Information on sexual health permeates the contemporary Internet—from Instagram moguls with a sex ed agenda to crowdsourced Wikipedia entries on gender identities to Netflix original series on the joys and perils of adolescent sexploration. Unfortunately, much of this information is far from comprehensive, and at times unreliable.
But it could be worse: Heather Corinna remembers a time when this wild west of resources was nothing more than a desolate wasteland. That is, before 1998, when they founded pioneering sex education website Scarleteen to answer the questions of tech-savvy and body-curious youths.
Over two decades later, Corinna opened up to Ms. about how much has changed since they pushed through the tumbleweeds of an early Internet—dishing on the origins of their career, their freshly minted graphic novel and the fickle state of sex education.
Tell me a little bit about the original website you hosted that prompted you to start Scarleteen.
Just to backtrack a little bit: starting Scarleteen: It was not something I meant to be a full-time job! [My original website], Scarlet Letters, was meant mostly to focus on women’s experiences with sexuality; it had some smut, some advice, some literary pieces. And because it was one of the few things about sex and sexuality that was on the web at the time, I presume that’s why young people were ending up there, because they were looking for anything on sex and sexuality. So they started to write in.
This was before abstinence-only education and purity pledges, and because it was then and not now, what they were writing in was not particularly complex stuff. Like: “How do I take the birth control pill properly? How do I figure out what I like with my boyfriend?”
My mother was in public health my whole life, my dad was an activist and I’d been a teacher already for a while, so I could answer their questions. The nature of the questions wasn’t very complicated, so putting together Scarleteen I figured I would put up five or 10 pages as a supplement and that would be fine.
Of course, what I wasn’t aware of is that even by that point in the mid-90s a lot of people were not getting sex ed in school or anywhere else. So I put up those pages and it kind of exploded and everybody started writing letters. So, naturally, the questions coming in didn’t necessarily stay so fast and easy. I had to basically stop teaching in person. I had to make a decision to do Scarleteen full time and once it took off it kind of ate my life.
What went into that decision to choose Scarleteen and make that your full-time passion?
Well, it certainly wasn’t the ability to support myself! For me, it was just that I already liked working in sexuality with adults but the need did not feel as compelling. I’m not sure if I would have made the same decision if there had been other sites that appeared to be serving this need. A lot of my nature as a person has to do with service—if somebody needs a thing that I have the ability to provide, then it seems like I should do it. And a lot of the feedback that I was getting when I started doing Scarleteen was young people saying that they had a hard time finding other adults who had [sexual health] information who they could talk to, who wouldn’t shame them, who didn’t have innate problems with sex, who talked to them with respect, who talked to them like they were people who are becoming adults and who weren’t embarrassed.
When you were growing up, did you see anything like a pre-Scarleteen?
I can’t think of anything like [Scarleteen] when I was growing up, but I’d definitely say it has forbears and parents. I remember as a young person being buried in “Our Bodies, Ourselves”—there’s no way I could do this without that book and all of the little legs of the feminist, self-help health movement in the 70’s.
I think about growing up reading Judy Blume; she wrapped quite a bit of really excellent sex and body information into what she did. I think about “Free to be You and Me;” there’s a lot of stuff about gender equity and fairness in relationships. I think about the initial initiatives to provide information about HIV and AIDS, which were very grassroots and street, because health care providers and the whole government in America was denying what was happening. So I think there are a lot of organic parents of Scarleteen.
How would you say sex educators have changed since you entered the field?
About five years ago, we had an intern start who was 19 and who was talking about how she knew she wanted to be a sex educator since she was 12. It was lovely, because when I was 12, that wasn’t a job! There was no way I would have ever gotten the idea that was a job, whereas someone who’s 12 now, if they’re just watching YouTube, they can see that it’s a job.
I do think that one of the biggest changes is that you have young people, when they are still young people, identifying that this is an area of work that they want to get started in and get involved with. And that’s a massive difference.
