Sex Ed on the Web

To: Brian Alexander, c/o Sexploration, MSNBC
CC: Dean Wright, Lead Editor, MSNBC

Dear Mr. Alexander,

I was recently pointed to your article, Sex Ed on the Web at MSNBC.

I'd like to first familiarize you with our history. The first version of Scarleteen was housed outside Scarlet Letters, and went live at the end of 1998, before any of the other sites you listed were around, and nearly all other young adult sex ed sites existed. I didn't buy a domain for Scarleteen immediately, because I had no idea that it would end up as huge as it turned out to be and turn out to be where most of my working hours were spent (working hours which during most of the last six years, often were completely unpaid, mind you). In other words, we had no precedent for Scarleteen. Rather, I simply saw a need because via my adult site, I was getting questions in email from young adults. I both wanted to provide them their own needed space so that they would not need to seek out adult sites, and answer those questions for them. The tone and approach of Scarleteen is as it is because it was built primarily in response to both what was being asked by the young adults -- who generally range in age from 14 - 24 -- and with what tone I found they responded best to, and were able to process the information best through, per those email exchanges.

It's obvious that you have concerns about my character and perhaps don't think me the most appropriate person to do what I do. But I've discovered over the years that even when I have doubts about that myself -- heck, I didn't sign up to be anyone's role model, and it's tricky stuff to navigate sometimes -- that my character and approach, and the approach I ask my volunteers and contributors to take as well, is clearly a big part of why Scarleteen remains the most trafficked site of its kind by the population it seeks to serve, despite having no major organization to publicize, advertise or fund it. Scarleteen has the presence it does because, more than anything else, of word of mouth from the users themselves. Since our primary interest is in serving them as best we can, in whatever way they can best digest the information and feel most comfortable accessing it, we pay attention to these things, especially when it's clear some other related sites probably SHOULD be more used by the teens given their PR and far fatter resources.

"While most of the information is accurate, and while Corinna does a good job of debunking sex myths and discussing sexual responsibility, the site is written according to her point of view, which may not be the point of view parents wish to give their teenagers. Scarleteen reads like it is really meant for those grown-ups who wish we had savvy back when we were geeky."

We also have always made a point at Scarleteen, with both parents and our young adult userbase, of encouraging both parties to both seek out and provide as diverse a range of perspectives when it comes to sexual politics, ethics, values and choices as possible. I say very clearly in our section at the site for parents that I think it expressly NOT ideal for Scarleteen to be the only source of sexuality information for teen and young adults. I do, however, think that our perspective IS valuable. I received a letter from a parent once I will never forget: he explained to me that he was a born-again Christian raising a teenage daughter, and that he sent her to Scarleteen. He saw absolutely no inconsistency in this because, as he put it quite jovially, "Between her square, suburban Jesus-freak father and this eccentric, Buddhist, queer hip lady online and her colleagues, " and every perspective in between, his daughter should feel very able to see a wide range of viewpoints and approaches and thus, best be able to suss out her own without feeling pressured to pick a "side." I'm in absolute agreement with him, and I sincerely hope that the vast majority of our users experience that much diversity in their sexual education and upbringing.

Direct experiences aside, the studies and polls that have been done on young adults acquisition of sexuality information (SIECUS and the Alan Guttmacher Institute house a couple, should you be interested) show pretty clearly that most teens are NOT comfortable talking to a parent OR a doctor or clinician about sexuality. They're most comfortable talking to peers, but as we both know, that's generally a horrible source for accurate information. They will, however, often strike a compromise by talking to an adult who is more of a mentor, who doesn't talk down to them or use overly clinical language, who feels more like a big sister or a big brother than an authority figure. I've been a teacher in a classroom before: I know how to be an authority figure when that is called for, and sometimes at Scarleteen, it is. But more often than not, that just isn't effective in my experience, so the way I talk to them, and how I approach these issues with them, is neither accidental nor haphazard. It's quite deliberate. Should I ever discover something else works better, you can bet I'll change my approach.

Moreover, while to plenty of adults, the teens and twenties may be remembered as a time of being "geeky," rather than cool or savvy, you might observe (or remember yourself) that many teens, while perhaps geeky indeed, think themselves quite savvy, especially when it comes to sex. So, approaching them as if they had no savvy or cool whatsoever usually tends to backfire when it comes to sex education, or any education for that matter. Again, this is something well-learned in doing what we do at Scarleteen for going on seven solid years of daily interaction, including the one-on-one conversations that I alone have personally had at the message boards with over 15,000 young adults, their mentors and parents.