Heather Corinna: On Scarleteen, sex education, what's being written and what isn't
by Anna Clark: July 17th, 2007
(An abridged version of this interview appears on the blog of the Center for New Words, as part of the weekly literary feminist interview series. The following is the expanded version of the original interview, also posted at Ms. Clark's blog here.)
Heather Corinna was one of the first to carve out space for creative, compassionate, and informed sexuality on the Internet.
She is the founder, editor, and designer of Scarleteen, an enormously popular site that offers young adults "sex ed for the real world"--and is a direct response to the failures of abstinence-only education. Heather's also the author of Scarleteen's book counterpart, S.E.X.:the All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College, which hit bookstores last spring.
With like mind, Heather created Scarlet Letters, a sex-positive women's sexuality website, and Femmerotic, an online sexuality journal. As well she helped develop and manages All Girl Army, an online collective of young feminist blogs and journals.
Her fiction, poetry, and essays have been widely published in anthologies, and print and online periodicals. Besides her mad writing and web development skills, Heather Corinna is also a photographer, with her work published and displayed across the country. She's a trained Montessori teacher who got a humanities-heavy education from the Chicago Academy for the Arts and Shimer College. She currently lives in Seattle.
I got the happy chance to talk with Heather Corinna recently and was blown away by her. Trust me, you want to know what she has to say:
You pioneered the Internet as a space for young adult and women's sexual education and exploration. What incited you to bring this content to a new, barely-formed Web?
Mostly, because I could! I come from immigrant family on both sides, and we've got pioneering in the blood. At the time I started creating sexuality content for women and teens, it was something I'd been gravitating towards for a while, but the entry costs when it came to print were just far too high. The 'net was absolutely a brave new world in all senses of the world: at the time (not so much now), getting started cost little to nothing, figuring out how to code and design content wasn't TOO difficult -- especially when you already had design and some computer skills -- and from the onset, it was pretty clear that while the web was a great arena for women, but that women's interests weren't very represented, particularly when it came to content about sexuality.
In '96, when I first started doing some design work on the web and thinking about these things, there was literally nothing at all. In early '98, when I first started launching the kind of work I do now, the audience was far smaller than the population we have using the web now, but very receptive and responsive. I was lucky in that way: I got a lot of feedback to help me hone things that developers, authors and artists who are coming to the web now, or even came just a few years later don't get the same kind of anymore.
What are your thoughts on the power of the web for sexual information and images? What are its possibilities and dangers?
I think we have the same sorts of possibilities and dangers with Internet media that we have with any other media when it comes to sexual information and imagery. I do think that information and image overload is something to be concerned with, particularly when it comes to sex, though not just for the usual reasons. Sex is a multi-sensory experience, and while also emotional and intellectual, a very physical experience, and the 'net, combined with other things, is keeping a lot of folks indoors, very close to home, and out of touch with the planet, their bodies and their general physicality: as a culture, we’ve been becoming more cerebral (oddly, without seeing to become any more intelligent) and less physical. My feeling is that that isn't helping a lot of people with body image, sexual experience and whole-body satisfaction.
It's easy to presume that because the Internet is so vast, that the sexual information we find on it is equally vast, when in truth, it's often colored by the same biases we find anywhere else. Heterocentricity and gendernormativity looms large on the web, as does all of the gender bias, class oppressions, and long-standing myths that is part of a lot of sexual information, including much sexual research.
One thing we're seeing more of at Scarleteen is a feeling teens have, especially young women, that sex is about performance. Ariel Levy did a phenomenal job of addressing this in Female Chauvinist Pigs, though we can also find it addressed in feminist theory decades before. This isn't a new pressure, but how widely and consistently it is applied is new. The more pervasive and mainstream pornography has become, the more it's seen by a lot of young people (many of whom have no real-life experience to compare it with) as what is expected in partnered sex and sexual identity. I hear a lot of adults being trite about that, stating that it's obvious that porn is fiction, but it's a lot easier to see that when you have life experience that younger people don't have yet. And for some young people, you get life imitating art (or media, in this case), in that plenty of sexual experiences at this point DO resemble porn, because that's what they are parroting.
One really great thing the web has provided, though, is both an ongoing, diverse conversation as well as a gigantic public library. I grew up hanging out in libraries as much as I could, and that's one of the ways the developing web really delighted me as it came into being. Too, there is a LOT of person-to-person and voice-to-voice connectivity and sharing going on. For certain, a lot of that shows our communication problems as a people -- and by all means, we need to, as ever, be conscious of credibility, safety and checking resources -- but I think it also shows our strengths. There are an awful lot of people out there who have been able to find support in certain arenas via the web which they wouldn't have been able to find otherwise.
