It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire culture change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.
So without further ado…
Here’s Heather Corinna, all around Goddess and Founder and Executive Director of Scarleteen.
Heather Corinna is my personal heroine! She is a queer, feminist activist, writer, photographer, artist, educator and Internet publisher and community organizer. She has been considered a pioneer of both women’s and young adult sexuality online, having brought inclusive, informative, feminist, original, creative and radical sexuality content to the web since 1997. She is the author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College. Currently, she directs CONNECT, a local sex-ed outreach program around Seattle that primarily serves homeless and transient youth. She is also also currently a board member for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, on the editorial board of the American Journal of Sexuality Education and is a contributing writer and editor for the forthcoming edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Scarleteen is one of the most informative and accessible resources about sex and sexuality and covers a broad range of topics without being condescending – can you tell us a bit about how it got started?
Thanks! The short version of the long story is that it got started when I was running a different website about adult women’s sexuality, and young people started emailing me their questions. I looked for somewhere to refer them to online, but there really wasn’t anything (this was in 1998), so given that I had a background in youth education anyway (I was a classroom teacher at the time), and wanted them to be able to get their questions answered, I just went ahead and started answering them, first building a very small version of the site with some of those questions and answers.
…which brought more questions, and more answers, so it kept just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Big enough that within a few years, I needed to make it my full-time job and let other projects go. While it’s not something I ever actively sought out to do full-time, I’m glad it worked out that way. It’s been a great way for all my skills and talents and the things I care most about to work together in a way that works well for me and also benefits millions of people every year, which is seriously awesome. When I left classroom teaching to work in sexuality, I thought I had to choose between them, and as it turns out, I wound up getting to do both.
How has technology helped with your activism? Are there any downsides?
“Above all else, it’s provided me a very effective, efficient and affordable venue to do what I do internationally and much more accessibly than other media, like print publishing. With sexuality work in particular, online technology affords people an anonymity that is exceptionally helpful: concerns about privacy are one of the biggest barriers for people when it comes to seeking help with sexuality and talking about sexual concerns and issues.”
There are some downsides. For instance, online and related tech is certainly very accessible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s accessible to everyone. For instance, I do some work with street youth here in Seattle and unless they’re in a shelter which allows them online access, those youth don’t have access to the net. Often the people who have no access to the net or the least access are those who also have the least agency and resources when it comes to their sex lives and sexual health, so the folks who probably need the most help of anyone are the people that, working this way, I often cannot provide help for. As well, while many people feel more comfortable talking about sexuality without being face-to-face, there are times when it’s clear someone really could use in-person support, or even just to have their hand held, get a hug, or have someone there to bring them a tissue when they’re upset.
You’re very open about your personal experiences and how they’ve affected your life and feminism – how does this play into your work at Scarleteen/ your activism?
“In a lot of ways, though often not the ways people expect. I didn’t have a terrible sex life in my teens and twenties. I didn’t have horrible outcomes in being sexually active, in being queer, even in being somewhat off the bell curve sexually when it came to where most of my peers were at, but mostly very positive outcomes. On the whole I had really wonderful experiences with my sexuality and with sexual partnership and exploration that helped me get through some of what, for me, was far more challenging and difficult in my life. I stayed very healthy and usually very happy. I had a good time, which sometimes meant a silly-party good time, but other times meant a good time that was very rich and deep. I usually felt great about my sexual self, and in a whole lot of ways, sexuality was a big place of liberation and healing for me.
It’s certainly not the only way to feel liberated or the only place to find healing like that. But sex and sexuality have that capacity, and having it be something that is about liberation and feeling whole rather than something painful, scary, limiting or fragmenting, something that makes you sick or totally derails your life isn’t rocket science. When you have some basics of healthy sexuality down, when you have access to good care and information, and when you’re given venues of support and encouragement in taking care of yourself and others well, and in aiming to be who you uniquely are in sexuality, as in anything else, it’s just not that hard for it to be something wonderful, whether someone chooses to be sexual with others or chooses not to. Of course, so many people — so many people — don’t have those things, aren’t afforded them or are purposefully kept from them.
The biggest influence from my own personal life in this work isn’t about trying to make things different for young people than they were for me, which is what I more often hear colleagues working with young people express, but to try and give them what will usually make it more likely for them to have positive experiences like I did.
At the same time, not everyone around me in my life was so lucky, and some areas of my own life around sexuality, my body and relationships — most certainly having been assaulted and abused — were not positive, and I didn’t get what I needed at all. I didn’t even have, nor was I given, language for what happened to me when I was first assaulted. I didn’t have anyone to talk to or any help in taking care of myself. Some of the time, my own instincts did a good job, while other times, they really really didn’t. So, there are certainly some ways in which my aim is to try and provide what I didn’t have and needed.
Were there times when you felt useless/ unable to help and how did you deal with that frustration?
