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21st Century S.E.X. Ed
Thirty-seven-year-old Seattle resident Heather Corinna's mission is to make sure teenagers have accurate sex information that speaks directly to them. In 1999, she started her pioneering site Scarleteen.com, which gets 10,000-30,000 visitors a day, and has just come out with S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College.
WireTap: How is S.E.X. different from other books for teens about sex?
Corinna: The two largest differences are that it is holistic and inclusive. It's holistic in the sense that it presents sexuality as being one part of a larger whole. There's information on body image, self-esteem, personal identity, gender roles, general health, and both interpersonal relationships and the relationship one has with oneself.
It is inclusive in that it doesn't presume that it's speaking to girls or guys, to heterosexuals or homosexuals, to people who are dating or people who aren't.
You start out telling readers that they can choose to create a "healthy, happy and fulfilling sexual life." This notion alone is at odds with the tone of most media reports about teens and sex; why do you think teen sexuality sets off such controversy?
Corinna: Teenagers being sexual are often presented as teens "out of control," even when historically, psychologically and physiologically what they're doing is completely developmentally normal and appropriate. I think one reason why teenage sexuality is so controversial has to do with adult fears about losing control over a class of people who, quite earnestly, can have an awful lot of power and influence when they choose to harness it.
But some of that is also just plain old worry, coming from a good place. A lot of parents really love their kids, and feel they made errors with sexual partnership or sexuality they don't want their own kids to make.
You approach the topic from a feminist, activist perspective, including information about body image, self-worth, masturbation and sexual orientation. How does your identity as a feminist factor into your sex ed philosophy?
Corinna: It has a pretty strong influence. One of the biggest errors we see with both sex education and with cultural sexual ethics and practices is that it's usually done in the context of the prevailing oppressions. For instance, most sex ed is glaringly heterosexist, and presumes a heterosexual default. Much of it is overtly or covertly noninclusive when it comes to class, race, sex, gender and orientation.
Sex is often framed with some pretty decrepit and dangerous gender roles and stereotyping: assuming or encouraging female passivity or male dominance in sex and relationships, heralding vaginal intercourse as a be-all-end-all, setting the male/female romantic relationship above and beyond all others, presenting sexuality -- particularly for women -- as something a partner gives to you, or you to them, rather than something which exists all on its own and is sometimes chosen to be shared.
We don't get to decide if society oppresses us as a class, be that by sex, by orientation, by color, by economic class. But we absolutely do get to decide that we are only going to be in intimate, interpersonal relationships based on equality. So, even though women are still taught to be largely passive sexually -- even the vagina, a very active muscle, is more often presented as a passive receptacle than not! -- we can see the negatives in that, for women and men, and opt for better.
What advice would you give a teen that's curious about sex but uncertain whether they can handle it?
Corinna: Generally, the advice I give for teens that are curious about partnered sex but uncertain about their readiness is that partnered sex keeps. No one is ever harmed by waiting and as a general rule, sex is pretty much always the most enjoyable when we feel really good about it before, during and afterwards. One hour of sex that's physically satisfying isn't often worth a few weeks of emotional torment. [Also] there really should be some basic non-negotiables, such as preventative sexual healthcare, safer sex, birth control when needed, partners who absolutely, positively respect limits and boundaries, open communication and a solid feeling of self-worth.
Your chapter on "the ins and outs of partnered sex" covers everything from oral to anal to phone sex to BDSM. Is there anything that's "too advanced" for teenagers?
Corinna: Sure there is. But just like anything else with partnered sex, what is too advanced, and what is just right, is far more about the individuals involved -- each of their readiness, levels of responsibility and autonomy, the general dynamics of the relationship, how well a couple communicates, body image issues, etc. -- than about one given age. Setting age-in-years as a standard for what's right for someone when it comes to sex is pretty iffy. Heck, there were things I was doing sexually at 18 that were just fine for me then, but almost 20 years later, I don't feel up for. There are things one partner we're with can handle just fine, but for another partner, aren't a good idea.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer, editor, reading series host and blogger. She wrote the popular Lusty Lady column in the Village Voice, hosts In The Flesh Reading Series, and has edited over a dozen anthologies, most recently He's on Top and She's on Top.