Tell me the Scarleteen story. How and why did it begin? How has it evolved over the years?
When I started Scarlet Letters (currently on hiatus), it was intended for adult women. But likely because it was woman-run, because it was holistic and helpful, questions started coming in from teenagers. I took a look for other resources online I could refer them to, but at the time, I just couldn't find much of anything. Really, at that point in the web, pretty much everything to do with sex was entertainment, rather than education.
So, I made a few pages of the barest basics in terms of sex education, and got slammed with readers; questions kept coming, and I basically just kept making more material in response. It became clear that the need for young adult sex information was more profound than I'd understood it to be. I went ahead and kept responding. We added the message boards in 2000, and have wonderful volunteers to moderate them and help answer questions: without their help, there'd be no way I could handle all this work, and having a diversity of personality is also a boon.
And that's how it's evolved: nearly all the information we have is in direct response to our user's questions. This year, I upgraded the site in hopes of making it easier to add more static content more frequently, because given the volume we serve--sometimes as many as 30K in users a day--it's more efficient to look for the common threads in their discussions and create more articles to serve them, rather than my trying to answer every question one-on-one.
I had no idea at the time I started Scarleteen that it'd become the central work of my life. It shouldn't be a surprise, really: in hindsight it makes a lot of sense -- I've always been a teacher, and was teaching full-time in alternative education before that, sexuality has always been an arena of profound interest to me (in college, I was centered on literature, art and sociology, but my interests in all were always around the sexual, erotic and interpersonal, as well as women's issues). As well, I came of age with a lot of heavy challenges, and some very confusing sexual issues, so I'm highly sympathetic to teens going through that. But all the same, I didn't really see it coming until I was so immersed in it, and it so clearly would be the one area of work that I felt must be done in any given day.
How does Scarleteen connect with your other creative ventures--Scarlet Letters, All Girl Army, and your photography, fiction, and poetry ? How do you fuse your artistic and political interests?
For me, they've always seemed to come together pretty effortlessly. Certainly, I want All Girl Army to be general, rather than about sexuality, but sexuality issues are also part of feminist issues. All of my fiction, poetry and visual art isn't about sexuality by a long shot, but since sexuality, the sensual and the erotic--in the sense that Audre Lorde defined--are such a huge part of human experience, those themes are often a unifying red thread throughout.
In your various projects, you adapt your voice and writing style to different audiences. What is that process like? Is it difficult, ever, to maintain your authenticity?
When I used to teach in a classroom, I was amazed that I never had to try too hard to turn off the potty-mouth that was pervasive for me in the rest of my life: I'd step into that environment, and I'd instantly adapt.
Same goes now. I don't have to do much adapting, save to make sure I'm addressing a given audience with language and context they understand. My work is that of a language translator: sexological and medical language is often difficult to digest. I'm benefitted by having spent a lot of my life around hospitals, doctors and nurses because of my mother's work: often notes left to me as a kid with reminders about chores or things to bring to school were written in medical shorthand!
I feel like a lot of people underestimate the intelligence of younger people: while I'll simplify something for teens if they ask me to, and I try and write in a way that is within basic bounds for their reading levels, I also don't dumb down for them. Because I have an interactive platform with Scarleteen, they know they can always ask me extra questions. It was a boon having talked to them directly for so long in that way when writing the book: at this point, I have a pretty good feel for what they can understand and what many can't.
In all your work, creative and political, what myths about women, girls, and sexuality do you most want to dispel? What truths do you want to promote?
Those'd be mighty big lists! But the long and the short of it is that I hope what I do helps people understand that sexuality should always be a positive--for oneself and whomever else we invite to share our sexuality with--even though everyone's desires aren't always rainbows and cupcakes. It should always be something that furthers the growth of everyone, and for that to happen, it doesn't have to be a drag or treated as some sort of religious rite. We've got this bizarre idea a lot of people and policy-makers seem to have which is that pleasure is vapid, unimportant, or corrupt--and that's tied into seeing women as corruptors or, alternately, as responsible for men's sexual desires: even a quick glance at a lot of sex ed now and through history shows a tendency to put women in the role of sexual policing. Obviously, all of that, too, is compounded when women individually and/or as a class aren't given full personhood and autonomy.
