Image courtesy of Erica Chidi Cohen
Erica Chidi Cohen surveys the room. Barefoot in a blue denim jumpsuit, her hair swirled into snug chin-length locs, she looks out at the group of women—rather, female-identifying people, to use her preferred term— who have come to attend the Thursday night adult sex-ed class at Loom, her Los Angeles–based education and wellness center.
Sensing a flicker of incomprehension, Chidi Cohen continues, her tone neutral yet authoritative, like a sommelier introducing a wine some customers might find challenging. “I feel like dicked down can mean a lot of things to a lot of people,” she explains. “Like, if you are in a hetero partnership, it just means ‘getting fucked.’ Like, ‘Tonight I’m going to get dicked down by x, y, z.’ ”
Or all three, because no judgment. “Singular, plural, absolutely no-holds-barred there. And if you’re in a nonhetero partnership, you can be dicked down by a woman, you can get dicked down by a trans person. It’s just a term for having sex,” she says. “And it’s probably going to be really good, and this person is potentially pretty dominant.”
Folding her legs underneath her on a round raffia cushion, she points to the projection on the wall overhead, where the words dicked down appear in a tidy pastel circle alongside other circles that contain the words pussy, cunt, dick, cock, cum or cumming, wet, and fuck.
“All of these words should be a part of your repertoire,” she says. “No pressure, but we should just be more comfortable saying things. The more we share about what we’re experiencing sexually, the more free we are all going to be, to be able to participate in it in a way that feels empowered.”
To Chidi Cohen’s credit, it’s only then that I realize what Loom is up to. I’ve been dazzled by the trendy pastel walls and circular pillows and watercolor prints pulled together by the cool design firm Walls for Apricots; by the parade of good-looking Angelenos slipping off their Ferragamo loafers and settling into dusty-pink BackJack chairs on a Thursday night when they could instead be out getting drunk or, you know, getting dicked down. And by Chidi Cohen herself, who has the kind of star quality this city has other uses for. Ah, millennials, my creaky Gen-X brain thinks, as I survey the room full of attentive students who’ve paid $50 a head for Roadmap: Sex. So open. So decent. Everything about the scene is so effectively set in the present that it’s not until that old word—empowered—spills out that I realize: OMG—this is some ’70s shit. Specifically, the second-wave-feminist consciousness-raising groups that led to the creation of Our Bodies, Ourselves, in which women were encouraged to talk about their personal experiences with sex and periods and peer into their vaginas with hand mirrors.
Though the ferns have been replaced by fiddle-leaf figs and the macrame has been replaced with, well, nicer macrame, everything about the center, which defines itself as “Empowered Education From Periods to Parenting,” recalls an earlier era—down to the name, which references a tapestry. Minus, you know, the zucchini bread and the structural racism.
“We’re kind of the next wave,” Chidi Cohen says later, sipping a cup of raspberry leaf tea in the Ruth Room, which is named for the notorious RBG (other rooms include the Frida Room and the bell Studio, for bell hooks). “What we are doing is similar in the sense that we are trying to empower people to learn about their bodies and understand their bodies, and feminism underpins everything we do,” she explains. “But we’re trying to be more inclusive. We’re talking to women, female-identified people, trans people, queer people. Myself, I identify as a queer black feminist person. So we’re codifying it a little bit differently. And we’re trying to bring the brand and aesthetic comfort that will allow people to want to onboard this information now.”
As she points out, in this day and age, people’s experiences with health and sex education have taken place “either very swiftly in a provider’s office” or in high school, “where it was taught through a contraceptive lens as opposed to a pleasure lens.” Either way, not the sort of thing anyone associates with a fun night out. “So aesthetic matters. Because we know that when people have improved health literacy, their health outcomes are better. Which is why we just think it’s so important to make it feel cool, feel exciting, feel like, ‘Yeah, I do want to do that.’ ”
At 32, Chidi Cohen seems like an old soul. She exudes a self-possession that feels almost maternal, despite the fact that she does not yet have children of her own. This your-mom-minus-the-judgment quality is one of the reasons that, in the nearly six years she has lived in Los Angeles, she has become one of the city’s most sought-after doulas, with a long list of celebrity clients and a growing national profile, thanks to consistent coverage from outlets such as Goop and Into the Gloss.
Initially, this was the warm, comfortable space she and her cofounder, Quinn Lundberg, intended to stay in, and much of the center’s programming revolves around new-parent preoccupations like sleeping and feeding. But shortly before Loom’s opening, Chidi Cohen had an epiphany. “I realized, as a person who didn’t have children yet, that we needed to be supporting the conversation around preconception and, like, the menstrual cycle and, you know, sex,” she says. “I feel like our culture divides those things: You can’t talk about sex if you talk about parenting or pregnancy; you can’t talk about periods. It’s all spliced, when in fact it’s a continuum. You are a person at all these different stages. And you saw the class—people wanna know.”
