safeguard young people in that industry. It’s tough.
CC: It's not easy.
CC: Ok, that's it! Thank you so much.