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Cory Silverberg

Help Make the Internet Better for Sex

By November 1, 2010

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So much digital ink has been enpixelated agonizing over whether the Internet is good or bad for our sex lives. It's a debate without end, and the people it serves the most are media outlets who make money by getting advertisers based on their ability to capture our attention with what amounts to a thinly disguised modern day side show. Step right up, feel something without thinking, leave without understanding, don't forget to buy these shoes and drink this soda. But what if, instead of being angry or scared, aroused or disgusted, babbling or laconic, today you decided to figure out what you could do to make it better? How would you start?

There are, of course, many answers to that question. I want to propose just one today; Scarleteen.com. Since 1998 Scarleteen has been delivering direct service sex education to youth online. Today, and for most of their existence, it has been the highest ranked, most trafficked and popular youth sex ed resource online. They provide education and support to youth through their message boards, text service, online articles, direct referrals to other service providers, and outreach. Scarleteen also supports the development of the next generation of sex educators by mentoring youth and engaging them as volunteers on the site.

Here are the three most glaring differences between Scarleteen and most other online sex education websites for youth.

Scarleteen does sex education from a social justice model. Whether it's an article on the site, a response in the forums, or a request for more information in order to refer a youth out, they acknowledge the multiple ways that youth are systemically denied basic rights and access to sex education and sexual health. It's not unusual for a question about, say contraception or sexual pleasure, to elicit an answer that accessibly and seamlessness weaves information about race, class, and gender, in with information about how to go about choosing and accessing contraception, or negotiating with a partner to have sex that feels good. Scarleteen never addresses sexual health in isolation, and in this way helps its users develop their own, more integrated understanding and experience of sexual health.

Scarleteen is beholden to youth who use their service, not funders who pay for it. This is mostly because Scarleteen has no major government or corporate sponsors. Their funding comes from individuals like me and you. There are pros and cons to this situation, but what it means is that the services they deliver are developed in direct response to what youth want, and not in response to what services might get funded. This isn't an either/or proposal, I myself am mostly paid by a very large corporation, but we need to support spaces like Scarleteen where discussions happen much more unencumbered by the process of funding and development which touches so much other social service work.

Lastly, Scarleteen delivers comprehensive sex education that is actually comprehensive. This too is tied to their lack of obligation to institutional funders. On Scarleteen conversations can actually be guided by users, not by internal rules about what is and is not allowed to be talked about. Whether it's information about sexual pleasure, sexual violence, or any kind of sexual choice, Scarleteen users get to direct the conversation, and the educators and volunteers will go where the users want them to go. But they go as educators. They are not friends, they are not parents, they are teachers. They are good teachers, which is what we all need, and what most of us lack.

Which brings me to the part about what we can do. We can make the Internet a better place for sex by having the kind of complicated, honest, direct, and challenging conversations about sex that they have every day on Scarleteen. We can also help by supporting the professionals (paid and unpaid) who are devoted to doing this every day, not just with the people in their own life, but with strangers who come to them looking for support. Like so many good teachers, the folks at Scarleteen are seriously underpaid, and the organization needs our support. As a financial supporter, who is also an occasional volunteer, I received an email from Heather Corinna, the executive director, of Scarleteen about their current fund raising effort. In it she writes:

Unlike many other organizations often in a bind because they are solely or highly reliant on foundation or public funding, Scarleteen has always been primarily supported by generous individuals like yourself and small community groups. While this requires we operate at a far smaller budget than other similar organizations, it also allows for a high level of freedom and autonomy and the ability to best provide young people with what they want, rather than seeking to create or adapt content and services primarily to suit what funders want. This approach to funding also allows our staff to put nearly all of our time, energy and money into directly serving youth, rather than into grant seeking, writing, schmoozing and administrating.

We're asking for your help in either giving a donation of your own or encouraging your readers, colleagues, friends and family to donate. Given our visibility, tenure and traffic, with your help, meeting our goal should not be particularly challenging. A $100 donation can pay half of our server bill for a month, or half the monthly cost of the text-in service, or can fund any kind of use of the site, including one-on-one counsel and care, for around 10,000 of our daily users. However, we very much appreciate donations at any level.

You can find out more about donating here, and if you want to check out the work they do, visit the site.

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Comments
November 2, 2010 at 9:27 am
(1) NC says:

Thank you for the suggestion! I’ve just made a donation.

Way to spread the word about a great group!

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