This is true. Roadmap: Sex is over two and a half hours long and includes an anatomy lesson. “These are my favorite things, the vestibular bulbs,” Chidi Cohen says at one point, gesturing at a diagram. “Basically they’re fat little parentheses lying around the vaginal opening. Does anyone here remember growing up and maybe humping a pillow? A big part of that is you wanting to stimulate your vestibular bulbs.”
The students are riveted. No one is bored. No one is looking at her phone. “I just wanted to listen to a bunch of women talk about sex,” beams a zaftig twentysomething in a bright pink sweater when Chidi Cohen asks what brings people to the class.
“Most of us are walking around with a lot of questions about sex, wanting to talk about it more—but Christianity, patriarchy, there just hasn’t been room,” Chidi Cohen says. In opening up the room—rather, rooms—“to sort of softly insert ourselves and declare the importance of this information,” as she puts it, she has found herself winding down her decade-old doula business in order to focus on being a sex-positive proselytizer. “I think that is my primary role,” she says. “To be an educator.”
Chidi Cohen’s parents were medical professionals—her father an endocrinologist, her mother a nurse—which goes some way toward explaining her ease with the body, although she also credits her Nigerian heritage. “I think my early introduction to body literacy and awareness came from traditional Nigerian culture, being aware of and more in touch with your body,” she says. She grew up in California and Florida. “We were a very body-comfortable house. Like, it was okay to be naked, there was a lot of inspection of the fluids and look at your poop.”
In other ways, however, things were not so comfortable. “My parents didn’t have a great relationship, and there was a lot of turmoil,” she says. After they separated when she was 10, Chidi Cohen and her younger brother moved to South Africa with their father, who was studying the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
She got her period for the first time on the plane on the way over. “I remember the airplane still had those giant sanitary pads in the bathroom and putting on, like, two,” she says. “One that was all the way to my belly button, and one all the way back. And being like, ‘This is what I need.’ ” She laughs, but then turns serious. “It was such a vivid thing: ‘I am moving to this new country, I am not going to have my mother with me, and I have to work through puberty with my dad.’ ”
Her father was “very supportive,” she adds, and being a doctor, he was better equipped to handle these things than most. Still, “there wasn’t a lot of ceremony,” and the experience was a preview of the years to come. “I was thrown into this very adult role at a very young age, having to kind of take care of my family in a way,” says Chidi Cohen, whose father gave her the nickname Nne (“mother” in Igbo). “So my whole life, that kind of implication was around me.”
There was no sex education to speak of in the Christian all-girls school she attended in Durban. But she informed herself through trips to the hospital with her father and reading up on health issues in her spare time, and she became the go-to person for friends seeking help with physical and emotional issues. “I was just naturally inclined,” she says.
After graduation, Chidi Cohen enrolled in culinary school, which she recommends: “There’s a lot of sex and drugs and misogyny, but I love the skill set. Like, you learn how to clean a deep-fat fryer. And there’s a work ethic I got from being there.”
Then it was on to the University of Cape Town, where she earned a dual degree in media studies and visual art history and got a job at a high-profile contemporary art gallery. “I really felt passionate about it and thought that was the direction I wanted to go,” she says. Then a breakup occasioned a “pause point,” as she puts it, after which she “kind of pivoted” into fashion, landing a coveted internship at Alberta Ferretti in New York.
Chidi Cohen is a stylish figure, as evidenced by the low-key designer jumpsuits she wears as a kind of uniform at Loom. But the industry “just didn’t really resonate with me,” she says diplomatically. “The feeling of reciprocity and altruism is important to me, and I just didn’t feel it coming from that space.”
A subsequent “world sabbatical” found her back in South Africa, turning over ideas about “working with women, and working with the body.” Her father suggested she become a midwife, which is what, it turns out, her grandmother and great-grandmother had done in their village in Nigeria. The idea of a birthright was appealing to Chidi Cohen, who soon packed her bags for San Francisco, intending to apply to nursing school.
“I started doing all my pre-reqs because I was pretty clear that was the direction I wanted to go, and then I found out about doulas,” she says. “I was like, ‘That really feels like a good fit.’ Because of the ability to communicate. You develop an emotional relationship with the client.”
