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Cory Silverberg

Inspired Sex Education - 6 Questions for Scarleteen

By February 27, 2013

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Last year over five million people, mostly between the ages of 16 and 21, accessed the services of Scarleteen, an article on sexual orientation, getting help about consent on the discussion boards, accessing their live help via text message, and old fashioned email too. The site runs on sex ed smarts, passion, a lot of volunteerism, and a very small amount of money. Last year they did what they did with a budget of $45,000.

It's fundraising time, and in addition to giving some money I thought it was a good time to check out their newest live chat service. So I made my way to the homepage, clicked "live help" and asked executive director Heather Corinna six questions about running the oldest and busiest sex ed site on the net.

Scarleteen has been online since 1998, essentially since the beginning of the web, making it the oldest and longest running sex education site. Has much changed in 15 years of providing online sex education?

Heather Corinna: For one thing, there's a lot more sex information online. When we came on, for people of any age, there was next to nothing. Now there is so much, some is okay, a lot is serious rubbish. And some of what's online -- a lot, actually -- is very DIY, often either being user-generated very anecdotally, or created by people without any background or training in educating, or in health or sexuality. Some of that DIY is actually good or even excellent, but a lot of it really isn't. Of course, the level of traffic, online period, has also massively changed. I sometimes feel so lucky we came in at a time when the Internet could really grow with us, and we with it. Starting something like this now, walking into SO much internet use, seems like it would be really daunting.

Has the job gotten any harder or easier?

HC: Hmm. Both? I've been doing it now for a long time -- and teaching now for even longer, over 20 years, so in plenty of ways, for me, anyway, it's easier because I have had a lot of practice. At the same time, it's also more challenging. Between the crummy sexual information -- or more to the point, misinformation -- all over the net AND the legacy of abstinence-only, we have a LOT more misinformation, confusion, and fear to unpack with users than we used to.

Our users also come in kind of front-loaded with a LOT of information -- some sound, some very much not so -- about sexuality. So, one of the things that's gotten tougher is helping them really sort through all of that and actually understand it, for real, rather than just *having* it, or having a head full of terms and values and ideas and anecdotes, all very random, often without real context.

You spend so much of your day interacting with teens in a space designed to allow them to talk and think openly and honestly about sex, I'm wondering if there are things you learn that you think people would be surprised to know about how teens navigate and experience sexuality.

HC: One thing I think we forget about adolescence is that young people are typically, I'd say, tremendously intuitive and insightful. Including about their own sexualities. I think we forget we were like that because the wisdom of young people is so devalued -- and always has been, it was for us, too -- so when we get older, so many of us buy this crap about how wisdom only comes from age. And if adults aren't really around young people, especially often, and in diverse groups, they're not going to see it.

On a sadder note, I feel like a lot of adults right now don't realize what a culture of fear -- certainly around sex, but also in general -- young people right now have grown up with. And how very, very scared so many of them are of sex and sexuality. I also think that older adults often don't realize that the same sexual stuff THEY struggle with now is probably the same stuff they struggled with and didn't resolve as teens: the same stuff most teens are struggling with now.

Scarleteen has always done an amazing job of evolving and expanding the ways you provide your services as new platforms are created. From your message boards, to your Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Tumblr, to SMS/text messaging and now live chat. Does the way you and your volunteers work change a lot from one platform to the next?

HC: It isn't exactly the same, for a few reasons. For one, we can often get slightly different populations from service to service.The way users -- and we -- communicate on the different platforms also aren't/can't be always the same: we or they can write paragraph after paragraph on the boards and in articles: we can't do that with text or chat. How users interact with us is also different in different spaces, especially when they are more or less public, and more or less attached to their actual lives. This is why we don't do direct services with Facebook, for instance, or ask followers personal questions there. The message boards are public, but no one's names or any pictures or where they go to school are there.

That's right, I noticed that you strongly encourage people not to use their real name and you don't have a way for users to attach pictures to their profiles. This seems to be the opposite of so much social networking which focuses on visual representations and using "real" names. Can you say something about how those policies of yours evolved?

HC: We've always done it that way. No pictures, at all: that's about privacy, but it's also always been about trying to make spaces where users, and sex and their sexuality, aren't something SO tied to looks, where they are pretty much everywhere else in their lives. No real names, no links to social media accounts or email: that's about their privacy but it's also about their safety. We don't allow peer to peer private messaging on any of our platforms either. In chat and SMS, it's private between staff and the user, but we never leave the door open for any one else to come talk to them on or through our site.

When Scarleteen began there was nothing like it, and as you point out, not much out there about sexuality. Fifteen years into Scarleteen do you still think there are things that Scarleteen offers that are different?

HC: A lot really. I think it kind of boils down to "Not the what, but the how." As an educator, I come to this from a methodology and practice of alternative education and unschooling. We don't decide based on curricula or news pieces what users need or how to provide it. Myself and the volunteers constantly observe and evaluate what they're asking for, what needs they're expressing, what they seem to respond to, in content, in tone and approach, in the way we talk with them.

A great example of this is that we CONSTANTLY get older adults telling us young people can only read bullet-point lists or watch videos: but our users ask us for depth, expressly, so that's what we provide them.

We also view sex and sexuality very holistically at Scarleteen, taking the whole of their lives and everything that surrounds them -- cultures, communities, etc. -- into account. We see sex and sexuality not as things in some separate box, but as things integrated with every other part of their lives and try to be just as integrated in our approach.

Another thing that distinguishes us is the high level of direct service we provide: far more, from all we can gather, than other organizations who do only or mostly that with far more staff and much higher budgets.

And finally, We think young people are AWESOME. They are our heroes: we have a respect for them that's very real, one that, sadly, seems to be very hard to find in our world. They inspire us.

Check out Scarleteen.

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