25 Years of Scarleteen: Year By Year

Five years ago, for our 20th anniversary, Sam created a timeline to highlight some of Scarleteen’s more notable work, accomplishments and important milestones, setbacks, and how we’ve existed within the larger world over the years.

She mentioned that Scarleteen had been around long enough to both see the landscape of sexual health, queer rights and, even the internet, change dramatically.  In fact, in some cases, we’ve been around long enough to see things start bad, get better, and then turn tail and get worse all over again.

It’s our 25th birthday today. We’ve been doing all we do for a whole quarter century, for somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 million people in total!

I was still in my 20s when I started building Scarleteen: I’m in my 50s now. As the person involved with Scarleteen who’s been here from the very beginning and the whole time – and through goodness knows how many times when it seemed certain there was no way to sustain it further –  this blows my mind.  In many ways, the world is a really different place than when we started, and some of the positive changes have even had something to so with us, our contributors, partners, peers and colleagues, and some of the young people (or once-young people) we’ve served during our time.

Here’s an updated version of that timeline from Sam that brings us to today, a day we hope is one more milestone of many, many more still to come.  - Heather

1998: Heather started getting emails from young people asking questions about sex through Scarlet Letters, a website about sexuality for adults (that was pioneering in and of itself!) they'd also founded and ran at the time. Heather being Heather, they answer the emails. Heather soon discovered there was nowhere yet online that teens can safely ask questions about sex or get reliable, supportive and sex-positive answers and that they need a redirect for under-18s on Scarlet Letters, anyway. Some of these questions and answers were originally posted as extra pages on Scarlet Letters in a sub-site first called "Pink Slip." A reader wrote in soon enough and suggested these questions and answers needed their own place: they say Scarlet Letters needs a "Scarlet Teen."

The rest, as they say, is (a long) history of people not understanding what on earth our name means, and a brand-new kind of sex education, with many brand-new ways of doing it, at a place (the internet) that was still pretty brand-new itself.

This is the year that the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was introduced in response to large portions of the Communications Decency Act being struck down. Both acts were designed to limit minors' access to pornographic or "harmful" material on the internet, but in practice would have also prevented youth from accessing crucial educational resources such as Scarleteen.

1999: We got our own domain and unleashed our first full site, full of what we were then calling "sex ed for the real world." Some of the first articles published include: “Innies & Outies: The Vagina, Uterus, Clitoris and More”, “Is Masturbation Okay (yep)?” and “Dealing with Rape.” In the wider world, Plan B is approved by the FDA. Heather moved Scarleteen to Minneapolis (a choice influenced in part by stalking that occurs because of their work with Scarlet Letters and Scarleteen), and Scarleteen got its first major media coverage in The City Pages. Heather and Hanne Blank started to map out the first book proposal for what will much later become S.E.X.

2000: We published our Sex Readiness Checklist, along with other classic pieces, like the first version of “Human Reproduction: A Seafarers Guide” and “Sexual Response & Orgasm: A Users Guide.” We launched our message boards and found our first wave of volunteers to help staff them. George W. Bush, whose administration will go on to allocate 117 million dollars for abstinence-only education, was elected president. We started fighting against abstinence-only and worked with users struggling because of its negative impacts and outcomes ever after.

2001: We published “On the Rag: A Guide to Menstruation” and “Innies and Outies: The Penis, Testes, & More.” We had been part of the (now sadly defunct) ChickClick Network, which allowed us about nine months of not-totally-terrible funding and then the financial bottom completely fell out of the internet and ChickClick closed. Welp. Nice while it lasted!

2002: We did another redesign, and started including things like relevant news and a listing of the top ten articles on the front page of our site. Those top ten articles in 2022 were about anatomy, porn, orgasm, and safer sex. We were serving around 2 million users each year. Heather started writing the book that will become S.E.X.

2003: We published “The 10 Best Things You Can Do for Your Sexual Self (At Any Age)” and “M.I.A (Or Dude, Where’s My Period).” The Supreme Court produced a victory for sexual freedom and queer rights by overturning all sodomy laws in the United States.

2004: It was a good year for medications relating to sexual health, as emergency contraception became a more prominent topic on the site and Truvada was first approved by the FDA. With Scarleteen getting more and more visible, Heather frequently had to work through more character attacks and harassment -- especially as a queer person, as a person with sexual trauma, someone who did adult sex and sexuality work, and just as a person with an unhidden sexuality, period, all things that were all largely not considered acceptable for people providing sex education to young people at the time.

2005: Our message boards started booming. We were very dedicated to reporting on the legal battle over accessing Plan B over-the-counter and offering our users ways to advocate for that access. In the United States, Representative Barbara Lee and Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced a bill that would provide $206 million a year to states for comprehensive, medically accurate, and science-based sex education.