Real pleasure and real intimacy – of SO many types – are transformative: they’re agents of growth, change and compassion. That makes them powerful, and that makes them something that scares an awful lot of people. But I think if we come to them from a good place, individually and culturally, a place where we seek out those positives -- rather than, say, coming to sex to use as a means to control or a place to hide, for example – there just are no negatives in it.
The trick, of course, is no small one: getting everyone to that place not only isn’t easy, we have to realize that a vast number of people don’t even know it exists!
How do misconceptions about women and sexuality affect men and boys?
Well, for starters, rape has a whole lot to do with misconceptions about women and sexuality. Even when we're talking about men raping men or boys, so much of that is about feminizing the victim, and proving a masculinity on the part of the rapist.
The notion that women's sexuality is only a response to male sexuality is dangerous for men and women alike--dangerous per what men do to women and other men, and to men themselves, whose sexuality is limited with these misconceptions. Heck, any of us who work in sexuality know, for instance, that the prostate gland is more sensitive than the penis (especially a circumcised one), and that loads of men really expand their sexuality by getting friendly with their anuses, but especially for heterosexual men, the fact that receptive sex is presented as "feminine" keeps them from a real pleasure and a mutuality that sexual exploration can create. Many men can't explore and enjoy sex as a whole-body endeavor, period. For men reared with -- and who incorporate into their sexuality -- the notion that sex is solely or only about their penises
(I often lose my marbles over Viagra and Cialis for many reasons, but one reason why it gets me in such a tizzy is that I feel like older men, due to body changes and the changes that has on how their penises work, suddenly have this great opportunity they might not have had before to explore the WHOLE of their bodies as sexual, and performance enhancers to keep that focus all about the penis really rip them off of what could be an otherwise valuable change.)
The idea that sex is something to "get"--and women something to "get"--is also detrimental. When we make women and/or sex status objects, we can't connect deeply, because only one of us is thought to have personhood. That's bad news for women, but it's also bad news for men because a lot of them are unable to discover the deeper intimacies we can find in sexuality, no matter what sort of sex we're having and who we're having it with.
I have often also seen some young men really struggling with what they feel emotionally and sexually, for themselves, and what they're told they're supposed to feel; how they're told they're supposed to enact those feelings. Even the pervasive idea that men are always supposed to be ever-at-the-ready for any sex does them harm: there are plenty of teens boys who aren't ready for partnered sex and don't feel ready, but absolutely do not feel they have permission -- primarily from other men, but also from female partners -- to say no. There are men out there, too, who might enjoy receptive oral sex, but the presentation of oral sex as a form of female domination, while it might be a turn-on for some men, is an absolute turn OFF for others, but because that sort of presentation is so pervasive, they have a hard time getting it out of their heads even when a female partner is not being dominated, is enjoying what she's doing and when the sex between them is earnestly egalitarian, without dynamics of submission and domination.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't address how much the dogma of intercourse as THE sexual activity screws up men as much as it does women. Plenty of us know by now (especially if we're women), that vaginal intercourse by itself is not very satisfying physically for women, and often less satisfying emotionally as it's presented to be, but what frequently gets overlooked is that it often isn't for plenty of men, too.
Even though inequalities disconnect us, we're all interconnected: the sexual inequalities and misconceptions that harm women harm women more -- and in many ways, more deeply -- in a society where we have less agency and influence as a class, but they do men harm, too.
At a time when abstinence-only education continues to receive millions of federal dollars--while comprehensive sex education receives zero--you come out with the book S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College. How does S.E.X. respond to our time and place?
I'd hoped to have it respond well before now, but because of that climate, it took six years to get it out on the shelves, with the majority of those years spent shopping it out and being constantly shot down by publishers -- not because of a lack of quality, but because it is so culturally unsupported and seen as such a risk by publishing companies.
I'm driven, but not a masochist: if I hadn't thought this was direly needed, there's no way I'd have invested so much energy in writing it, editing and re-editing, and doing everything I could to get that book out there. Having worked in comprehensive sex ed since the dawn of abstinence-only funding, it's been easy to see the effects over time. From what I see, and what studies support, abstinence-only hasn't changed teen sexual behavior much, save that more teens seem to be engaging in "everything-but" (as in, everything but intercourse) with even less information than they might have had. I've seen increased fear and sex panic--we get teens every day who are afraid of risks when they're not even sexually active--and an increase in misinformation. It doesn't seem to keep them from sexual activity; it just leaves them more terrified and at greater risk when they engage in it.
