Scarleteen, sex ed for the real world

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Scarleteen in the Media: Monday Magazine

Everything you need to know about S.E.X.
By Anna Kemp, September 26, 2007

Don’t be afraid to ask Heather Corrina (sic)

The adolescent years are a time of blossoming sexuality, yet for many young people, finding unbiased judgement-free information about sex and sexuality can be difficult. From what I remember, my own sex education involved a lot of leaflets and a video featuring anatomical diagrams and a laughing heterosexual couple running into the ocean—needless to say, it left out a lot.

With the internet, teens have access to so much more. Although pornography is readily available, sites like scarleteen.com—a sex and sexuality website for teens run by renowned sexuality expert Heather Corrina—can play a valuable role in sexual education. Providing advice and information since the late 1990s, scarleteen.com features hundreds of pages of discussion forums and is visited by between 10,000 and 30,000 users a day. Recently, Corrina released her book S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College. Written for young people of all genders and sexual orientations, S.E.X. covers everything from birth control to anatomy and includes information about making sexual choices, breast and penis size, sexual health care and body image—all written in a humourous, conversational tone.

According to Corrina, her aim with S.E.X., as it is with scarleteen.com, is to give young people the information they need to make informed decisions. “If we want someone to make choices that are best for them, that are best for their partners, that are healthy—they have to know what’s involved, and if they don’t, they’re just going to go it blind and find out the hard way,” says Corrina.

Corrina, 37 and now a Seattle resident, says she never intended to become a “sexpert,” attributing it to her ’70s upbringing in a diverse Chicago neighbourhood. “It was the golden age of comprehensive sex education . . . My mom was a public health nurse working in one of the first children’s AIDS wards at Children’s Memorial in Chicago . . . It put me very much ahead of the curve in terms of that stuff.” Coming of age in a queer arts community also contributed to her understanding and interest in sexuality, she says.

Originally an alternative early childhood and kindergarten teacher, Corrina began working as a sex educator in the late ‘90s. Corrina’s first website was scarletletters.com, a by-women-for-women sexuality site launched in 1998. As editor of scarletletters, she received a lot of e-mail from teenagers asking for advice or information. Rather than respond through the adult site, Corrina looked for somewhere to redirect them. Finding nothing, she decided to put a site together geared specifically towards teenagers and scarleteen.com was born. “I wrote up about five pages of information­—a page on safer sex, a page on birth control and some really basic anatomy stuff and then a couple pages of questions and answers . . . and the questions just kept coming. At this point the main site is at least 600 or 700 pages of material.”

The scarleteen.com demographic is generally between about 15 and 23 years old, but Corrina says because adult sex education is so poor, some adults visit the site, especially from Asian countries.

She started writing S.E.X. at the suggestion of a New York agent, but actually getting it published was a long process.

“We made up a proposal, sent it out far and wide and unilaterally terrified publishers everywhere,” says Corrina, who thinks the problem was partly with the controversial subject matter and partly economic—as teenagers are not major book buyers.

“For this book that you see on the shelves today, that was about a six year process—several years of shopping, one publisher that didn’t work out, at least three rewrites and re-edits, and of course it’s sexual health information so it changes all the time and any time it’s sat a couple years you have to check that every little statistic and every way to use something and every given risk is still the same.”

Publishing can be pretty frustrating when you are used to dealing with the web, says Corrina. “On the web, I just write something, and there it is. And I have the bonus of having a readership of millions of people in a year.”

Eventually, Corrina was contacted by an editor at Marlowe & Company in New York who released the book this year. (Clearly a good publishing decision, as S.E.X. is receiving well-deserved rave reviews, many of them saying exactly what I felt when I looked at it—S.E.X. is the kind of book you wish you’d had when you were growing up.)

Scarleteen.com is Corrina’s full time job, and although things have improved over the time she has been working in sexual education, she still finds she has to tailor her job description to suit her audience. “For some people you’re just an educator, for other people you’re an activist, for others you are a writer and for some you’re a sex educator. You have to gauge it to what people are willing to deal with and accept.”

“In the States last year,” she continues, “Bush actually said that unmarried people up to the age of 29 should get abstinence-only education. The more ridiculous it gets, the more OK people seem to get with me doing what I do.”


On Monday, October 1 at 7:30 p.m. in The Collard Room at Swans Hotel, Heather Corrina will read from her new book, S.E.X.. followed by a sex ed Q & A. (All ages, all genders, free)

On October 2 at 7:30 p.m. Corrina is hosting a Women’s DIY erotica workshop at Camas Book and Infoshop, 2590 Quadra, teaching women how to make their own erotica (from writing to recipes) as an alternative to exploitative porn. (Open to self-identified women; $15 suggested donation which includes supplies) Visit www.sexedexchange.org/events/2007 for more information.

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