2006: We continued to track the legal status of Plan B, and offer users updated information on how they can access emergency contraception. This was also the year that the Gardasil vaccine for HPV is first approved for use, and we create content to address myths and facts about the vaccine. Scarleteen went to Washington (state, with Heather, who moves there).

2007: A big year for us! The first edition of S.E.X: The all-you-need-to-know sexuality guide to get you through your teens and twenties was published and we redesigned and then migrated the site to Drupal (which means Heather no longer has to code the site by hand, a thing they were doing up until then). We also published “Positively Informed: An HIV/AIDS Round-Up, "What is Feminist Sex Education?" and “Reciprocity, Reloaded.” We started winning awards, like The Champions of Sexual Literacy Award for Grassroots Activism from the National Sexuality Resource Center/SFSU. Heather talked Shamelessness in a fundraising effort for Scarleteen, and ddid some pushback against the rising tide of purity culture and abstinence-only education.  Future co-director, Jacob, joined the team as a volunteer.

2008: Another exciting year for Scarleteen! Barack Obama became president, we turned ten years old, published our giant Birth Control Bingo piece, and were a plaintiff and major player (after years of leadup work behind the scenes) in the COPA court case, helping the ACLU to net a win that allows young people to retain access on the internet to things sex education and other content. To top it all off, the FDA approved a new version of the inside (”female”) condom. Heather gave a talk about doing sex education as a Montessori educator but also dealt with some tough responses after a lot of media exposure as a sexual assault survivor.

2009: We introduced our texting service, and Heather’s advice columns were syndicated at Rewire News Group as their first sexuality content (then RH Reality Check). We brought real talk about the hymen to the internet and beyond  -- information that wasn't widely known then! -- by pairing up with the RSFU to release "My Corona: The Hymen & the Myths That Surround It." Abortion provider and reproductive justice hero George Tiller was murdered.  Heather gave a talk about innovation and inclusivity in sex ed, won the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, Western Region's Public Service Award and the Our Bodies, Ourselves' Women's Health Heroes Award for their work with Scarleteen. Yes Means Yes (and Heather's seminal piece, An Immodest Proposal, within it) was published.

2010: We did another site redesign and published two pieces that become instant classics: “Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist” and "Drivers Ed for the Sexual Super Highway: Navigating Consent.” We offered peer education training for budding sex educators, and began to incorporate more and more content into the site for those who are in or who have survived abuse. We did a tweetstorm about How Sex Ed Can Prevent Rape, and Heather's piece debunking conservative claims about oxytocin went viral.

2011: We introduced our (now retired) Find-a-Doc sexual healthcare database and published “Sexuality, WTF is it Anyway?” Heather wrote about the rise and politics of SlutWalks.

2012: More redesign! “Risky Business: Learning to Consider Risk and Make Sound Sexual Choices” was published, as was "The Rainbow Connection: Orientation for Everyone.” This was also the year that data was released showing that long-acting, reversible birth control methods such as the IUD are not only safe, but even a better choice for young people than more commonly recommended methods like the birth control pill. Heather received the Joan Helmich Educator of the Year award.

2013: We introduced our live chat service and published “Self-Care: A La Carte.” Heather implored people to "Please Stop Calling Rape Sex" and won the Woodhull Foundation's Vicki Award. Co-director Sam joined as a volunteer!

Keeping us going unfortunately requires more than the talents, labor and dedication of our team and contributors: it also requires money.  Even though we have one of the leanest budgets out there for our level of reach, we are struggling to meet even our modest budget right now. You can check out two possible ways you might be able to help us with that here.

 2014:Casual...Cool? Making Choices about Casual Sex” was published, as was our first article on D.I.Y sex toys. The latter later became one of the most viewed articles on the site. There had already been a gazillion times over the previous years we almost shut down, that Heather was working one or two additional jobs to try and pay for Scarleteen on top of themselves, or that we begged for financial help to keep us going, each time working it out to barely scrape by. But in 2014, we only got a few hundred dollars in response to our ask for funding for the whole freaking year, and found ourselves with no other choice but to prepare to engage in a labor strike. People showed up for us in response, and that kept our doors open. It still remains a struggle since, but that year was the start of a more stable pattern for us.

2015: Sam became staff! We launched several new features in 2015 including Scarleteen Confidential, a resource for parents and other supportive adults and “All the Barriers! All the Time!” We celebrated with the rest of the queer community as same-gender marriage was legalized in the United States. Heather received the Steinem-Waters Award and the Golden Brick Award.