As well, our cultural homophobia and the way we limit gender roles continues to take a toll. Obviously, that toll is greatest for GLBT (and even more profoundly on GLBT youth), but it hardly stops there. Even some sex education books which are otherwise great are often riddled with gender bias, often treat heterosexuality and traditional gender roles as some sort of natural default. Adolescence and young adulthood is, ideally, supposed to be a time to discover yourself, and that's limited by strong messages and dictates when it comes to what is "normal" and what is "natural." I'm concerned with everyone being able to live a sexuality that is as authentic to them as individuals as possible, and to do that, it's key that the information they get on sex is not merely inclusive in a way that includes "others," but in a way that makes clear that we're both "them" and "us" and that--forgive me sounding very 90's--celebrates our diversity, rather than simply trying to make it merely acceptable.
I try to give sex education that is not only accurate, feminist, inclusive and holistic, but which also is honest and friendly: which, even when the truths aren't easy ones, they're provided in a way which is a comfort, not a terror. Anyone who has ever been a teenager knows that sex freaks most teens out, big time: anyone who feels they need to scare them to death not only is -- in my book -- engaging in an abuse, they're also forgetting that most teens are already really scared, piling more fear on top of that is both counterproductive and cruel. Too, most teens feel really isolated, and it seems that in some ways, Internet culture can often increase those feelings of isolation -- sure, they're more connected in some ways, but in others, they're more disconnected, especially from the most tangible and sensory aspects of interrelating, as well as in how much persona rules over person. It's so important for them to have sound sources they feel they can trust for information, but to also feel cared for and accepted -- no matter what choices they make -- in how they get that information.
Why did you write the book in the first place? What does the book offer that Scarleteen doesn’t?
I think of them as partners: the static and the interactive. There's synergy in having the basic tenets of information out in different media.
One thing I can do with print that is more precarious on the web is to go a bit more in depth in explaining sexual activity, simply because I have the legal shelter of a publishing house. As well, I can get more in depth in general with a book because I know that I'm giving them the whole context of things, right in one place, in their hands, in a way which is more cohesive and ordered than you can be on a website. The book also has the room to branch out a little more widely than the website does, just because of how differently we tend to approach a book than we do the web.
I think e-books have shown us pretty well that people tend to read in sound bytes on the 'net, rather than for longer periods of time. The beauty of a book is that it's so portable, it's easy to mark your place in, you can share it with others more easily, and it holds up over time. You can revisit it in a way I don't feel like you can revisit internet content, unless that content is very carefully archived. Even then, a lot of 'net content can go poof really easily, and we can't say the same of books.
I grew up a compulsive reader: books are my very first and dearest love. Even with all the changes the 'net has made to media and how we view media, I don't think it can take the place of a well-loved, dog-eared book. And I think most of us have had at least one or two books about sexuality -- even if they were fiction, rather than reference -- that played a big part in the forming of our sexual lives and identities. Somewhere amidst the many shelves and piles of books here my first copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves and Judy Blume's Forever are hanging around, and when I find them -- even now, when I don't have a pressing need for them -- it's such a joy. I wanted to be able to contribute to that greater volume in a way I think it both unique and of real value to those who need it, with the hopes that for a bunch of teens out there, they've got a good book on sex to both use and cherish.
Today, you’re in your late thirties. As you grow older, how has your work with young adults changed?
I read a review of the book in Bust Magazine which said I was the big sister everyone wishes they had. That's a lovely thing to say, and it's been said before, but the age disparity between myself and most of my readers these days is too great for me to be their sister. So, I've taken up the role of being their weird auntie (who I’ve no doubt they roll their eyes at occasionally), which is fine by me: I'm childfree largely in part because through my life, that's felt like a more natural role for me, one I'm good at, and one that benefits an awful lot of people.
Thankfully, I never based too many of my ideas about what was sexually common on my own experiences, even when I was younger. I've always lived on the margins and the fringes and presumed that most of my own experiences have likely been more the exception than the rule, and have always come to this working making a point of informing myself from broader sources, as one of the biggest errors people make in terms of sexuality, period, is applying ideas about sex made personally or from our own small circles unilaterally. That's a real help to me as I grow older because the generational gap widens, so assuming that my experiences then are very relevant to theirs now would be a real error.
