Throughout the research period, I will post research findings in an academic format to show off my fancy knowledge. This Research Findings report details the amazing stuff I discovered about online sex education for queer women using my own brain to analyze the content.
It would not be possible to attempt an analysis of Internet-based sex education without including Scarleteen, the brainchild of Heather Corrina. The website, which features message boards, a crisis hotline, and articles about various topics related to sex and sexual health, was founded in 1998 and is now visited by about three-quarters of a million people each month (“About Scarleteen”). Most visitors are between the ages of 15 and 25 (“About Scarleteen”).
The story of Scarleteen is one of innovation, and the creation of an entirely new kind of sex education:
“When Scarleteen was first created, we had to start from scratch. In early 1998, around a year after the first abstinence-only mandates began, there wasn’t anything like it we could look to in building our model. Scarleteen was created out of an expressed need: young people had written Scarleteen’s founder letters asking for sexuality information and support through a website she maintained about adult women’s sexuality, and she had nowhere online she could refer them that provided direct service for young people.
“Scarleteen was created and built based on what young people asked for, through existing experience in alternative education, writing, social justice activism, health and sexuality Heather and a few volunteer writers shared, with an understanding of human sexuality as a positive and beneficial part of life. We sourced sound sexuality, relationship and health data and perspectives from reliable, reputable resources online and in print and got feedback, support and help from progressive thinkers working in the field of sexuality. To date, that remains our central approach, but we now benefit from a larger network of sexuality resources and individuals working in sexuality who generously provide feedback and advice, from increased cultural conversation about and support for sex education, and from a larger and more diverse group of young people who share what they want and need with us each day” (“About Scarleteen”).
Scarleteen’s approach to sex education meets the standards of inclusivity, and goes beyond a traditional approach to including diverse audiences in their writing. Though the blog features a “Gaydar” and “SexYouAlity” section to discuss topics pertaining specifically to queer and questioning folk, the overall approach of Scarleteen is, in and of itself, to include those folk in a majority of their work. If you were to scroll through the “Gaydar” section, for example, you would find that the tag is used on posts about average, everyday things that normal, average people do! It’s almost like Scarleteen thinks gay people might be (this is a big gasp) human or something.
The importance of making queer people a part of sex education, and not simply an extension of it, should go without saying. The approach Scarleteen uses normalizes queer experiences and makes queer people welcome without isolating them from the larger mission of the website. Like most of the websites I’ve ever seen, it’s amazing. Scarleteen’s approach to discussing issues of sexuality and queer sex, however, is also deeply affirming to queer people, and creates a space for queer and questioning people that guides them in their journey to great sex and a whole sexuality.
For example, “The Bees and…The Bees: A Homosexuality and Bisexuality Primer,” is a wonderful and affirming piece written by Corrina herself, and gives straight people an opportunity to learn quickly about queerness while also giving queer and questioning folk an affirming reminder that they exist:
“No one but you can assign an orientation or an identity to you. What you call yourself, how you identify, and when you identify (and this may not be solid — for some of us, in our lives, identity shifts and is fluid to some degree) is all your choice. The important thing is that you do what you can to make your self comfortable and at peace with yourself, that you are honest with yourself and your friends, family and/or partners, and that you realize you have as much time as you want or need to find out who you are.
“Your sexuality and the opportunity for partnership is with you through your whole lifetime: it isn’t going to run away from you if you don’t catch it. Check through sites like this one and other GBLT information. Go to a youth group for gay, lesbian or bisexual teens, or see if your school has a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). Talk to another trusted adult or peer who is homosexual or bisexual. Explore the possibilities, and go with what is comfortable for you. Ultimately, you’re the person you have to live with and own up to every day: trying to make yourself into something you aren’t, or fight who you feel you really are may seem like the easier thing to do in the short run, but in the long run it not only damages you, it damages everyone around you.
“No matter who you are, or what stage of understanding who you are, you’re at, be proud of yourself. If you’re sincere, open, honest and loving, and act with integrity, no matter what your orientation is, you’re someone to be proud of.”
Corrina’s other pieces on homosexuality, including “Don’t Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out,” stress to non-queer audiences that identity is delicate and that queer folk must be given the space to develop that they need and desire.
