Scarleteen's users are diverse, as are the reasons they find us, and the issues they bring to us. For some, the needs are as basic as needing to know how and when to use a condom or a hormonal contraceptive, or learning the names and functions of body parts. Some want help figuring out if sex with another person is something they want or not, or are ready for; some need help learning to negotiate or assert their sexual or interpersonal wants and needs. Many just need to know, from especially from someone who doesn't want anything from them, that it's okay for them to have sexual feelings and a sexuality. Many users like these have access to sexual healthcare, supportive and caring families or communities, and haven't experienced great sexual or interpersonal traumas. For those users, we're often something they need, but not something they can't manage without. We're a valuable helper, but not the only help they've got to draw on.
Some of our users come to Scarleteen just once or twice: reading an article or column or two, then perhaps having a conversation with us to get some extra information, or to get help putting the information they've read into the context of their own lives and choices.
Others stay longer: weeks, months, and sometimes, for years.
Those kinds of users often come to us with more complex issues, personal histories or circumstances: with a past or current history of some kind of neglect, abuse or assault, with strong sexual fears, guilt or shame, with dangerous misinformation gleaned from abstinence-only programs or other adults with religious or moral agendas, with physical or cognitive disabilities, with lack of access to healthcare or other kinds of essential care, with nonacceptance from family, friends or communities for their sexualities or the core of who they are as people. Some arrive to Scarleteen long after they needed basic sex and sexuality information and support: like those already experiencing an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, already having contracted a sexually transmitted illness, already in a sexual relationship that's not something they were ready for.
I know sexuality education and support may look simple: like a health class, where we talk about the basics of how to take care of one's health and protect it, where we talk about anatomy and body parts, and where we cover all sex can involve, and things like how and when to say yes, no, or maybe to sex. I wish I could say basic information like that -- essential, factual and nonjudgmental information on things like anatomy, sexual health and contraception and managing interpersonal relationships -- was easily available to all young people. But it's not. However, Scarleteen certainly isn't the only place, online or off, where young people can find that, even though we've long provided it very well, and I know we're a place millions young people each year have chosen and prefer to find it.
Sometimes what users want and need from sexuality education and support, is that simple, but not always or often. Particularly when you're not using an out-of-the-box curriculum, lecturing a fixed group or using worksheets, but when you're working interactively, approaching sexuality holistically with the understanding that sex education which really serves someone can't ever be one-size-fits-all.
It's complex for anyone to navigate sexuality in adolescence and emerging adulthood. Any of us who have been young people know that. Even for young people whose lives have thus far been relatively charmed will often be challenged by, or struggle with, that process.
But it's far more complicated and confusing when you're trying to do that when your life, circumstances or experiences are such that you're already saddled with other huge challenges, or when what life is or has been like for you makes your emerging sexuality far more confusing or complex. While basic, accurate and nonjudgmental sexuality education and information isn't easy for any young person to find, for many young people, it's even tougher. Even some of the best sexuality education classes, programs and resources available to young people today simply aren't designed or implemented in ways where they can work or make real room for for young people who are something other than anyone's idea of an "average" young person (whoever that is).
We do "basic" sex education very well at Scarleteen. But we're hardly alone in that at this point. I feel that where we really shine, where we fill a void we've still yet to see others filling, especially so widely and so consistently, is when what our users require isn't at all basic. When they need education and support tailored to them uniquely, provided with care and a great deal of thoughtfulness, sensitivity and compassion over not just days or weeks, but months or years, and where all of that considers and addresses issues, circumstances and concerns far larger than if someone they like likes them back, if they have an orgasm or not, if they're okay with how their bodies look, if they have a birth control method without side effects that drive them up a tree.
It's this kind of sex education and support, this way we work, that at the end of the day, I feel so proud of. This is the real reason that people who have used Scarleteen and say there is nothing else like it will tend to say that. It's this kind of sex education and support that makes us stubbornly keep sticking it out, year after year, and refusing to give up, no matter how slim the budget and how much coffee we need to mainline to keep working to serve our user's needs.
Because it's these young people who need us to never give up on them. People like Emily.