If you were to compare the sexual education climate when you started Scarleteen to the climate today, what would you say has changed or stayed the same?
It’s interesting because there’s definitely some things that have gotten worse in the interim and some things that have gotten better. Adults in general are still scared of speaking to their kids about sex and sexuality but you know, the 80’s and 90’s was kind of a heyday for really good sex information. It wasn’t very highly policed and massive religious conservatism in the United States was kind of at a low. When I first started Scarleteen in ’98, I wasn’t answering questions from people who were in deep, deep shame from having been sexual because you didn’t have all of this “purity” culture.
Then, of course, when the Bush administration came in, and you had billions of dollars going to abstinence-based initiatives—the opposite of sex education. So right now, we’re still at a point where people are fighting to get back good sex ed. But now that fight includes people like myself and many others saying: “Oh, and by the way, we want our sex ed to include queer people, we want it to include trans and gender nonconforming people and we want it to recognize that not everybody is going to get married and have babies.”
What are some of the biggest challenges at Scarleteen?
One of the biggest challenges right now is that I’m the oldest person at Scarleteen by a very serious long shot, but that’s by design. Coming from a generational place that was very, very sex positive and really sexual to a generation that is full of purity culture and has a lot of shame and extra fear is definitely challenging. It’s not the easiest thing for me to relate to. I had a lot of things that I was scared of growing up, but sex was one of the few things that I wasn’t scared of. From a personal perspective, I need to work a little bit harder to connect.
What are some aspects of traditional classroom sex ed that you’ve consciously brought into Scarleteen, versus ones that you’ve consciously ditched?
My teaching background is Montessori and Unschooling, so I’m not a fan of compulsory education. One of the things I like best about Scarleteen is that nobody is forced to be here. So nobody’s suffering through an education that they’re not ready for, that they don’t want or isn’t relevant to them. Having things be opt-in, rather than compulsory is a really big thing for me.
So, we try to make sure that what we’re doing is based on what young people are asking for, whether that ask is super explicit, or whether that ask is based on a trend that we’re noticing. In a lot of any education, what’s being presented is being decided by the educators. One of the things I’ll often hear as a sex educator is, “when I was a teenager, I wanted [to learn] ‘X’”—which would be great if we were going back in time, but generally, that’s not a good basis for figuring out what somebody who’s an adolescent now wants. They could be a radically different person from you, so what you wanted or needed 20 or 30 years ago is not necessarily helpful in figuring out what an adolescent right now wants.
Are there any projects or programs that you really feel fulfilled by right now with Scarleteen?
On September 3rd, our comic, Wait, What? A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up came out! The comic is for middle readers and what we wanted to focus on is how young people—10 to 11- or 15-year-olds—can talk with each other about basic issues, so that readers in this age group can see a good model of how to be supportive of each other. For example, how to talk about gender roles, boyfriends and girlfriends, crushes and feeling awkward in bodies. There’s absolutely some sexual anatomy [in the book]; there’s some stuff about gender identity, orientation, how to build a support group, how people use virginity constructs to make other people feel bad… for 75 pages, there’s a lot! For example, there’s one character who says he’s worried that his genitals are weird, and our approach is to say that genitals are weird—so, we have two pages of illustrations of different ways genitals can look!
Separate from Scarleteen, I just got a contract to write a guide to perimenopause and menopause: What Fresh Hell is This: Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You–A Guide. By and large, a lot of [the perimenopause and menopause literature] out there assumes that you’re cisgender, assumes that you’re straight, assumes that you had kids, assumes that you’re married to a man. It’s meant for a very different generation than Gen Xers.
[This book]’s pretty much going to be: you’re in this, this is going to be terrible, this is what’s going to happen, this is how we’re going to keep from killing people and hopefully come out on the other side. I want to make a list of everyone that’s been in perimenopause and hasn’t killed anyone. Just as a little inspiration just to be like: see, if they did it, you can do it. YOU can not kill anyone through this process.