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Women and Children First!
The subject is sex, and Heather Corinna wants to broaden the Internet's one-track mind
by Dennis Cass, Minneapolis City Pages, December 08, 1999
If you get to meet only one pornographer in your lifetime, consider yourself lucky if it's Heather Corinna. The 29-year-old Chicago transplant runs a suite of erotica and sexuality Web sites with a kind of zany glee, commanding her modest empire from the Grand Avenue walkup she shares with [sic] a multitude of cats and a bunny. A year and a half ago, Corinna was a kindergarten teacher. Scarlet Letters (www.scarletletters.com), her quarterly "journal of femmerotica," was a side project, an outlet for her sexually tinged fiction writing and her personal interests in erotica and sex-positive nonfiction. Today, in addition to Scarlet she publishes separate sex and sexuality advice sites for teenage girls and boys--Pink Slip (www.scarleteen.com/pink/) and the freshly launched Boyfriend! (www.scarleteen.com/boyfriend), respectively--and her hobby is now a full-time job, though the constant demands and occasional rewards make it sound more like a crusade.
"One of the reasons why pornography is so infantile is because we makes things taboo," says Corinna. She laughs, then pounds out her next statement with mock severity: "We don't want this to be taboo anymore." Though she operates on the cutting edge of woman-centered erotica, Corinna's cutie-pie barrettes betray her as the sort who loves Hello Kitty with more earnestness than she'd like to admit. The décor in her home office is a curious mix of Chinese lanterns and South Park ephemera; her desk is strewn with condom samples and a review copy of the video Bend Over Boyfriend 2. Scarlet doesn't exude the polish and roster of celebrity contributors of a literary sex journal like Nerve (www.nerve.com), but it's a sincere effort nonetheless, bringing together alluring graphics, a gallery of art that favors shadowy nudes over clinical penetration shots, and thoughtful features--on the nature of kink, say, or the psychology behind a man's fear of being "crushed" by a fat partner--that at times border on the academic.
It's tempting to view the Internet as a realm of total freedom, where entrepreneurs are liberated from the shackles of bricks and mortar and ideologues frolic through a fertile marketplace of ideas unhindered by prejudice or government control. The Web's seductive amalgam of libertarian idea exchange and low overhead seems like a perfect fit for a young woman who alternately expresses grave concerns about the lack of quality sex education in America and jokes about dropping off a pot roast at the governor's mansion and introducing herself as "your local pornographer." But Corinna's two-year online odyssey has been a struggle.
Everybody knows about America Online's no-adult-material policy, but other services can be just as touchy. This past August one of the Internet's largest hosting companies, Verio, canceled Corinna's account only two weeks after she signed up. Corinna says she was told she'd been the victim of hackers and that the company could no longer handle the security issues that come along with adult sites. "Bogus," she contends. "We checked the logs--no one had hacked into our site."
A Verio official confirms that the company now refuses to host adult sites. Though the company wouldn't comment on its reasons for its sudden policy switch, it's clear that the rapidly increasing demand for e-commerce affords big firms like Verio the luxury to pick and choose clients. Genevieve Field, co-publisher and editorial director of Nerve, says her company recently lost out on some highly desirable office space in New York's Silicon Alley because the building's owner checked out the site, whose content is similar to Scarlet Letters. "We had it all set to go," Field says. "Then he saw that we had pictures of naked people on our site, and at the last minute he got cold feet."
By nature quick to laugh, Corinna can chuckle at how people misread Scarlet, but she gets serious when the subject turns to Pink Slip and Boyfriend. The former, which launched a year ago, grew out of Corinna's dissatisfaction with the quality and accessibility of sex information for teenagers on the Web. Part of what frustrates her, she explains, has to do with the way a search engine reads a Web page's metatags--text embedded by a Webmaster to describe his or her site's content. Corinna found that in addition to employing every imaginable vulgarity, adult-site Webmasters were using metatags like "human anatomy" or "sex help," squeezing out serious sexuality sites through sheer volume. The word "teen"--porn code for legal-age models dressed like underage girls--is omnipresent. Because most search engines list results based on the number of hits or the amount of traffic, a high schooler seeking legitimate sex advice is unlikely to find Pink Slip by looking for "teen sexuality."