What are the greatest challenges you’ve encountered in your work?
One biggie is that the longer I stick around, and the more trust people develop in my work, the tougher the issues get. One arena that involves is dealing with rape and sexual abuse: because I primarily serve women, and, as the years go on, more and more survivors come out of the woodwork asking for help. I'm more than glad to do it, but as a survivor of sexual violence myself, it can be incredibly painful. For instance, someone asking what they can do to make all those feelings go away? The answer to that isn't one I like to give--that there IS no way to do that, and that healing takes a long time, and is difficult and maddening--and the disappointment people have is palpable.
Same goes with people clearly in relationships where it's obvious their partner is just NOT going to treat them with respect or equality, or not going to have any real investment in mutual pleasure or mutual responsibility. Often people asking for advice are looking for the answers they want to hear, rather than more truthful responses, and it can be very difficult to have to tell young people things you wish you never had to say to anyone.
Too, far too many people think teens and young adults are stupid. (Some of that likely has a lot to do with hindsight and feeling that we, ourselves, were stupid as teenagers, without realizing that if we were, that was probably very strongly influenced by social conditioning.) They often treat them as stupid, infantilize them, don’t offer them real responsibility and real challenges, and lo: plenty live up to the low expectations adults and peers have of them. But I don’t think teens and young adults are stupid: in fact, I think they’re an extraordinarily energetic, sensitive and creative population, as intelligent as anyone else, and so I treat them that way. But that’s often not trusted, not by other adults, and particularly for teens who have been reared with the idea they’re incapable, sometimes not by teens and their peers themselves. But that’s often a very positive challenge, because they often DO step up, DO respond beautifully and gratefully to being treated with full personhood and intelligence, and DO find that they can cultivate the good stuff in their lives, sexually and otherwise. I know that for myself as a teen, especially with a very difficult childhood and adolescence, had I not been treated with real respect and confidence by my mentors and teachers, and been given the chance to be more than I thought I could at times – and more than others told me I could – I would have wound up living a very different life; a lesser one, and thought a lot less of myself. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to give the young adults I work with those same things.
Another biggie is how very sensitive an issue sexuality is for most people, and how intense people can be -- especially younger people -- about concepts of body and sexual normalcy: not as in. "Am I ethical? Am I doing myself or anyone harm?" but rather, "Am I like everyone else?". While sex educators and researchers (as well as people with pretty broad personal sexual experience) know full well that human sexuality is incredibly diverse, it's still incredibly important to most people to be "normal," be it by general standards, their own standards (which are usually inherited from cultural standards) or the standards of some group or another. It's painfully obvious where that comes from, and it's very clearly learned behaviour, but things like this are learned so early that they can be really difficult to recognize as flawed and unlearn. It not only makes advising people with sex far harder than it should be at times, it can also get very frustrating when, from where you're sitting, you can see a person locked in a loop that it either damaging to, or just plain limiting to, their sexual life, sexual identity, their partners and/or sense of self.
For me, personally, I face heavy challenges in finding both financial and emotional support. Sometimes, at the end of a day, I am just wiped. On a tough day, where I have users in traumatic situations, it gets under my skin. I always tell partners of mine from the onset that I’m effectively polyamorous, because much of the time, my primary partner is my activist work and the people who are part of it. I don’t go to work in the morning and leave it somewhere when I go home at the end of the day: it lingers and has a very deep impact on me.
Ultimately, I find this work incredibly challenging, period. But I'm also someone who very much needs to be challenged, and has always been up for doing the tougher work at any job I have, whether that was being the one moving the boulders at a landscaping gig, or doing what I do at Scarleteen and in other aspects of what I do now.
In S.E.X., you emphasize reciprocity. Specifically, you write: “If during any partnered sex activity, either partner feels they aren’t getting anything out of a given sexual activity, or pretty equal satisfaction, then something really isn’t okay. And I mean at the time: not social status later, or a partner liking you more because you did something for them they really wanted, and you really weren't that hot on doing or taking part in.” How does this idea of reciprocity relate to the larger feminist movement?
I think so often people get a little bonkers when they visualize what feminist sex must be – as some sort of parody where every single kiss or movement requires full-on lesbian processing before proceeding -- when in fact, the only real tenet of feminist sexuality and sex, is the same as the core of what feminism is: that it must be based on a very real, enacted and inarguable equality for everyone involved. So often we hear that feminism has done what it needs to do, and that we're somehow post-feminist, because (some) women are doing better than we were 100 years ago, because we have certain rights. But much as is the case with civil rights for people of color, most of those rights are precarious at best: we have to constantly struggle for them, and our having them often has more to do with people or policy-makers feeling that they must deign to give us those rights for THEM to be okay people than with recognizing (or wanting) our equality.
