Heather Corinna: On Scarleteen, sex education, what's being written and what isn't
She is the founder, editor, and designer of Scarleteen, an enormously popular site that offers young adults “sex ed for the real world”—and is a direct response to the failures of abstinence-only education. Heather’s also the author of Scarleteen’s book counterpart, S.E.X.: the All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College, which hit bookstores last spring.
With like mind, Heather created Scarlet Letters, a sex-positive women’s sexuality website, and Femmerotic, an online sexuality journal. As well she helped develop and manages All Girl Army, an online collective of young feminist blogs and journals
Her fiction, poetry, and essays have been widely published in anthologies, and print and online periodicals. Besides her mad writing and web development skills, Heather Corinna is also a photographer, with her work published and displayed across the country. She’s a trained Montessori teacher who got a humanities-heavy education from the Chicago Academy for the Arts and Shimer College. She currently lives in Seattle.
Here’s Heather Corinna:
Note: An extended version of this interview appears at Isak.
You pioneered the Internet as a space for young adult and women’s sexual education and exploration. What incited you to bring this content to a new, barely-formed Web?
Mostly, because I could! At the time I started creating sexuality content for women and teens, it was something I’d been gravitating towards for a while, but the entry costs when it came to print were just far too high. The ‘net was absolutely a brave new world in all senses of the world: at the time (not so much now), getting started cost little to nothing, figuring out how to code and design content wasn’t TOO difficult. From the onset, it was clear that the web was a great arena for women, but also clear that women’s interests weren’t well represented, particularly when it came to content about sexuality.
What are your thoughts on the power of the web for sexual information and images? What are its possibilities and dangers?
I think we have the same sorts of possibilities and dangers with Internet media that we have with any other media. I think that information and image overload is something to be concerned with, particularly when it comes to sex, though not just for the usual reasons. Sex is a multi-sensory experience, and while also emotional and intellectual, a very physical experience, and the ‘net, combined with other things, is keeping a lot of folks out of touch with the planet, their bodies and their general physicality. My feeling is that that isn’t helping a lot of people with body image, sexual experience and whole-body satisfaction.
It’s easy to presume that because the Internet is so vast, that the sexual information we find on it is equally vast, when in truth, it’s often colored by the same biases we find anywhere else. Heterocentricity and gendernormativity looms large on the web, as does all of the gender bias, class oppressions, and long-standing myths that is part of a lot of sexual information, including much sexual research.
One thing we’re seeing more of at Scarleteen is a feeling teens have, especially young women, that sex is about performance. Ariel Levy did a phenomenal job of addressing this in Female Chauvinist Pigs, though we can also find it addressed in feminist theory decades before. This isn’t a new pressure, but how widely and consistently it is applied is new. The more pervasive and mainstream pornography has become, the more it’s seen by a lot of young people (many of whom have no real-life experience to compare it with) as what is expected in partnered sex and sexual identity. I hear a lot of adults being trite about that, stating that it’s obvious that porn is fiction, but it’s a lot easier to see that when you have life experience that younger people don’t have yet. And for some young people, you get life imitating art (or media, in this case), in that plenty of sexual experiences at this point DO resemble porn, because that’s what they are parroting.
One great thing the web has provided, though, is an ongoing, diverse conversation as well as a gigantic public library. There are an awful lot of people out there who have found support in via the web that they wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise.
Tell me the Scarleteen story. How and why did it begin? How has it evolved over the years?
When I started Scarlet Letters (currently on hiatus), it was intended for adult women. But likely because it was woman-run, because it was holistic and helpful, questions started coming in from teenagers. I took a look for other resources online I could refer them to, but at the time, I just couldn’t find much of anything. Really, at that point in the web, pretty much everything to do with sex was entertainment, rather than education.
