The Feministing Five: Heather Corinna
February 27, 2010, by Chloe Angyal
Heather Corinna, a writer and activist, is the founder of Scarleteen, one of the internet's best sex ed resources for young people, and the author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide for Getting You Through High School and College. Scarleteen, which Corinna started in 1998, tries to fill the gaps left - whether intentionally or unintentionally - in sex education provided by teachers and parents. Scarleteen is for and by young people, aims to equip young people with all the information they need to make the best choices they can make. It also provides a space for them to talk, in an honest and safe way, about issues that they might not otherwise be able to explore, like bisexuality, coming out and abusive relationships. I particularly like this post, about men, masculinity and breakups.
Corinna is also one of the founders of the All Girl Army, a blogger collective for young feminists (some as young as 10, and who doesn't love a 10-year-old feminist?). Each of their bloggers was asked to define what feminism means to them. Check it out - it'll put a smile on your face.
Corinna, whose writing has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Bitch and Bust, among many, many others. Those of you who read RH Reality Check will recognize Corinna from her Get Real! series, answering readers' questions about sex, sexuality and sexual health. In this week's column, about sex and guilt, she writes: "I have yet to see any sound evidence that people enjoying pleasure, sexual or otherwise, in ways that do not hurt anyone -- that everyone involves wants and engages in with basic care and respect for themselves and others -- has anything but positive benefits for people and the world as a whole." Amen to that.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Heather Corinna.
Chloe Angyal: What led you to sex and sexuality education and activism?
Heather Corinna: I've been a general educator since college: I started out working with developmentally disabled adults, then went into Montessori and alternative early childhood and elementary education, while at the same time still working on my arts, including my writing. I grew up with a father who was a political activist, and a mother who worked in healthcare. In a lot of ways, my sexuality and sexual life was a lone place of real freedom for me in my teens during the 80's, a notion that stands so counter to so much of what people say about young adult sexuality but which was so true for me. That given, I was often the unofficial sex expert in high school and college, so while I'm sure my advice back them wasn't as informed as it could have been, I got started in this early. I've also been writing for the whole of my life, so when you put all of those ingredients in the pot, I think it's tough to see how I would have wound up anywhere BUT in sexuality education and activism.
When I first started publishing online in the mid-late 90's, I was working centrally with adult women's sexuality and sexuality in the arts, as well as writing erotica for anthologies, and young people began to send me advice questions, likely because a) there just wasn't much on the 'net to choose from at the time (so finding my stuff was mighty easy), and b) most of the sexuality spaces there were around then were some skeevy BBS' (which seemed primarily to be manned and used by adult men who got off on teenagers talking about sex and offered very little actual support or factual information) that I don't imagine felt like safe spaces for young people. There wasn't anything for young people I could refer them to, so we just gradually built Scarleteen as we went, until it got to the point where it became my full-time job.
At this point, most of my week is based on directing and operating Scarleteen and doing other kinds of written sex ed/sexuality articles, but I also direct an in-person sex education outreach program in Seattle. At the current time through that program, I serve both homeless or transient youth as well as patients or clients at abortion clinics under 25 who can get an in-depth one-on-one sex education consult with me on the day of their procedures.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
HC: It's crazy tough to pick just one, but Oothoon in William Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion would have to win it if it was just one. It's a short piece, but in but a few pages, mostly composed of Oothoon speaking and telling her own tale, she does those most magnificent telling-off on everything from how crazy it is for anyone to suggest that a woman raped is somehow "tainted" or "impure," to what's really at the core of sexual jealousy to what sexual freedom and women's sexuality could really be like in a better world. It also contains Blake's concept of what innocence is, which is radically different from how we usually hear it defined. For Blake, innocence was simply where we are at without experience, less about purity and more about an open wonder, then we get life experience, and the ideal state -- unlike the one we often see, which is this perpetual state of innocence or "purity" -- is to return to innocence informed and deepened by experience.
On the whole, it's a giant rant about so many of the things that infuriate and frustrate me the most, and I don't know that I've ever seen a better one. (And goodness knows I rant enough about it myself to have personally made the attempt many times over.) This from 1793, no less, and from a male writer and artist, too. The first time I read it, it blew my socks off so much that my professor at the time allowed me to skip class for several days so I could read and reread it over and over again and just let myself drown in it. One of my fave passages in it is:
Infancy! fearless, lustful, happy, nestling for delight
In laps of pleasure: Innocence! honest, open, seeking
The vigorous joys of morning light, open to virgin bliss,
Who taught thee modesty, subtil modesty, child of night and sleep?
