Pure As the Driven Slush: Heather Corinna's Journal and Diary, Online since 1999

Archive for the 'education' Category

Monday, November 21st, 2011

I wound up getting a pretty invaluable takeaway from the Staycation-that-wasn’t.

When it was over — or not over, really, since it didn’t really happen, but you know what I mean — I realized that I had stayed off my personal Twitter without even noticing.  Then I realized that going back on filled me with some level of dread. So did the prospect of doing pretty much anything that involved promotion or standing out from the madding crowd in any way.  While I didn’t get the time off I wanted, I was at least able to get a handful of days separate from my larger work world of late and away from its constant din. In a word, anything potentially extroverted or which carried the pressure to be extroverted made me feel highly anxious and depressed.

Growing up, music, writing and teaching were always my big loves, as they are still. Unsurprisingly, my musical abilities tended to be the ones that got the most attention and focus from others.  Some of that was just because I loved to make music, but I suspect a larger part of it was that making music tends to involve a level of performance that writing (well, until fairly recently) and teaching, especially when you do it the way I’ve always liked to, do not.

The thing is, I never liked performing. I still don’t. What I liked was making music, being a part of music, or even more to the point, being so much a part of music that what I was in those moments was music itself, separate from myself, invisible as myself.  My favorite part of any kind of art has always been the process, not the product, and really being able to get lost inside that process. Before I went to the arts high school I did, I was always in the choir at every school I attended. I remember people feeling very invested in getting solos or not, but that was never my interest. Being in the choir — in it –  was my favorite part.  I especially loved those moments when you’d be singing with everyone else, and all the harmonies would be just right: even though you were still singling just as clearly and loudly when your own voice was more audible, you’d blend in so that you couldn’t distinguish your voice from anyone else’s anymore. It was like you opened your mouth and everyone’s voice came out, and yours was only one part.  It’s the same reason I loved being in the mosh pit during my high school years: things were loud and intense, sure, but everyone was part of the crowd, it required going with that flow or people would wind up underfoot.

I loved being at the arts school. Being able to focus on my writing was fantastic, but I was there primarily to study music, and I loved that, too. At the end of senior year, everyone needed to present their own project, and I was so happy to be able to form a band and be able to collaborate with a group, rather than playing alone. But by the time graduation was coming up, I,d realized that a life in music would probably mean a life performing. Making my living as someone who only stayed in the studio was not likely to be doable (I should have learned a brass instrument, I know). If I wanted to sing, I’d need to learn to like performing. I tried. During my gap year, my friend Joe and I would play open mikes and at a couple bars and I literally tired to see if I could learn to like performing if I just sang and played my dulcimer with my back turned to the audience.  (Yes, really.  I did like it better, but audiences, as you’re probably not surprised to hear, found it a bit odd.) What about street performing, I thought? Maybe that would work. Nope. Also? Fucking brr.

So, when I started college, I decided to stop studying music and focus instead on literature and sociology, and on writing and teaching. There’ve been two decades between then and now, and a lot happened in my life and in the world in between.  And of course, silly me, I decided to write and teach about and subjects that seem perfectly normal and relaxed to me, but also wonderfully complex, so never boring, but which most of the world finds provocative and feels the need to yell about a lot.

But over the last couple of decades, the biggest thing that happened around my little epiphany I’m about to talk about is that it seems to me that our culture has become a culture of constant and en-masse extroversion to the exclusion of all other ways of being.  A “look at me” world. If how a lot of the world seems to be going right now was a kid in class, it seems like it’d be the kid who always has their hand up for every question, even though half the time, they don’t have the answer or weren’t even paying attention to what the question was.

