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Revolutionize. Liberate. Celebrate. An interview with a S.E.X.pert

by Amanda Bruening, Paperdolls magazine, August 2008

Everyone has a body. Everyone has sexuality. The problem is that not everyone has a healthy or positive image of her/his body, especially in regard to his or her sexuality. And who can blame them? Just look around: Sex is everywhere, because sex sells. The sad side to this cultural phenomenon is that the type of sex that seemingly “sells” actually alienates a large segment of the population. Too many people try to achieve the supermodel body or feel they have to fit into the social norms of sex. Here in America, the majority of the population has a set idea about what sex represents, who is “pretty enough” to participate, and what constitutes as normal/immoral in terms of sexual activity. Every day, a large chunk of our society is discriminated against because their bodies are not what the media has deemed “perfect,”because their sexual orientation is not heterosexual or observant of gender- or race-appropriate roles.

In 1998, Heather Corinna created Scarleteen.com, a Web site made specifically for teens and young adults in search of answers about sex. For 10 years, Corinna and her dedicated staff of volunteers have obeyed the site’s mission to fill “the need for comprehensive, respectful, age-appropriate sex education.” Scarleteen.com and Corinna’s most recent book, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College (2007, Da Capo Press, 332 pages), each go in depth to answer teens’ questions about sexuality and body image. Recently, PaperDolls corresponded with Corinna via e-mail, when she discussed her Web site, her latest book, and, of course, sex.

PaperDolls: I see that Scarleteen.com is celebrating its 10th anniversary in teaching teens and young adults about sex education. Congratulations! What were you thinking in terms of goals and commitments back in 1998, when you started Scarleteen?

Heather Corinna: Thanks! Myself and the volunteers are all pretty excited to be having this anniversary. Scarleteen has always been an independent organization, without any advertising other than word-of-mouth from our users and supporters, so we think our tenure says some pretty great things about the power of people to sustain something indie they find valuable and the power of young people when it comes to disseminating information to one another. The initial goals were not particularly complex, and they still are fairly simple. At the time, because I was running the first sexuality site for adult women (which got very visible largely because the Web was so much smaller than it is now), I began to get sexuality questions in my e-mail from teens. The site I was working at really wasn’t age-appropriate in that way, so I looked for places to refer them to but ultimately found little. There were a few old-school forums where teens could talk about sex, but they were very adult and male-dominated and … well, a little skeezy and voyeuristic. … So, I began to write a few basic informational pages on sexual anatomy, the basics of sexuality, birth control, and safer sex, and it just grew from there. I kept getting more questions, so I kept providing more answers. Ultimately, the goal was to educate based on the questions I/we were being asked, and to do so in the same spirit and with the same approach I have always taught with: with openness, without judgment, in a way that was very self-directed from students and more about me being a partner or guide than a director and without leaving my own personality and ethics at the door. That’s still what we do. It’s just nothing close to a few pages anymore: The message boards contain over 50,000 moderated discussions, and the main site has over 1,500 Web pages of content. We have about 25,000 users at the site every day these days. … I have to also try and see the bigger picture and anticipate additional questions, connect our users with as many solid external resources as I can. I have to talk to other people/groups in their lives to advocate for them and do what I can to help assure the information they’re getting from all the places we get sex information is supportive and accurate, and we have had to trail-blaze a lot, because when it comes to models for feminist, inclusive, and friendly sex ed, there’s been little to refer to.

PD: Do you feel you’ve met those goals, or do you feel like there is more for you to do in eliminating the stereotypes and myths that surround teenage sex and sexuality? If there’s more to come, have you figured your next step yet?

HC: I think there will always be more to come. Really, from a historical perspective, the study and real address of sexuality is incredibly new, especially when it includes women and young people. We haven’t really even been having this cultural conversation for a hundred years yet, and we have just barely begun to even see a lot of study and examination of teen sexuality: That’s only really started over the last couple decades.

PD: I noticed at the end of the “Thank You” section of your book S.E.X., you stated: “To the girl I once was: I finally found you that book that you wanted. Sorry it took me so long.”

