Continuing with my sex ed series (which I didn’t realize I was doing, but I guess I am!), may I present a convo I recently had with the pro-sex feminist bad-ass, Heather Corinna. Heather is the thirtysomething director of Scarleteen, the most popular sex-ed web resource for teens, a veteran feminist activist and author of S-E-X. Here, Heather recalls her feminist and sexual awakening and tells me what she hopes for the next generation of women.
P.S. I tried to get this up for the New Year in time for the official Scarleteen fundraiser deadline, but I’m sure they won’t refuse your money now! Seriously, Scarleteen needs to survive–it is an essential resource for teens, considering all the false and harmful info there is out there. (Miriam Grossman, I’m looking at you.)
How did Scarleteen get started in the first place?
I launched the site in 1998. It originally started as a website called Scarlet Letters, focusing on women’s sexuality. At that time, there were very few things about sex online at all that weren’t porn. So I launched this site and started getting questions from younger people. I’m a teacher by background, so I thought, “Let me at least find somewhere to refer these kids to,” but there wasn’t any place. So I just went ahead and started Scarleteen.
When did you start relating to feminism?
I’ve been a feminist for a while. I did some Women’s Studies in college, but it was just kind of the era in which I grew up. Title IX passed when I was 9. I grew up in Chicago, in a poor but progressive community, so it was tough for us to really miss feminism, which was up front and center. I absolutely walked into the door doing Scarleteen as a really active feminist.
Do you think an explicit feminist message comes across on the site?
Our users are international—only 40 percent of site traffic is from the U.S. So the perspective of someone from Sri Lanka or the Phillippines is very different from Western ideas of feminism. That said, feminism is a strong message at Scarleteen and always has been. The site traffic is pretty balanced in terms of men and women, but always skewed to women. Globally there’s been a really strong sentiment to keep sex information away from women; some of that is very clearly a patriarchal effort. Just the fact of providing this information right on the Internet is a feminist act, and making it so that it is inclusive, diverse, and coming from a standpoint of authenticity is really important. Scarleteen encourages women to look inward to find out what sex is, rather than the messages about what its supposed to feel like, be like. The message out there is: Your sexuality is this way so that it can please your partner this way. We’re trying to change that.
What’s the number one question you get from readers?
Definitely, “Am I pregnant?” When you first become heterosexually active, pregnancy is really freakin’ scary, if you’re not ready or if you don’t want a baby now. People aren’t necessarily prepared for how different it feels when it’s actually real. People will ask, “If my brother masturbates on the toilet and if I sit down, will I get pregnant?” Some people don’t know whether they’ll get pregnant from oral sex. When you put yourself in the brain of the person earnestly asking this question, that’s a pretty extreme level of fear to be walking around with.
Teens just don’t get the right information, largely because of abstinence-only education programs. They just scare the shit out of people when it comes to sex. Some are better than others, but for most of them, they’re thinking, “Whatever we do, if we can scare them from having sex before they’re married, that’s the goal.”
Can you give a little perspective on ab-only? When was it actually established, and how was the sex ed when you were growing up?
Bush is the one who gave these programs over a billion dollars a year, but Clinton started it—1996 was when it first went into effect. So we have a long history of cultural messages that scare people out of sex, but it’s never been quite so institutionalized. When I was growing up, there were comprehensive sex education initiatives that were building. I went to an alternative high school that was open and anarchist.
Now teens are coming to Scarleteen a lot more fearful than they used to—their questions are crisis-based rather than from curiosity. We’re established as a crisis-safe space, so that might influence it, but i think it has a lot to do with what kind of sex ed people are walking in the door with. A lot of the youth sound more like my parents, rather than the youth I grew up around. If you were putting together a time capsule and put sex ed from the 50s and abstinence-only stuff in the same place, they’d be scarily similar.
What differences do you see between the younger generation and your youthful experience with sex? What do you hope for young women in terms of our relationships with sexuality?
I generally had a great time with my teen and young adult sexuality. It was exciting, it was fun, I grew in it, I was able to express myself very authentically in it, I didn’t feel ashamed about it or like I had to be very concerned that it looked like someone else — a partner, friends, culture — wanted it to. I also knew enough about how to take care of myself, and felt very able to assert myself with partners about care and safety that I wasn’t freaking 24/7 about pregnancy or STIs.
And in the midst of some really challenging parts of my young life — the assaults, an unhealthy home, serious poverty, etc. — having that one area that was not stressful, but a place to release stress and just enjoy myself, explore myself and others freely, was a very big boon.
What worries me is how many young women I see having sex with partners who are clearly not having experiences that are satisfying for them, that leave them feeling good (about the sex and about themselves), that feel like a place for self-expression and exploration. Given what I do, I’m bound to see more women having problems than not, but still.
Another big difference I see between my generation—or at least with my experience—and the new one is that we had a lot more room for certain freedoms. Young people today, because of the economy, stay at home at a later age, it’s harder for them to pick up and move. So sex and sexual relationships are the only rite of passage left, the only thing where kids can say, “This is my very own thing.” Freedoms for young people, opportunities for self-discovery, are less and less supported. If you don’t have a “you” to bring to the table, it’s a lot harder for it to really be comfortable with the sexual part of you.