Everything seems to involve marketing. Everything feels like it involves making yourself louder and louder and louder and bigger and bigger and bigger. If you don’t want to be on television — or, if you’re like me and that kind of visibility sounds like a circle of hell Dante would have invented if he’d written the Divine Comedy in the 21st century — it must mean you’re not really motivated to do whatever it is you do. Hell, we have reality television, and people who aspire to be on reality television as a what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up. If you just want to quietly do your own thing, it’s often assumed you must not want to involve other people or make an impact on the world, since making an impact involves being seen as widely, as largely as possible, even if what you have to offer when given those opportunities is less than the best you’ve got to offer. I can’t express how many times over the last year or two I have found myself arguing with colleagues who just don’t understand — they’re not being assholes, they just clearly don’t get it –  why I don’t self promote more, more, more and how I can be highly dedicated to doing what I am without wanting to spend more time marketing myself and my work than time doing my work. It’s gotten to the point where if anyone around me even starts the sentence, “You know, you really should promote yourself better by….” I feel on the verge of tears or shin-kicking, sometimes both.

And in the subject I work in, in sex, I feel like it’s just gotten really bad — and maybe it always was — to the point where the promotion and marketing schtick has gotten so fever-pitch that even smart people I know with great intentions frequently sound like snake oil salesmen to me. I ran from two professional email lists screaming in the last year because where I had been looking for educated community to deepen the actual work we all do, most of what I found was what sounded like a nonstop infomercial from hundreds of people at once, some of whom, it seemed to me, spent more time marketing than actually doing the work, because when they did ask about work-related things, the questions they asked were so rudimentary it made it obvious how little time they spent doing the work they were promoting.

When I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve felt so burnt out and tired, I kept finding myself very perplexed. I love the work I do. Working with teens and young people, especially when they’re in crisis, can be very challenging, but it rarely wears me out: it tends to energize me instead. I never get tired of writing: I still love the process. Same goes for teaching: I still love working as en educator.  The money stuff is always tiresome, so I often look there when I’m trying to identify a source of stress, but that’s not it. I wish I had more time for my life, still, and for my own creative work, but I’ve been working on that with some measure of success. I keep being asked for things from too many people who seem to forget I’m just one person over here, but as frustrating as that is, I can let mostly those annoyances go when I experience them. I’ve wracked my brain with all of these puzzle pieces and more, trying to find out where, exactly, so much of my stress seems to be coming from.

Then I realized that I somehow have managed to often fall into working in this extroverted mode that doesn’t work for me at all. In fact, it keeps me from doing my best work; from my best self, even. From who I am and the way that I do things best.

I’m gragarious, sure. And very open. Sometimes loud and boisterous. But I’m not extroverted. I’m introverted. It’s one of the reasons I always loved writing. It’s one of the reasons why I’m always much more concerned with getting enough time alone than with getting enough social time, and why I always feel completely perplexed when people ask me if I get lonely now that I live on the island or if I get bored out here. When I was in the UK early this year, Blue took some time off and was home alone for several days.  When he told me on the phone he hadn’t seen a single person in days, I said, “I know, isn’t it AWESOME?” (I think it is. Blue, on the other hand, was a little freaked out by the experience.) It’s one of the reasons I fell so in love with Montessori when I discovered it, where the teacher isn’t the focus, the students are. It’s one of the reasons I still love making music, and tend to save it for cherished, quiet times when I’m alone. It’s the main reason why it’s been very hard for me to have to adjust to the fact that semi-regularly now, I have to do public talks for big groups, something I’ve gotten decent at doing, but am always most thrilled when it’s over. My introverted nature is not news to me nor is it to anyone who knows me well.

And yet. Because — and really, I can’t believe how unaware of this I have been — it seems like the way things have been around this is that this, this high-key extroversion, is The Way you do them, I have tried to do them that way. I have tried to keep my own personal and professional din at something resembling the level of what seems like everyone else’s. I have pushed myself really hard to perform the way a lot of my colleagues perform. Heck, I can actually track this back to way earlier in my life, to times even as a kid where I forced myself to learn to be loud because I so badly wanted to do things, and the only way it seemed I was going to be able to get a chance to do them was if I acted like I was extroverted.