2016: A tumultuous, emotional year, to say the absolute least. The second edition of S.E.X was released, we published our Trans Summer School Series, Heather wrote about "The Myth of the But-There's-No-Way Abuser," and we redesigned the site to create the way it looks now (but only will for about another week!). We also published “Rebel Well: A Starter Survival  Guide to a Trumped America”, a response to the results of the 2016 presidential election. We mourned the Pulse Massacre while staffing all our direct services across a 72 hour span in order to support young people in the wake of the attack.

2017: We began our Sex and Disability series and created “The Pregnancy Panic Companion” to act as a virtual doula for users experiencing pregnancy scares. We start shouting about Queer Sex Ed For All!

2018: The content on our site continued to reflect the needs of our users, just as it did twenty years before. We introduced more information on sexual orientation and gender identity, PrEP and PEP, and the Impurity Culture series. We also included content, like our mixtapes, to give young people a break from the heavy stuff going on in the world. Scarleteen (and Heather) started a move back to Chicago where it all began, and we continued to write about ways our users could be aware of and fight for their rights, like by protecting abortion access and voting to help build a better future.

2019: We moved into our second decade with content that—as always -- tackled common questions and topics we see from our users and readers, including how to start dating in your twenties, how to ask someone out, and how to approach sexual fantasy on your own terms. We also debuted the first of many pieces on dating while autistic from Lisa Laman. Heather and Sam launched our Quickies series so that pre-teen users, users with learning disabilities, and others who might need simplified, short versions of our content can find what they need on our site. And Heather’s best-selling S.E.X got a younger sibling in the form of Wait, What: A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up by Heather, Isabella Rotman, and Luke Howard.

2020: 2020 began for us with our guide to safely self-managing a medical abortion in the face of growing restrictions on abortion access, sharing the super-rad zine made for us by Al Washburn and Archie Bongiavanni, and publishing a Spanish-language version of our entire Trans Summer School thanks to an incredible team of translators.

And then? Well, we all know what happened then, which is that the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and our worlds all changed in a matter of days. Because the bulk of our services here are and always have been online, we were able to immediately devote our energy to supporting our users rather than to scrambling to work out how to deliver services remotely.

We published over a dozen pieces aimed at helping young people navigate the ways the pandemic influences their lives, including loneliness, dating, libido, and much more. We also published pieces to help queer and trans folks stuck in unsupportive homes, young parents, and those engaging in protest deal with the challenges the pandemic introduces into those situations. We launched our video Q&As on Instagram to fill in for in-person outreach and host our first digital pride celebration, complete with a guide to help people celebrate at home.

We also published several non-pandemic related but very important pieces, including an update to our STI testing guide, and a guide to protecting yourself and your friends from sexual grooming. Jacob goes from humble direct services volunteer, and occasional outreach worker, to our lead web developer!

2021: This year saw a growing and terrible wave of anti-trans legislation, and we saw the effects of that on the young people we work with. In response, we published a guide to self-care during the deluge, and a collection of supports for trans youth and their families (Sam ends up writing one of these every year after this. She does not get any less angry at the circumstances that necessitate that).

In better news, we debuted a series by physical therapist Caitlin Tivy all about pelvic health, and featured interviews on a plethora of topics including gender affirming vocal therapy, sex during pregnancy, and decolonizing indigenous pregnancies. We also debuted our sex ed mini-histories on Instagram to highlight the people, movements, and communities that shaped sex education throughout the centuries. No one else knew it, but we carried out a number of behind-the-scenes tech upgrades that passed without a hitch.

2022: This was not a kind year to anyone invested in reproductive justice or abortion access, as in the U.S the supreme court decision in Dobbs undid Roe v. Wade. In addition to re-affirming our pro-abortion stance, we also produced a guide to protecting your privacy when seeking abortion care. We partnered with EducateUS for Queer Sex Ed for All Week, although we stopped after publishing our first piece in order to go dark as an act of mourning and solidarity with the community of Uvalde. We also published pieces to help those who are pregnant and planning to deliver navigate some of the challenges that come with that. We published a basic explainer on menopause to go along with the publication of Heather’s 2021 book, What Fresh Hell is This?

2023: In spite of a chaotic start of the year in which we had to abruptly and expensively switch fundraising platforms (and lose half our recurring donors in the process), we persevered. In a growing climate of anti-queer, anti-trans, anti-sex, anti-information legislation and sentiment, we have continued publishing information on trans topics, answering questions on subjects—such as kink—that young people want to know about but often can’t find age-appropriate information on, and championing our core and constant mission of providing Queer Sex Ed for All. On the organizational front, after almost twenty-five years—and with an eye towards many more—we move from a solo directorship to a co-directorship, and we’re training in a great new cohort of volunteers from around the world.  Before the year is out, we’ll also be bringing a new look to Scarleteen and a whole bunch of upgraded functionality to keep access to great sex education, information and support easy for the millions of young people who still choose and rely on us year after year, decade after decade.