So, I made a few pages of the barest basics in terms of sex education, and got slammed with readers; questions kept coming, and I basically just kept making more material in response. It became clear that the need for young adult sex information was more profound than I’d understood it to be. I went ahead and kept responding. We added the message boards in 2000, and have wonderful volunteers to moderate them and help answer questions: without their help, there’d be no way I could handle all this work, and having a diversity of personality is also a boon.
And that’s how it’s evolved: nearly all the information we have is in direct response to our user’s questions. This year, I upgraded the site in hopes of making it easier to add more static content more frequently, because given the volume we serve—sometimes as many as 30K in users a day—it’s more efficient to look for the common threads in their discussions and create more articles to serve them, rather than my trying to answer every question one-on-one.
How does Scarleteen connect with your other creative ventures—Scarlet Letters, All Girl Army, and your photography, fiction, and poetry ? How do you fuse your artistic and political interests?
For me, they’ve always seemed to come together pretty effortlessly. Certainly, I want All Girl Army to be general, rather than about sexuality, but sexuality issues are also part of feminist issues. All of my fiction, poetry and visual art isn’t about sexuality by a long shot, but since sexuality, the sensual and the erotic—in the sense that Audre Lorde defined—are such a huge part of human experience, those themes are often a unifying red thread throughout.
In your various projects, you adapt your voice and writing style to different audiences. What is that process like? Is it difficult, ever, to maintain your authenticity?
When I used to teach in a classroom, I was amazed that I never had to try too hard to turn off the potty-mouth that was pervasive for me in the rest of my life: I’d step into that environment, and I’d adapt.
Same goes now. I don’t have to do much adapting, save to make sure I’m addressing a given audience with language and context they understand. My work is that of a language translator: sexological and medical language is often difficult to digest.
I feel like a lot of people underestimate the intelligence of younger people: while I’ll simplify something for teens if they ask me to, and I try and write in a way that is within basic bounds for their reading levels, I also don’t dumb down for them. Because I have an interactive platform with Scarleteen, they know they can always ask me extra questions. It was a boon having talked to them directly for so long in that way when writing the book: at this point, I have a pretty good feel for what they can understand and what many can’t.
In all your work, creative and political, what myths about women, girls, and sexuality do you most want to dispel? What truths do you want to promote?
Those’d be mighty big lists! But the long and the short of it is that I hope what I do helps people understand that sexuality should always be a positive—for oneself and whomever else we invite to share our sexuality with—even though everyone’s desires aren’t always rainbows and cupcakes. It should always be something that furthers the growth of everyone, and for that to happen, it doesn’t have to be a drag or treated as some sort of religious rite. We’ve got this bizarre idea a lot of people and policy-makers seem to have which is that pleasure is vapid, unimportant, or corrupt—and that’s tied into seeing women as corruptors or, alternately, as responsible for men’s sexual desires: even a quick glance at a lot of sex ed now and through history shows a tendency to put women in the role of sexual policing. Obviously, all of that, too, is compounded when women individually and/or as a class aren’t given full personhood and autonomy.
Real pleasure and real intimacy—of SO many types—are transformative. That makes them powerful, and that makes them something that scares an awful lot of people. But I think if we come to them from a good place, individually and culturally—rather than, say, using sex as a means to control or a place to hide, for example—there just are no negatives in it.
How do misconceptions about women and sexuality affect men and boys?
For starters, rape has a lot to do with misconceptions about women and sexuality. Even when we’re talking about men raping men or boys, so much of that is about feminizing the victim, and proving a masculinity on the part of the rapist.
The notion that women’s sexuality is only a response to male sexuality is dangerous for men and women alike—dangerous per what men do to women and other men, and to men themselves, whose sexuality is limited with these misconceptions. Heck, any of us who work in sexuality know, for instance, that the prostate gland is more sensitive than the penis (especially a circumcised one), and that loads of men really expand their sexuality by getting friendly with their anuses, but especially for heterosexual men, the fact that receptive sex is presented as “feminine” keeps them from a real pleasure and a mutuality that sexual exploration can create.