And that, my dears, is what I realized has been making me so incredibly worn out, above and beyond all else.

For an extrovert, see, that stuff obviously feels energizing and exhilarating. Not for an introvert: it gives me an intense desire for a rock to go hide under where I can take a long nap or listen to my records alone all day. An extrovert loves to be in the spotlight. We introverts generally can’t stand it, especially if we’re not at least sharing it, ideally with someone who wants that spot right on them, far, far away from us. My sense is that for extroverts, being constantly visible and in the middle of everything helps them focus. For an introvert, especially for this introvert, it feels like trying to watch one screen while 50 different screens with different things on them are on at once. It’s distracting. For me to see out clearly, I have to start by seeing in: and I can’t do that very well if I’m trying to be extroverted. It’s like extroversion puts a flashlight in my eyes.  Not only does it just feel wrong — wrong like you feel when you’re trying to get somewhere, and someone tells you you’re on the right street, but you are 110% certain you’re utterly turned around –  it makes it really, really hard for me to even remember what I’m supposed to be doing, let alone enjoy it.

The thing is, I — and my other fellow introverts — should be able to be who we are, the way we are, and do what we want to do in life and in the world in our way. It’s no more wrong or right than the other way: these are both ways of being. Not putting out a constant, flashy, look-look-look outflow doesn’t mean I don’t want to do things that have a big impact, nor that I don’t think my work has value: it usually just means that I want to be in the work and focusing on the work itself, and focusing on myself in such a way that I’m the vehicle for it, rather than the other way round.

I thought a little about some of the people I’ve admired most in the world who were clearly introverted: Blake, Goodall, Thoreau, Ghandi, Woolf, Bronte, Curie, Einstein, Dr. Suess, Jung, King, Van Gogh, Chopin, Yeats, Joni Mitchell, Georgia O’Keefe, Remedios Varo, nearly every writer and artist whose work I find most visionary and my father. Then I started thinking about how they’d fare in the world right now, and how hard it might even be to find them and what they did if they didn’t shift to an extroverted model. I mean, would Virginia Woolf really be like, “No, srsly, everyone, COME SEE MY ROOM! Pls RT!” Would Thoreau have a daily photoblog of Walden Pond? Why? How the hell would Chopin have composed anything with one hand on a cell phone? How on earth could activists like King and Ghandi have done what they did as well as they did with the kind of reactive urgency we have right now?

Then I realized that all the people on my list were brilliant people, very self-possessed and visionary people who I feel certain would have found a way to be who they are, and to do things the way that felt right to them, without taking on a way of being that would be more likely to stand in the way of their work and their lives than it would be likely to enhance it.

I am, at the moment, without solid answers about how to do this differently. At the same time, it’s not like I’ve ever really thought about it before: I only, and quite foolishly, just hit upon this awareness last week.

But I’m so very grateful to have gotten to that awareness, even if what got me there mostly seems to have been a lot of deep annoyance, a ton of new grey hairs, distraction from all of the things I actually want to do and which need a level of full attention tough to come by anymore for me to do them as well as I can, and feeling very misunderstood pretty much constantly, all unpleasant things.

For now, I’m just going to start thinking about this. I have a few strategies to start with, though, like staying away from social media I can until I figure out a way to manage it that really works for me, taking baby steps to ask the extroverts in my circles to accept I’m different than they are, doing things more quietly, even if it seems like a gamble to do so, and just reminding myself that the way it seems like everything has to be done isn’t the way everything has to be done.  There are other ways to do things than whatever the predominant model is or seems to be at a given time, something I know and have always applied to near everything in my life and my work, something I tell other people at least several times a day, and something I used to do all the time, so there’s no reason I can’t apply the same here with this, starting now.