I think we can say the same for feminism en large: we're not post-feminist, nor have we reached anything close to a state of equality. At best, we're getting some better lip service, and policies which reflect that. But for most women, especially when we think globally and inclusively, there is not a very real and unquestionable feeling, an absolute knowledge, of sex and gender equality, even in those arenas where we are given a level playing field, and I think that's because, for the most, part, we really don't have that level playing field, especially when we factor in that in the places we seem to, we had to be given -- gifted -- that equality by men.
In the US, which certainly has it better in terms of women’s rights than some other countries (albeit, barely), we STILL cannot even get the equal rights amendment passed. We’re told there is no need for it – but if that were the case, why not pass it? Male sex and gender is acknowledged in every line of the constitution: if we have real equality, and real reciprocity, what’s the fuss with acknowledging that in the primary document of our nation which outlines our most basic legal rights? Of course, feminists know exactly what the issue is: we do NOT have that equality and reciprocity, which is why those who keep us from it by no means want to do things like pass the ERA, and that is why we keep on using the f-word.
A lot of people in the U.S. conflate feminism with sexuality, or, more particularly, abortion. What does this say about feminism? What does it say about our current attitudes toward sexuality and reproductive rights?
It might say more about how people think about women than about how think about feminism: in other words, women are FOR sex, women are ABOUT sex. If we say feminism is about nothing but sexuality and reproduction, we're effectively just enabling the idea that women are defined by what use women most often are to men. Too, while we certainly can't -- and wouldn't want to -- divorce reproductive rights from sexuality, we also can't divorce reproductive rights from the very simple matter that is full bodily autonomy. If someone is mortified about sweatshop labor, they should be equally mortified about women having what happens with their bodies decided for them by others who that lack of autonomy benefits. If a person is afraid of international terrorism, about their rights and liberties being threatened or taken away by some overseas boogeyman, they should be equally (really, far more) concerned about the very real and tangible people right here at home threatening or limiting the rights of women to the freedom of simply having ownership of their internal organs.
Ultimately, I think our current -- and historical -- attitudes about sexuality and reproductive rights tell us a whole lot about why feminism is so essential.
Sometimes, I feel concerned that because these are the arenas I choose to do most of my feminist work in; that I'm giving the impression that feminism, or even MY feminism, is only about these arenas. Too, in some respects -- and only some -- feminism that pertains to sexuality is an easier sell than say, feminism that is about pay equity, violence against women (though we deal with that plenty in feminist sexuality work), or ecology, particularly because the way it's often viewed is that what feminism per sexuality is all about are simply giving women the right to be more sexually available to men.
But one thing I've noticed over the years is that as my feminism develops, and as it influences more and more of my work in sexuality in ways that are more overt, I get less easy acceptance and applause for the work I do. Unfortunately, I think it remains a truism in a lot of feminist work that you can know you're probably making headway when you begin to be more disliked and supported. So, when you make it clear that no, feminism and sexuality are NOT about increased sexual availability, it is given different treatment.
And even with my concerns about focusing most of my efforts in this arena, some of which I haven't yet rectified, in some ways it IS a good in-road to feminist headway. Sex and sexuality are very root, very core issues for a lot of people, and it's also very universal. That can make it a good place to start in terms of pointing out gender inequities in a place where many people can see and very viscerally feel them.
What sort of positive and negatives feedback do you receive from men, women, and teenagers about your work?
At this point, it's a pretty strange divide. Overwhelmingly, the teenagers are very positive and very appreciative -- it's always particularly nice to hear back from a teen a few years after they used Scarleteen, because I have yet to have a one come back and say anything but how clear it was that what they found there was of a very real benefit to them that improved the quality of their lives. We've also had an awful lot of users and volunteers wind up working in sexual health and general healthcare, which is phenomenal.
The same holds true with a lot of adult women, about all the aspects of my work, particularly in terms of the body image aspects of my visual art and the personal narrative I've kept going on the web with my life for over eight years, now. This last month has been a hard one for me, and I had several comments and emails with other women earnestly telling me I was a hero and a role model for them, which is an incredible compliment, and just an amazing thing to have anyone say about you, let alone a lot of anyones.