When thou awakest wilt thou dissemble all thy secret joys,
Or wert thou not awake when all this mystery was disclos'd?
Then com'st thou forth a modest virgin knowing to dissemble,
With nets found under thy night pillow, to catch virgin joy
And brand it with the name of whore, and sell it in the night
In silence, ev'n without a whisper, and in seeming sleep.
Religious dreams and holy vespers light thy smoky fires:
Once were thy fires lighted by the eyes of honest morn.
And does my Theotormon seek this hypocrite modesty,
This knowing, artful, secret, fearful, cautious, trembling hypocrite?
Then is Oothoon a whore indeed! and all the virgin joys
Of life are harlots; and Theotormon is a sick man's dream;
And Oothoon is the crafty slave of selfish holiness.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
HC: This piece, about Utah potentially criminalizing women who abort and miscarry.
Not only does it infuriate me as a feminist and as someone in reproductive health including abortion, but also as an educator. By no means do I think that people really being educated about sexuality, our bodies and the whole process of reproduction will magically fix or prevent the kind of ideology and dynamics really at the heart of this proposal. However, barely a day passes where I don't read someone, including the media, legislators, magazines in the market, saying or suggesting something really freaking ignorant about women's bodies, reproduction or sex which makes clear that their own sex ed was sorely lacking.
Miscarriage is often totally unavoidable (and in some ways is actually about our bodies being very smart, and doing things to help to try and protect our own health). It is not, as it is often suggested to be, often about women doing something wrong, something being wrong with women, or women being "careless" with their pregnancies. A great many pregnancies, potentially as many as half, end in miscarriage, many before women even knew they were pregnant. These are the indisputable facts of our bodies and how they work. The idea that pregnancy is certain or guaranteed to end in a birth unless a woman mucks it up or doesn't do all the right things not only is inaccurate, it clearly comes from the notion that anything unwanted or bad that happens to women must be our fault or doing.
Criminalizing any reproduction choice is heinous enough. But seeking to criminalize women's own bodily functions -- and doing so based on a few cases which are not representative of most women or most miscarriages -- outside of our control is beyond the pale many steps further. The worst part is, folks like this may even know these facts and simply act like they don't on purpose, but so much of the general population doesn't know the facts that snowing people is all too easy. There is a substantial segment of people in the world who aren't as outraged over things like this as I think they would be if they got that it isn't just the ideology that's horrifying, it's an ideology held up in part because of a collective (and often purposefully sustained, such as by abstinence-only sex education) ignorance about something no one should be ignorant about: not even being educated accurately about the bodies we inhabit and live your lives through is an outrage to me.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
HC: The idea that we don't need it anymore, that everyone is all equal and equitable and there aren't any more gender disparities. Not only is that either a tremendous falsehood or a very deep ignorance, it is often either said by people who either have a ton of privilege or by those who clearly need feminism the most because they're so deeply disempowered that it seems like they need to say that to try and protect what little agency they have.
We don't have gender equality or gender equity. Certainly not globally, and we don't have it yet in the states, either. Women still do not have pay equity. Women's right to full autonomy over our bodies, something the majority of male-bodied people have, is still not complete and is often tenuous at best, particularly when we're talking about reproductive choice and health and full sexual freedom. Marginalized women in particular -- either by virtue of race, immigration status, age, gender identity or sexual orientation, economic class, what have you -- still usually have far less rights than men of those same marginalized groups.
The saddest thing to me in the espousal of the idea that we're post-feminist is how many women who suggest as much are doing so (I think Ariel Levy speaks very well to aspects of this) for their own personal gain on the backs of their sisters. Of course, it's nearly as sad to me how many women think that where we are at with equity isn't about having made progress, but about still needing much more, but that this is either as good as we can expect, or worse still, that we should be grateful for being given any crumbs of equity at all.
CA: You're going to a desert island, and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you take?
HC: Pistachios. And water. I have so many other beverages of choice I'd earnestly prefer, but I am really bad at drinking enough water and feel like being on a desert island might be just the thing that finally motivates me to care for myself properly in that regard. Victoria Woodhull, if dead feminists count. If we need someone living, bell hooks.