Scarleteen similarly offers resources for young people who may be questioning or struggling with their sexuality and identity, and accepts questioning as part of the process without rushing someone to find the answer:
“One of the barriers I hear some folks voice about using questioning as a way to identify is that it’s so vague, so iffy, so everything but final or definitive. And thus, super-duper annoying. During any time in our life when we’re seeking out your own identity, we tend to really, really, really want answers, NOW. Not having them can make us feel lost or like we don’t know who we are, or can make it feel tougher to figure out where we fit in with peer groups or other communities. If you recognize, though, that putting out an answer that really isn’t your answer doesn’t tend to make any of this feel any better, and that trying to make yourself be somebody doesn’t tend to help you find out who you are (it may even make the process take longer), you might be able to feel a little bit better about this period of questioning. Or not, but that’s all I’ve got. Limbo of any kind in life is nearly always going to suck eggs, and the truth is that most of the time, we’ve just got to wait it out, whether we like it or not.
“Sometimes, people will also say that identifying as questioning isn’t for real: that the only reason people identify that was is because they do know the answer, and they just don’t like it or don’t want to tell anyone what that is. While that may be so for some people (and it’s always everyone’s right: no one has the right to require us to tell them what our orientation is), most people who know their orientation more often are either truthful about what that is or, if they’re not going to be truthful, will tend to simply say their orientation is what they’d prefer it was or what they think or know others want it to be. Someone trying very hard to hide something is not going to tend to leave the window open for people to make inferences, after all, and saying you’re questioning does leave people space to assume or conclude you could be any orientation, not just one” (“Q Is For Questioning.”).
That kind of approach to sexuality – in which questioning and exploration are normal, expected, and even satisfying – is truly unique and very much so different from the approach typically practiced in the classroom.
And even better? When it comes to the real nitty-gritty – the actual queer sex part – Scarleteen is similarly on-point. In “What Is Sex?” Corrina explores the idea that defining sex is tricky, hard, and ultimately pointless – since it will vary from person to person:
“When some people say ‘sex’ they only mean penis-in-vagina genital intercourse. The trouble is, there are a good many people who don’t or can’t have that kind of sex, or don’t have that kind of sex every time, but who still have active, fulfilling sex lives. Some other people use it to mean any kind of genital sex with someone else. That definition can have its flaws, though, too. When we mean those specific things, we’ll say that we’re talking about those specific things. When some people say “having sex’ they mean something that can only happen in some specific kinds of partnership, but when we mean specific partnerships or relationships, we’ll be specific.
“When we say ‘sex’ we’re talking about a very big picture. That’s because what sex is or isn’t for any given person or partnership not only differs a whole lot from person-to-person, it also can differ a whole lot from day-to-day for any one person: the way they had sex yesterday may not be the way they’ll have sex next week. One person might consider that only intercourse or oral sex is sex, but someone else may both define sex differently and have what’s sex for them without doing either of those things. And defining what sex is just by a given activity or action, without talking about people’s motivations and desires really doesn’t work: after all, rape isn’t sex, even though things like intercourse or oral sex are forced in rapes.”
This kind of clarification is the gateway towards a broader acceptance of queer relationships and sex as “valid.” Anyone who has ever experience sex with a woman knows that what happened was sex. (Trust us.) The only problem is that most people can’t fathom sex without penetration, and thus an entire focal point of the lesbian sexuality becomes invisible and kind of just a punch line. That’s very dangerous.
Scarleteen’s work most definitely laid a strong foundation for all websites after it to be conceived with a similar focus on user-based sex education that is interactive, helpful, and free from judgement, bullying, or the looming gym teacher overhead. And in that regard, Scarleteen kind of changed the world – or at least the worlds of a lot of young people trying to do it right, do it well, and do it on their terms.
Images without credits are always found innocently via Tumblr. Please let me know if any are yours!
“About Scarleteen.” Scarleteen.
Corrina, Heather. “The Bees and…The Bees: A Homosexuality and Bisexuality Primer.” Scarleteen. 6 October 2000. http://scarleteen.com
Corrina, Heather. “Don’t Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out.” Scarleteen. 11 June 2001. http://scarleteen.com
Corrina, Heather. “Q is for Questioning.” Scarleteen. 12 April 2010. http://scarleteen.com