At my low moments, I often feel like I marginalized myself even more than I was to begin with. When you work in sexuality, no matter how you present it, no matter how much you challenge the status quo, there is absolutely ghettoization you have to deal with. I feel like I'm often one of those people who a lot of people read -- and my history and numbers have backed that up over all these years -- but not someone who a lot of people will admit to reading, or actively support or link to, simply because I often deal with the body and sexuality. Radio silence gets under my skin sometimes more than overtly negative feedback does, but that may just be the artist in me: we seem to all have a pressing need for feedback of any kind; a need to know we're being heard.
I can’t resist asking: where do you get the energy for so many projects? What are your days like?
I used to have really pat answers to that one -- I drink a lot of coffee, I'm vegan, I'm really a robot -- but to be honest, over the last year I've been running on fumes and the power of my own stubborness. That's normal for anyone who does any activist work: we have our periods where we're very energized, and our periods where we're really worn out. But even at the times when there isn't enough coffee or sleep, or when you're scraping by financially and emotionally from doing your work, one of the beauties of doing the work you really want to do, and know is truly important, you get buoyed by that energy and strong sense of purpose. The older I get, the harder it becomes to have so many pans in the fire -- which is some of why I push young women so hard to be proactive when they're younger: so much energy! -- and to see what looks like such minor results in the big picture from my work, but on almost any given day, at least one person says thank you, or reports a major improvement in their lives, relationships or sense of self, and that's a serious energizer.
I always have great plans about learning to start my day in some other way than going right to work, but I always fail. So, an average day for me begins by moving from my bed to my office, bleary-eyed and in my pajamas, having grabbed a cup of coffee en route. I think most clearly in the morning, and have the most energy, so I usually answer most of the advice questions and do most of my writing from when I wake up until I need a break in the early afternoon, at which time I have the morning routine most sane people have when they wake up. Afternoon-to-evening for me is a usually bit more mellow, and the time I try and work on artwork, on more conceptual work, and also take some downtime, with a walk, a bike ride, or just sitting and breathing in the garden. Working out of my home, I also have the perk of often being able to have the time to cook awesome meals while I'm still finishing up with the days' work, which is fantastic, since cooking is one of my favorite ways to meditate. I work long days, nearly every day, but I do have the luxury of breaking things up a lot, or sitting out on the porch with the laptop to work on a nice day.
In your ideal society, what place would human sexuality have in it?
The same place that really great food, or incredible art has in it, but also the same place that that plain old peanut butter and jam sandwich and the picture your kids drew for you at school has in it. Sometimes sex is art: sometimes it’s a scribble, but both of those experiences are vital parts of our lives.
Without sounding too jingle-jangly, I think sexuality absolutely is sacred: I always have, in every manfestation and context. But I think of it as a kind of sacredness that even when it’s out-of-this-world amazing, also has a certain quiet to it: it’s an art of everyday life, really, and I’d love to see it start to be seen and treated that way.
What are you working on now?
Scarleteen is incredibly busy over the summer months -- so many young adults don't have summer jobs or other activities, and even for those who do, summer is a social time, so summer is a time for sexual experimentation, so I have to devote more time to answering more questions. Having also just finished the site upgrade, we also have a few items to finish, such as adding a user-made database of sexual healthcare providers they've used to help users find good healthcare via the kind of word of mouth many people have a hard time finding with sexual health. As well, at the moment, I'm just trying to work on some organizational development to keep us afloat: it's very difficult to get any financial support for a project like Scarleteen and others like it, but I want to do everything I can to assure that we sitkic around for as long as we're needed.
I've got a couple book ideas I'm batting about, but I'm being slower about that than I might otherwise. My editor -- Renee Sedliar -- for S.E.X was the best editor and advocate a writer could possibly ask for, and we turned out to be peas in a pod that work alarmingly well together. That's such a gift to an author -- especially one who works in provocative topics, and especially with the state of publishing right now -- and so I'd love to be able to work with her as many more times as I can. That means I have to also concern myself with what our publisher would want to publish, which limits me somewhat, but if it results in our being able to work together again, it's a worthwhile limitation.
Mostly, though? I've been working like a maniac over the last year and a half, and I am plain old pooped. It's summer, which I adore more than any other season, and which is woefully short in Seattle. So, my most pressing goal at the moment is to work less than usual, enjoy the outdoors, relax a little and recharge.