The idea that sex is something to “get”—and women something to “get”—is also detrimental. When we make women and/or sex status objects, we can’t connect deeply, because only one of us is thought to have personhood. That’s bad news for women, but it’s also bad news for men because a lot of them are unable to discover the deeper intimacies we can find in sexuality, no matter what sort of sex we’re having and who we’re having it with.
At a time when abstinence-only education continues to receive millions of federal dollars—while comprehensive sex education receives zero—you come out with the book S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College. How does S.E.X. respond to our time and place?
Because of that climate, it took me six years to get it out on the shelves, being constantly shot down by publishers—not because of a lack of quality, but because it is seen as such a risk by publishing companies.
I’m driven, but not a masochist: if I hadn’t thought this was direly needed, there’s no way I’d have invested so much energy in writing it, editing and re-editing, and doing everything I could to get that book out there. Having worked in comprehensive sex ed since the dawn of abstinence-only funding, it’s been easy to see the effects over time. From what I see, and what studies support, abstinence-only hasn’t changed teen sexual behavior much, save that more teens seem to be engaging in “everything-but” (as in, everything but intercourse) with even less information than they might have had. I’ve seen increased fear and sex panic—we get teens every day who are afraid of risks when they’re not even sexually active—and an increase in misinformation. It doesn’t seem to keep them from sexual activity; it just leaves them more terrified and at greater risk when they engage in it.
As well, our cultural homophobia and the way we limit gender roles takes a toll. Obviously, that toll is greatest for GLBT, but it hardly stops there. Even sex education books that are otherwise great often treat heterosexuality and traditional gender roles as some sort of default. I’m concerned with everyone being able to live a sexuality that is as authentic to them as individuals as possible, and to do that, it’s key that the information they get on sex is not merely inclusive in a way that includes “others,” but in a way that makes clear that we’re both “them” and “us” and that—forgive me sounding very 90’s—celebrates our diversity, rather than simply trying to make it merely acceptable.
Why did you write the book in the first place? What does the book offer that Scarleteen doesn’t?
I think of them as partners: the static and the interactive. There’s synergy in having the basic tenets of information out in different media.
One thing I can do with print that is to go a bit more in depth in explaining sexual activity, simply because I have the legal shelter of a publishing house. With a book, I’m giving the whole context of things, right in one place, in their hands, in a way that’s more cohesive and ordered than you can be on a website. The book also has the room to branch out more widely than the website does, because we tend to approach a book differently than we do the web.
Today, you’re in your late thirties. As you grow older, how has your work with young adults changed?
I read a review of the book in Bust Magazine that said I was the big sister everyone wishes they had. That’s a lovely thing to say, but the age disparity between myself and most of my readers these days is too great for me to be their sister. So, I’ve taken up the role of being their weird auntie (who I’ve no doubt they roll their eyes at occasionally), which is fine by me.
What are the greatest challenges you’ve encountered in your work?
One biggie is that the longer I stick around, and the more trust people develop in my work, the tougher the issues get. One arena that involves is dealing with rape and sexual abuse: because I primarily serve women, and, as the years go on, more and more survivors come out of the woodwork asking for help. I’m more than glad to do it, but as a survivor of sexual violence myself, it can be incredibly painful. For instance, someone asking what they can do to make all those feelings go away? The answer to that isn’t one I like to give—that there IS no way to do that, and that healing takes a long time, and is difficult and maddening—and the disappointment people have is palpable.
Same goes with people in relationships where it’s obvious their partner is just NOT going to treat them with respect, or not going to have any investment in mutual pleasure or responsibility. It can be difficult to tell young people things you wish you never had to say to anyone.
Another biggie is how sensitive an issue sexuality is for most people, and how intense people can be—especially younger people —about concepts of body and sexual normalcy: not as in. “Am I doing myself or anyone harm?” but rather, “Am I like everyone else?” It’s clearly learned behavior, but things like this are learned so early that they can be difficult to unlearn.