Emily has used our services and resources for over a decade. Her needs were complex, with a history and present challenges underlying all of them. Emily still needed the same basic sex education as anyone else, but as with other users like her, she also needed that information tailored and clarified to suit her unique, complex and very difficult circumstances, like being a survivor of longtime sexual abuse, help finding and using local resources and crisis care (in an area where finding either was also very hard to do), and a great deal of consistent, ongoing emotional support; she needed a service where no one was going to give up on her and where anyone who got involved did so with the intent to see her not just some of the way through, but all the way through. The fact that we could do that for her, that we did do that for her, and that she has, in fact, come all the way through? This is why we do what we do. Awards are wonderful. A living wage, and the money to develop more tools are fantastic. But they pale compared to this: being able to help someone like Emily make it through, and make it through whole, on her way to not just a healthy sexual life, but a whole life of quality she feels excited about and hopeful for? It just doesn't get any better than that.
Emily offered to write something for us about the value of Scarleteen: I couldn't be more grateful. Many of our users and supporters understand the value of Scarleteen, but a user like Emily so deeply understands all of what we can give to a young person who comes to us and utilizes every part of what we offer. She doesn't owe us a thing, but I'm so touched she wanted to give back in this way. I think that for anyone who perhaps doesn't understand the scope and depth of what we can do, Emily can explain it better than anyone.
Eleven years have gone by since I first came to Scarleteen as a very frightened, very lost sixteen year-old who had nowhere else to go and was ready to give up altogether.
Writing my story out like this is so important to me, for so many reasons.
My life has never been easy, although I don't think anyone's ever really is. I was born into a family who had so much dysfunction. They also never planned to have a third child, me.
I know now, I am finally getting to know, that none of that was anything really to do with me at all, but for most of my life I carried it around with me. I thought everything that happened to me in my life would therefore be a punishment for being the baby who ruined my family. I had never been told anything different. I had never been shown any genuine love or care by the people who brought me into this world.
Through my family, I was exposed to people who seek out children like me to abuse. And as a child, I was an abusers dream. My family didn't care about me, I was on my own often and because I had never learned to trust adults in my life, keeping me quiet was all too easy a task.
I was sexually and physically abused by the same man and his friends for over seventeen years. For nearly the whole of my childhood, adolescence, and into my adulthood.
I don't have many happy memories from my childhood or teen years. I immersed myself in schoolwork and sports and tried to imagine what life must have been like for my friends who complained about teachers and parents who cared what time they went to bed.
But eleven years ago I found Scarleteen.
I was so frightened to reach out on the message boards because I really believed that everything that was happening to me was my own fault. I was so ashamed to ask for help.
I don't remember now what I wrote or what I asked for. But I will never forget seeing a response from Heather which read "I believe you, and I care."
Even now as I type this, I'm overwhelmed with emotion as I read those words. Never before in my life had I had someone say those basic things to me, or anything like them. Heather and the volunteers were always there, remained there, for me even when my messages were confused and repetitive and I didn't really know what I needed: they were just there.
Scarleteen was the only constant positive thing I had in my life. It was the only place I could go and ask questions about what was happening to me, from unplanned pregnancy to relationship issues and most importantly how to keep myself safe and alive during the worst of times.
Scarleteen is so much to me: it's the first place I ever felt worthwhile, and the only place I ever felt truly safe. It was the first place I ever voiced what was really happening in my life, and the only place where anyone cared when I did.
Heather, the volunteers and other members of Scarleteen's community helped me to become who I am today. Most importantly, they taught me that I never deserved what had happened to me. They taught me that family does not start and end with just those who are blood relations. They supported me to report my abuser, who this year, finally, has been put behind bars.
Having a place like Scarleteen available to young people like me is so important. I am proof of that. My life would not be what it is today had I not had Scarleteen available to me and the amazing staff and volunteers. In fact, I am quite sure I probably would not have any life at all.
Young people deserve to have a place like Scarleteen. They deserve answers to their questions, yet are so often disregarded everywhere else. I want my story to be heard, because I want to make sure that other young people who need help and advice will have a place to go where they will be listened to and believed and cared for just like I have been.
A donation to Scarleteen, supporting a place like Scarleteen, is a gift to young people like me which is unlike any other. My story is proof of that. - Emily