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Scarleteen in the Media: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Everything teens wanted to know about sex ... is at Scarleteen
May 13th, 2007, by Athima Chansanchai, P-I REPORTER

illustration: Andrew Saegerillustration: Andrew Saeger Let's talk about sex.

Let's talk about it openly, honestly and without any judgments on what you, as a teenager, are doing or not doing.

Let's talk about how your body is changing, the stuff going on inside your head and how to communicate with your partner.

Let's do all this online at Scarleteen.

"It's really great to have a Web site that is so approachable and says things in a language young people in particular can relate to and understand," said Joan Schrammeck, development and communications director for the Cedar River Clinics in Tacoma, Renton and Yakima. "It's very upfront."

Scarleteen is a Web site, but it's also a community, a resource and a model for how teens and adults can co-exist in an environment focused on giving people the information they need to make the most informed choices.

It's definitely not about techniques or crossing other lines.

One choice is abstinence, including a "sexual readiness checklist" that is nothing if not thorough. But the site also embraces a crazy idea: Sex can be a positive experience -- fun, even! -- if and when you're ready to handle it safely.

"I'm unwilling to say 'no' is always a better answer than 'yes,' " said Heather Corinna, 37, the Ballard-based sex educator and activist who began the site nine years ago while still in her native Chicago. "A) I'd be a giant hypocrite since it's worked OK for me, and, b) it's an option. But it's an option the world we live in doesn't support."

Scarleteen.com has hit some kind of nerve, generating active message boards and discussions among the 15,000 to 30,000 young adults, parents and educators each day, according to the site. Besides Corinna, there is an international cadre of volunteers who answer every question.

"When I have a question about something that normally I would be scared to ask anyone else, I can go to Scarleteen and ask the question and always get a quick response without any worry of someone harassing or making fun of me for asking that question," said Elizabeth Rockett, 18, of Bainbridge Island.

Parents may be shocked by the language on the site. It is explicit, but not gratuitous. And it's how kids talk.

Corinna has spent the past six years listening to those voices and has just published "S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College."The 332-page manual (Marlowe & Co., $16.95) covers body basics for boys and girls, as well as sexual identity, masturbation, body image, contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and the emotional repercussions of making sexual decisions.

At a book release party last week at the Karma Martini Lounge & Bistro, Corinna asked her boyfriend to do a dramatic reading of the how-to-put-on-a-condom passage. She demonstrated how condoms really do stretch by making a hand puppet out of one.

The book is full of the kind of humor that makes Scarleteen so readable, with subchapters like "Get the Ball Rolling" and "10 Bodacious Ways to Boost Body Image" and "Genderpalooza! A Sex and Gender Primer."

Schrammeck sees it as "Our Bodies, Ourselves" for the next generation. "This is another groundbreaking book and what we love is that it's woman-centered," she said. "It's boldly feminist."

Corinna, who says she was a victim of sexual assault when she was 12, was living on the streets by age 16 and had recognized her queer orientation. She went on to graduate from Chicago's Academy for the Arts and became an early childhood educator.

Nearly a decade ago, she left full-time teaching and went online to post "Scarlet Letters," sexual anecdotes by and for women. Before long, she was inundated by questions about sex from teens. She tried looking for answers online, some place she could direct them to, but there was nothing. Early Internet sites about sex were more entertainment oriented (read: porn) than education-based.

So Corinna decided to come out with a six-page question-and-answer format for those questions, thinking that would be it. She was so, so wrong.

She acquired a domain and the boards went up in 2000, and from then on it's been a thriving, dynamic and information-packed site where anyone can read about subjects such as virginity, sexual politics and coming out. She and her volunteers stay up-to-date on the latest research and meticulously source their findings. The footnotes in her book are just a fraction of the resources she's used over the years.

Scarleteen.com lives almost entirely by donations. "People think of it as giving money to teen sex! They interpret education as a directive for activity," Corinna said. "Then why are we teaching our kids about war?"

Mostly, Corinna said, teens come onto the site in crisis mode, for either damage control or prevention, and the other half visit to ask general questions.

Not a shocker: Pregnancy is still the No. 1 subject on the site.

"Even though there are places to find that information, I think so much of good sex education is social, is about people just wanting to ask someone they feel some trust in, or who just seems OK to ask, where they can really be answered in a one-on-one way," Corinna said. "Getting the information to do the education is time-consuming, for sure, and requires that a person have some skills per understanding sociological and medical terminology, but I think that's really only half the job, and the wild card is who's willing to do all that legwork and just be someone kids respond to and feel good about talking with?"

And for that comfort level to work, it means respecting teens and countering the messages of fear that stir such anxiety in them around sex.

"The feeling of judgment really affects them, so we give generic and relaxed answers," Corinna said. "We give answers with as little bias as possible and not what we think of what they're doing. What they're told (in other places) is not information about sex but behavioral directives of sex and with whom to have it and in what context. In other words, social conditioning."

Some parents also have given the site a stamp of approval.

"When it comes down to it, it can be incredibly difficult to talk to your own children about sex," said Sally Poorman, 37, of Bellingham. "There are just so many things we worry about as parents. Giving information is fraught with fear: Am I saying too much, or too little? If I am too open will they confuse that with condoning something that they aren't ready for? It's just crazy scary.

"At any rate, while I am doing the best I can as a mother to three teenaged daughters, I actually feel quite relieved that they know about Scarleteen as a resource. They can go there to get answers to just about everything, including what is often lost in other sex-ed venues: the emotional aspects of sexuality as well as the physical."

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