For me, personally, I face heavy challenges in finding both financial and emotional support. Sometimes, at the end of a day, I am just wiped. On a tough day, where I have users in traumatic situations, it gets under my skin. I don’t go to work in the morning and leave it somewhere when I go home at the end of the day: it lingers.
In S.E.X., you emphasize reciprocity. Specifically, you write: “If during any partnered sex activity, either partner feels they aren’t getting anything out of a given sexual activity, or pretty equal satisfaction, then something really isn’t okay. And I mean at the time: not social status later, or a partner liking you more because you did something for them they really wanted, and you really weren’t that hot on doing or taking part in.” How does this idea of reciprocity relate to the larger feminist movement?
I think people get a little bonkers when they visualize what feminist sex must be—as some sort of parody where every single kiss or movement requires full-on lesbian processing before proceeding—when in fact, the only real tenet of feminist sexuality is the core of what feminism is: that it must be based on a real, enacted, and inarguable equality for everyone involved. So often we hear that feminism has done what it needs to do, that we’re somehow post-feminist because (some) women are doing better than we were 100 years ago. But much as with civil rights for people of color, most rights are precarious at best: we have to constantly struggle for them, and our having them often has more to do with people or policy-makers feeling that they must deign to give us those rights for THEM to be okay people than with recognizing (or wanting) our equality.
A lot of people in the U.S. conflate feminism with sexuality, or, more particularly, abortion. What does this say about feminism? What does it say about our current attitudes toward sexuality and reproductive rights?
It might say more about how people think about women than about how they think about feminism: in other words, women are FOR sex, women are ABOUT sex. If we say feminism is about nothing but sexuality and reproduction, we’re just enabling the idea that women are defined by what use women most often are to men. Too, while we certainly can’t—and wouldn’t want to—divorce reproductive rights from sexuality, we also can’t divorce reproductive rights from full bodily autonomy. If someone is mortified about sweatshop labor, they should be equally mortified about women having what happens with their bodies decided for them by others who benefit from their lack of autonomy. If a person is afraid of international terrorism, about their rights and liberties being threatened or taken away by some overseas boogeyman, they should be equally (really, far more) concerned about the people right here at home threatening the rights of women to the freedom of simply having ownership of their internal organs.
What sort of positive and negative feedback do you receive from men, women, and teenagers about your work?
At this point, it’s a pretty strange divide. Overwhelmingly, teenagers are very positive and appreciative—it’s always nice to hear back from a teen a few years after they used Scarleteen, because I have yet to have a one come back and say anything but how clear it was that what they found there improved the quality of their lives. We’ve also had an awful lot of users and volunteers wind up working in sexual health and general healthcare, which is phenomenal.
The same holds true with a lot of adult women, about all of my work, particularly in terms of the body image aspects of my visual art and the personal narrative I’ve kept going on the web with my life for over eight years now. I had several comments and emails with other women telling me I was a hero for them, which is an incredible compliment, and just an amazing thing to have anyone say about you.
At my low moments, I feel like I marginalized myself. When you work in sexuality, no matter how much you challenge the status quo, there is absolutely ghettoization. I feel like I’m one of those people who a lot of people read—my history and numbers have backed that up—but not someone who people will admit to reading, or actively support or link to, simply because I often deal with the body and sexuality.
In your ideal society, what place would human sexuality have in it?
The same place that really great food, or incredible art has in it, but also the same place that that plain old peanut butter and jam sandwich and the picture your kids drew for you at school has in it. Sometimes sex is art: sometimes it’s a scribble, but both of those experiences are vital parts of our lives.
Without sounding too jingle-jangly, I think sexuality absolutely is sacred: I always have, in every manifestation and context. But I think of it as a kind of sacredness that even when it’s out-of-this-world amazing, also has a certain quiet to it: it’s an art of everyday life, really, and I’d love to see it start to be seen and treated that way.
Our Bodies, Ourselves
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RH Reality Check
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Dads and Daughters
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PEP: The Pro-Choice Public Education Project
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