When Carlen Costa was 12 years old, living with her Catholic family in a small town outside of London, she spoke out as a feminist for the first time. When the priest from her parish was desperately looking for more altar boys, Carlen asked: “Why just boys?”
After starting a petition and speaking out within her community, Carlen’s parish became the first in Southwestern Ontario to have female altar servers.
Now a relationship psychotherapist and an acclaimed sexologist, Carlen explains that her understanding of feminism has shifted and grown. Though she had been a feminist and activist at heart since childhood, she has since devoted her life to a specific type of feminism — inclusive, sex-positive feminism.
Carlen has an office in London, where she sees clients of all different genders and sexualities to support them through their relationships and personal lives. Whether clients come in to discuss identity, orgasms or dating, Carlen says that all of her clients have one thing in common: they want to strengthen their self-esteem.
“I see people who have different kinds of sex, people who are transitioning, people who are in the LGBTQ+ community, people who are heterosexual,” she says. “But everybody wants to feel better about themselves. No matter what it is, the underlying thing is always that people don’t feel good enough.”
Carlen’s goal is to change that. She wants to alter the way people approach sex as well as the way they see themselves. She emphasizes that communication, understanding and self-esteem are the most important aspects of healthy relationships.
Unfortunately, not everyone can make it to a therapy session or feel comfortable discussing their concerns openly. To make sex-education and conversations about self-love accessible, Carlen has extended her work beyond traditional therapy sessions. She creates opportunities for herself outside of the office by hosting weekly Facebook Live Q&As, appearing on radio talk shows, presenting at universities and writing for international magazines like Cosmopolitan and Refinery29.
“There are some people who aren’t having the conversations they need to have, … so I want to provide conversations in another way,” Carlen explains. “I feel like my job, my vocation, is my mission.”
This isn’t the life Carlen had always envisioned for herself. Her father wanted her to be a lawyer, which led to studying pre-law at Western University. It wasn’t until her third-year when Carlen realized that studying law wasn’t what she wanted.
“I sat around one day and asked myself ‘What would my life look like in five years?’ I visualized myself as a lawyer in court, with kids, stressed right the fuck out and just not happy. Every time I did the exercise, I kept seeing myself unhappy.”
Carlen realized that she wanted to go into therapy — not law — when she weighed her skills and interests. She recognized that one of her favourite things to do was giving her friends advice about sex and relationships, recalling one particular weekend when she and her friends all went out to Ceeps. The night ended with everyone sitting in Carlen’s room, crying and laughing as they discussed relationships, their sex lives and their hopes for the future.
She remembers waking up the next day and thinking, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do. I want to do this, as a job, forever.”
She recognized that to do that — to have conversations about relationships, sex and well-being — she would have to become a therapist.
When Carlen took women’s studies classes, she finally learned about sex-positive feminism and the ways in which she could tie that into her future career.
“There was this whole world of women who I had no idea existed,” she recalls. “Then professor Wendy Pearson, who taught queer studies and film, taught me about Judith Butler. And I was like ‘gender performativity? Sex-positive feminism?’ It all blew my fucking mind.”
That’s when Carlen became more involved with fourth-wave feminism, realizing that she could be outspoken and sex-positive while advocating for the equality of all genders.
“I learned that I could be a woman who wanted to advocate for social and economic injustices while being a sexual woman and talk about sex work, sexuality and all of that stuff without feeling ashamed.”
Today, Carlen uses her job to advocate for equality in the same way she did when she was 12, using her platforms to reach greater audiences. She hopes that by remaining outspoken, she can continue to teach others about sexuality, equality and self-love.