Porn's white noise aside, Corinna scoffs at the preponderance of teen sexuality sites that seem to adhere to the notion that only adults have sex. "Whatever these kids are doing, even if it's just kissing, it's sex," she says. "It's not something else just because they're not adults." She applauds Planned Parenthood's teenwire.com, for example--but with reservations. "It's full of trouble," she argues. "It's the kind of place you go when you're already pregnant or you already have an STD." (Indeed, the first hyperlink one encounters at teenwire is labeled "yikes!") By contrast, information at Pink Slip and Boyfriend! is dispensed with flip humor--a penis quiz in the current issue of Boyfriend! is titled, "Do You Know Dick?"--and the guidance is free of judgment. Thanks to the anonymity afforded by the Web, kids can get advice on how to roll on a condom or whether it's time to lose their virginity without worrying about embarrassing themselves in front of peers or parents.
According to Corinna, all her sites combined attract about 4,000 visitors a day, with about 25 percent going to Pink Slip. But pushing traffic to her teen sites is particularly difficult. Though she has offered Pink Slip to hardcore pornography sites--which frequently have their under-18 eject "button" linked to Disney or Nickelodeon--they typically reject her pitch. "They say no because they think linking to Disney is a funny joke," she snorts. Search engines and directories can also be chilly. Corinna asked Yahoo! for a sexuality category and got one, but many others refuse to make a distinction between hardcore porn and the likes of Scarlet Letters and Pink Slip. Some won't list Scarlet at all. "Some sites are afraid that it represents the company," Corinna says. "Netscape, HotBot, and so forth are all bureaucratic organizations. We'd like to believe the Web is not bought, but it is."
Because surfing the Internet is typically only as expensive as one's monthly dial-up bill, most people don't realize that every time they load a Web page it costs the site's owner money. In order to stay in business, Corinna must seek out advertisers--and overcome any squeamishness they might have about being associated with sex. Cathy Rhoads, Scarlet's ad rep, soft-pedals any reluctance on the part of advertisers, noting that a conservative software company ran ads on a sexy site and got great results. (Still, she refuses to supply their name or the name of the site.) Once an advertiser looks at Scarlet Letters, Rhoads says, he's more at ease. Genevieve Field tells of similar experiences at Nerve but adds that many potential advertisers never bother to take a look. "It's the biggest fear of mainstream advertisers," Corinna posits. "I say to them, 'Do you buy soap?' And they say yes. And then I say, 'Do you have sex?' And they say yes, and I tell them that people who have sex need soap."
Nor does Corinna get a lot of support from the online adult community, an otherwise tight-knit group of businesses and individuals brought together by economic and First Amendment issues. "Porn people don't like us," she asserts. "They call it 'art porn' or 'femme porn.' For them there's something snobbish about caring about design and content." Corinna says she isn't offended by mainstream porn--just bored. She gets rankled by the games mainstream porn sites play (like luring visitors with metatags that include the names of popular video games or country music stars), and says she was kicked off an adult Webmaster message board for pushing for higher business ethics in the porn community.
She also gets shut out of potential ad revenue because she refuses to carry banners with hardcore images, and mainstream porn sites refuse to alter their ads. "Statistically, it's what people want," says Andy N. Edmond, president and CEO of SexTracker, Inc., which tracks adult Web traffic. "Webmasters want people not that just click more, but pay more, and those people like hardcore images."
Ghettoized by one Web faction and shut out by another, Corinna is managing to make ends meet, but it's not likely to get any easier. "The porn/erotica debate is never going to be resolved, because it's a matter of taste," predicts Jane Duvall, a friend of Corinna and the editor of JanesGuide (www.janesguide.com), an online review of adult Web sites. To highlight the issue, Duvall cites the example of hosting services: "Mainstream companies don't want to make a distinction, because it would be a big fight all the time. It's limiting speech in some ways if you can't get access."
As the Web becomes increasingly commercialized, Corinna can look forward to facing even more difficulty connecting with her audience. It's easy to imagine a Web split between massive corporate e-commerce sites and cheap personal homepages, where ventures like Scarlet Letters aren't cost-effective, and where risky subject matter doesn't need to be censored, because it will be impossible to find.