There still are those times. Sometimes I have them a couple times a week, sometimes I have them a few times in a day. But what I try and do is remind myself that my desire and intention to help, all by itself, makes me anything but useless. The fact that I want to help, all by itself, also always makes me able to help, even at times when I can’t help as much as I’d like or the ways that I think would be more ideal.
So often, when people want help what they want most of all in that is support. We can’t always help someone get out of an abusive relationship, get an abortion when they want one, or even make choices we’re very sure would be better for them, even if we walk them through step-by-step and talk to them every day for years. But what we can always do is to simply be there for them to listen, to share supportive, kind words and do whatever it is that we can, to the best of our ability. And I have to believe that doing whatever my very best is is always enough, because it’s all I’ve ever got and it’d be impossible for me to keep doing what I do every day, every year, if I didn’t believe that.
What do you think is the most difficult thing nowadays in terms of moving ahead with the fight for consent and realistic sexual education?
How incredibly institutionalized nonconsent and sexual ignorance are. Because even when we can change the messaging in one area, there are always more other people and places folks are going to get unhealthy, inaccurate or just plain limited messaging. It’s very hard sometimes to have to recognize that if and when you’re the one voice that’s making things clear like that real consent and real sexual empowerment is possible, you have to know that very often, you’re the minority voice and it’s always challenging and even tiring to try and make what you’re saying weigh more than what someone is hearing at school, from their government, from their church, from their friends, from partners, from parents, on television, in magazines.
At the same time, our minority voice in this has become less of a minority even in just the 13 years I’ve been working in sexuality now, which is a very small period of time. Positive messaging is certainly way more pervasive than it was 30 years ago. The conversation has clearly changed and grown. This kind of change, with such big stuff, is always going to be slow, is always going to be difficult, but it’s also clearly been something that has been improving over time. Sure, there have been some backsteps and backlash, some times we seemed to move forward then move a little back again, but on the whole I think it’s accurate to say that there has been, and there remains, some constant forward momentum and ever-increasing positive change.
Why do you think American media is so obssessed with “hook-up culture”. Do you think this exists currently, or do you think this existed before and has changed over the years?
I know this existed before: I’ve watched it happen now, I watched it ten years ago, I watched it 25 years ago when I was a teenager myself and my parents dealt with it, too. “Hookup culture” is the current term and manifestation of a fixation on sex outside of certain culturally or religiously sanctioned contexts that’s nothing close to exclusive to the current time.
Why? It’s complex and not everyone focused on it always has the same reasons. For some people, it’s about not thinking sex outside marriage is okay. For others, it’s about thinking sex that doesn’t have a clear exchange value — as in, sex is earned or paid for with marriage, with some other kind of commitment, what have you — isn’t okay. For others still, they clearly feel threatened by people feeling freer in sex than they do or have, or than they think anyone should feel. others still are concerned about the way they see or perceive people going about casual sex in terms of health or emotional outcomes. Since “hooking up” — whether you call it that or call it any of the other things it’s been called over the years — is not exclusive to young people, but often more visible and prevalent with young people, some of the reaction to it is a reaction with young sexuality, period. Let’s also be frank, when we’re talking about media, rather than individuals, it’s a very easy way to get people to read or view something, because it’s salacious and provocative. It’s an easy cheat: even if someone is saying something very trite, redundant or totally unoriginal about it, people will tend to look anyway.
Those are just some of the many why’s: there are more, and sometimes it’s a combination of more than one reason. But one of the biggest common denominators is one we see as pervasive in address and attitudes about sexuality, period, which is that sexuality is this big, scary thing, bigger than us, and something that needs to be controlled — not just personally, but externally and institutionally — lest it control us. That’s obviously an issue that as people, we’ve all been trying to work out for thousands of years and are still trying to work out.
How do you think we, as young activists and students can best make a difference?
Value your own voices and experiences where they are right now and get them out there, ideally to a larger audience that just the people who you’re working with. I often hear young people who feel that there’s no point in them speaking up and out because older people won’t care or some peers won’t care. However, even for those who won’t care — and whose adultism is their problem and bias — plenty do care, and more to the point, your peers do care and they need to see and hear you to help them feel and be more empowered.
Everyone also needs all of you to speak to where you have been and where you are, rather than trying to speak from a place that isn’t yours, or is a place you’re not at yet, but think you need to be at to have authority or earn respect. Not only do you not need to be anywhere but where you are, giving your own experiences and the you-of-right-now the weight they deserve, and YOU giving them authority is incredibly powerful. Not just for you, but for other people who, by virtue of age, gender, of having been victimized, who are of color, who are in any way oppressed and silenced by someone else. Doing that models that authenticity is more powerful than conformity and that oppression is something we have the capacity to change, even when we’re the ones oppressed, and we do that not by making ourselves people we aren’t and more like those who are oppressing us, but by refusing to be anything other than ourselves.