Chidi Cohen enrolled in a doula training program at Natural Resources, a community-oriented parenting center, and worked at the retail store in front to offset her tuition while also volunteering at places like the Women’s Community Clinic (WCC). “She has a special ability to make people feel heard and supported,” says Kathryn Davis, who helped train her at the WCC in duties like taking patients’ vital signs and assessing their condition, and who now works at Loom as an instructor.
Her empathy is on display back at the sex class, where Chidi Cohen utters the words those who identify as introverts have come to dread: “We’re going to go around the room and share.”
“But please,” she adds, “only share as much or as little as you feel.” She starts in the front row, which is a safe bet, since the shy ones aren’t pitching up in the front row at sex class. As the sharing winds its way toward the back, everyone gets more relaxed, partly because, as it turns out, everyone wants pretty much the same thing: “Confidence.” “Knowing how to effectively communicate.” “Freedom.” “A feeling of empowerment.”
“Thank you,” she says in between each story. Or “I appreciate you sharing” or “That resonates.”
Resonates is a favored word of Chidi Cohen’s, whose start-uppy lilt is probably due to her stint in San Francisco, where she split her time between working as a doula–slash–personal chef to the city’s moneyed elite and volunteering at the WCC and the nonprofit Birth Justice Project, which advocates for better maternal care for women in prison.
The city was also where she met her now-husband, lawyer Jordy Cohen. (Though Chidi Cohen identifies as queer, “there’s fluidity to queerness,” she says. “I have dated men and women my whole life, but I have settled into a hetero partnership.”) In 2013, the couple moved to L.A. “We were living in this really great bungalow in Venice, with a community garden,” says Chidi Cohen, who began hosting “casual but informative” prenatal classes accompanied by a farm-to-table lunch at their home.
Word got around. “Someone was like, ‘You should check her out,’ ” Quinn Lundberg says.
At the time, Lundberg, a sprightly blond Canadian married to a famous actor—it feels un-Loomlike to say who—was pregnant with her first child and feeling very alone. “None of my good friends were pregnant, none of my friends had kids, and none of my family was here,” she says. The only time she felt like she could talk about her pregnancy was in 15-minute increments at the doctor’s office. “They just don’t have time, or the emotional IQ,” she says. In contrast, Chidi Cohen was like “a warm blanket,” Lundberg says. “She’s charismatic and dynamic and supersmart and supernurturing. And those were all characteristics that I needed. I needed someone to hear what I was thinking and feeling and experiencing.”
They became close friends. “We just really gravitated toward each other and felt like there was more we could do,” Chidi Cohen says. It was during Lundberg’s second pregnancy that the two women came up with the idea for Loom. “I was like, ‘Okay, we need to do this,’ ” says Lundberg, who grew up with a “naked mom” and keeps a well-thumbed copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves in her office. “I mean, most young millennials now don’t even know what Roe v. Wade is. There’s a real need to make space where we can really talk about these things.”
Loom is a for-profit enterprise, and its founders and employees bristle at the suggestion that it might be any other way. “People think because it’s women’s health that it’s supposed to be a nonprofit,” says Loom’s creative and digital director, Jazzi McGilbert, rolling her eyes. McGilbert, a former fashion writer, spends a lot of time trying to disabuse people of the notion that Loom is only for the Hatch-clad women currently cooing at their infants in the center’s mother-and-baby class. “I don’t want to have kids at all,” she says. She’s a big fan of the periods program and is currently working on its design scheme. “It may look soft and pretty, but I’m thinking about dried blood and baby poo when I’m creating visuals for Loom,” she says, adding, “I don’t hate my job for the first time in my life.”
Back at the sex class, things are winding down. No one has been asked to look at their vagina with a mirror, though Chidi Cohen recommends they do this at home. “A mirror or a camera,” she says. “And a light. Or maybe I should just say your phone.”
At the end, she passes out a variety of vibrators, anal plugs, and lube so that her students can feel their rumble, weight, and viscosity, respectively. “You can also get dildos that you can put on the ground and mount,” she says. “Mounting is cool because it allows you to kind of graduate down and play with the depth in a different way.”
“You don’t stretch out?” someone asks, eyeing an enormous mint-green phallus.
Chidi Cohen lights up. “That’s a wonderful question,” she says, launching into a description of vaginal rugae. “So it’s basically like an accordion,” she finishes. “Having a child creates a little bit of shape change, but it’s not massive. The idea of tight and loose is, again, really patriarchal. Exactly the type of junk we’re trying to dismantle. It’s just, like, enjoy it—it will never feel any different, he will not know. If you want to get, like, a huge one, go for it.”
And with that, she bids them all good night. “I adore you all,” she says as they head out, eager to test out their newfound knowledge.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of ELLE.