Did certain aspects of your teenage/young adult years and possibly the inaccessibility of information have an impact on your desire to spread knowledge about sexuality and promote a healthier body image to the younger generations?

HC: Given my age and parts of the environment I grew up in, I actually think I had better access to better information than most teens today. The timing was such that I got to be around for some of the heyday of the very start of comprehensive sex ed: I grew up urban and in a pretty politically progressive area. I also feel like I was better able—even in light of sexual violence that happened to me young—to feel freer in my sexuality than a lot of the teens I counsel. But at the same time, as is the case today, back then, finding information that was really inclusive (I knew I wasn’t straight at a very young age), was very candid, and just felt friendly and warm without feeling like my boundaries were crossed or I was being talked down to wasn’t easy. But too, I was absolutely the go-to girl for sexuality questions among my peers through high school and college. I had been very sexually active for a while, my mother worked in health care, and I was a voracious reader on all things sexual. As a survivor of sexual violence, some of my healing came from finding all of the good things in sex, in finding out what really was sex and what was just violence or domination. And there’s no sense in not being candid: I love sex. I think that it is a sacred thing, however you choose to interpret that, and that sexuality is an essential part of life which has the capacity to enlighten us and really add a lot of joy and pleasure to our lives and relationships. I want to do what I can to ensure that young people have somewhere to go where they can see sex viewed positively, holistically, and as an experience and facet of life, not as a product or a thing to acquire.

PD: There is a common theme of “loving your body” throughout the pages of your Web site and in a whole chapter of your book. I know you lay out a 10-step guide to having a healthy body image, but could you tell the girls reading what you feel is the most important (or maybe two most important) way to looking past our culture’s drive to make everyone look like a supermodel?

HC: Sure. First up, I’d bear in mind the sucker factor. We live in a capitalistic culture, and beauty ideals make a lot of people a whole lot of money. In other words, enabling ideas that we need to conform to certain ways of looking is very much driven by someone else trying to make us broke so they can get rich. For women particularly, who already make less on the dollar than men do, this should be something that once we realize what’s really going on, we get supremely pissed off about rather than want to go along with. … All of us looking the same is a dreadful bore, and any of us not valuing our uniqueness is not only a real loss; it’s really kind of creepy when you think about it. Do we really want to be homogenized? How does that actually honor who we are and allow us to live lives of quality and individuality? We all come into this world as completely original beings who have, to our knowledge, never existed in exactly this way and time before. Not just accepting but celebrating that—in a Walt Whitman, I-sing-the-body-electric kind of way—is our opus, really. If we can’t bring all of who we are to the table, we can’t expect to live lives that are anything to really write home about.

PD: You seem to have a great understanding and respect for many religions and cultural views, including abstinence for those who truly desire to follow that path. Have you met much flack from outside sources for bringing light to the fact that teaching abstinence-only to adolescents just does not seem to hold up biologically and culturally in our society?

HC: It’s always come and gone in waves. Certainly, there have been times when certain groups have drowned me in piles of hate mail, and I have gotten threats before, to boot. I’ve read pieces where everything, from my gender to my sexual orientation to my status as a sexual-violence survivor to my economic class to the way my body looks, has been used in an attempt to discredit me. But for the most part, the place it most often comes from is a place where a person or group clearly thinks that young people do not deserve the right to choose what is best for themselves and to have diverse information with which to consider and make their own choices. Abstinence-only approaches have been documented, even by studies done by our own government agencies, to show that most contain not only misinformation, but knowingly false information with the intent to incite fear and withhold factual information. While those times of getting a lot of flack are tough to weather in some ways, in others, it’s easy for me to shrug off, because I have a profound respect and admiration for young people and a confidence in the ability of young people to be capable and able.

PD: Are you aware if you have a global audience rather than just American?

HC: Our users at the site and readers of the book have always been international: That’s one of the great parts of working online, the ability to reach an international audience very easily. The majority of our users are from the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but we also get a lot of traffic from India, China, South Africa, Malaysia, and other countries. It’s fantastic, because it allows those of us working in the field to get a very global scope of what’s going on, and it also lets users get a broader perspective in talking to each other about their sexuality issues.

PD: I noticed that you suggest a different book for teens to read on each page of Scarleteen in the left-hand column. I think that’s a great idea to get your audience reading, something that is often lost now that many are easily distracted by TV and video games. How do you pick the books that you recommend?

HC: I am and have always been a compulsive reader. I have two full-wall bookshelves here, which are full two-piles-deep and piles of books which overflow end tables, under the bed, dressers, even the bathroom. At any given time, I’m usually reading four or five different books, and I’m lucky to have learned to read very young and to read very quickly. A lot of the books I suggest are books I have read and feel are good choices, and some are books I have not read but our volunteers have. I also pay attention to book reviews and library reviews and sometimes choose books that way if I haven’t read them yet myself.

PD: Feminism tends to get a bad reputation in mainstream America, as we all know. I’m assuming you are a feminist, based on the content of Scarleteen and S.E.X., so can you explain to the teenage girls of today’s generation how you view feminism, especially in context with what we’ve been talking about, and whether you feel the cause deserves the stereotypical reputation it gets across the media.

HC: I’m staunchly feminist and always have been. To me, simplified down to its lowest common denominator, when I am talking about feminism, what I am talking about is real equity and real autonomy for women and a culture which does not just make certain allowances or accommodations for us or grant us certain privileges under its wing but which is created and exists with us and by us as an equal and integral part of a representative whole. I know that right now, a lot of young women feel like “feminism” is a bad word and that some have even experienced harassment for stating themselves to be feminist or stating feminist opinions. But that’s always happened: When an oppressed class speaks up, stands up, that is what will happen, and it’s what has always happened when any class has done so. The bad reputation feminism as a theory and a movement sometimes has is one it has because it poses a threat to the benefits some people reap because women do not have real equality, across the board and globally, yet. People spoke the same way about abolishing slavery, about the civil rights movement, about the formation of labor unions. We’ll sometimes hear people say there is no more need for feminism at this point, but in my mind, one of the easiest proofs that we do is the way many people react to even the word “feminism”: If we were post-feminist, we’d also be post feminist-bashing and past a fear of feminism. We’d be past anyone ever saying, “I’m not a feminist, but …” and then voicing something in support of the rights of women or which is part of feminism, feminist history, or feminist theory.

PD: Do you have any last words of wisdom that you could share with our readers?

HC: Really? Trust and create your own words of wisdom: We all need to hear them, and I think you need to value them. We live in a culture that has a good deal of what I call “expertitis.” In other words, those seen or held up as experts are given some kind of penultimate authority or credibility, far and above that of others, despite the fact that what experts know, while gathered often from many sources, still comes forth from one person, one mouth, and through one unique lens. … Expertitis can enable us to think less critically, to kind of own our own experiences and lives less, and incline us towards taking something sitting down we should be standing up to question, critique, or protest. The time we live in right now strikes me as being in a considerable crisis when it comes to critical thought and individuality, and younger generations have historically always been the very best counter to a culture getting too dogmatic and too directive. Teen rebellion is often made to sound like something foolish or merely reactionary, but I think it’s powerful, essential, and vital for all of us. When it comes to teens and sex, adults are always going to have an opinion, but some of that—and for many adults, a lot of that—is based on coulda-woulda-shoulda from their own young sex lives and what they feel is or would have been most ideal. It has a lot more to do with adults than with youth, and our youth is over: Yours is going on right now, so it’s yours which should lead, yours this should all be about. Sexuality is something, which, if we know nothing else about it at all, we know to be wildly diverse. What’s right for one person in any regard can be the wrongest thing ever for someone else, so while we always want to inform ourselves with basic information, we also have to trust ourselves and our own wisdom just as much as we trust anyone else’s, even when we’re young.

Heather Corinna’s S.E.X. is available at Amazon.com and bookstores nationwide for purchase. Also, make sure to check out Scarleteen.com to learn more about not only your own sexuality, but the incredible diversity of sexuality globally. Corinna and her staff constantly keep the Web page updated, and the message boards are a fabulous place to go if you have any questions. Remember to be safe, believe beautiful, and love your body for you, while appreciating others for doing the same.

Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.