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Anyone who knows me or who knows anything about me usually knows that my pre-teen and teen years were incredibly difficult. I dealt with neglect and abuse in my family, starting from about the time I was 10. I was sexually assaulted twice before I even became a teenager. I was queer. I was suicidal and was a self-injurer. I struggled to find safe shelter sometimes. Few people seemed to notice, even though after I gave up trying to use my words, I still used my eyes to try and tell them constantly. The one adult I could count on over time to be unilaterally supportive of me had (still has) serious mental illness. I had to take more adult responsibility at the end of my teen years than anyone else I knew. Like many adolescents, I constantly heard directly or got indirect messages from adults who talked about how awful teenagers were, how awful I was, how difficult, how impossible, how loathesome. Four days after my sixteenth birthday, the first real-deal big-love-me-lover I had, who treated me with all the care, support and respect I could have asked for, very violently committed suicide, having scars of his own from a lifetime of his own sexual and emotional abuse. Four days after my sixteenth birthday, with just a few days of freedom under my belt, I looked at brain matter spread over a wall from someone I deeply cared about. And that was after things had started getting better. I’m 40 now, and in a whole lot of ways, I felt older at 16 than I feel now. Some days, I am truly gobsmacked that I survived at all, let alone with my heart and mind intact and rich.

A lot of why I survived is about having gotten support. Without it, I’m fairly sure I would not have, because the times I didn’t have it are when I was so perilously close to either taking myself out or just numbing out; to staying alive, but not really being alive.

I can identify a few different lifelines I lucked into. That love affair was a biggie, despite the way it ended. I had a couple of good friends. My father did the best he could, even with contact made limited and his own limitations from his own traumas.I had a couple wonderful teachers who never really talked to me about what I suspect they knew, but who gave me some support and tools to help me value and care for myself. Having and knowing I had creative talents and being supported in those by some of the people around me was a godsend. I had also started seeing a counselor when I was 15, Barb, who was wonderful, sensitive and kind. However, she was so supportive of me, and so vocally nonsupportive of how I was being treated at home — even though I’d only disclosed some of the picture — that my stepparent axed her and wouldn’t allow me to see her anymore. Unbenownst to him, she’d still kept seeing me pro-bono, and continued to do so for another two years.  When my boyfriend died, she slept on the ratty couch in the ratty apartment my dad and I lived in to help get me through the night. She was the first adult to help me even get started on sorting out my sexual assaults, and was completely accepting of the person that I was and wanted to become.

But there was someone else very unexpected who made an incredible difference. I wish I knew his name. If I did, I’d send him a thank you note every day of my life in an envelope full of cupcakes and stars and love and guts; all the best tears of the joy and wonderful agony I’ve found in living and all the best sweat I’ve cultivated in surviving and thriving.

Throughout most of middle school and the start of high school, I was post-traumatic much of the time, holding hard secrets inside myself and deep in abusive dynamics, quite successfully abused and controlled. Not to the satisfaction of the person putting me there mind, because can you ever be controlled enough by someone who wants to control you? But I was mostly just not there: I checked out a whole lot. I sometimes playacted at what seemed like was supposed to be normal life, pantomiming what I observed my peers doing and saying, typing snippets of my own truth between the lines on the old typewriter that hurt my hands to use and which was missing two vowels I had to write in by hand. I often went to bed early so that I could wake up earlier still and leave the house unnoticed for a safe place where I could cry without worry of opening myself up to more abuses and write without fear of discovery.  I’d then sort myself out, walk to school, and arrive with a manufactured calm that allowed me to at least be able to spend my days feeling like, and being treated like, I was living a completely different life.

Somewhere around the time I was 14 or 15, something inside of me spoke the truth of my own circumstances and the way that I felt. I was able to slowly stop internalizing the abuse and neglect, and know it wasn’t about what was wrong with me. That change in my mindset, however small and seedling, and a few other changes started to give me some strength to resist, to try and survive, rather than trying to disappear, hide or check myself out altogether. This change did not go over well in my household, at all. The sad, suicidal, lost kid turning into the rebellious, resilient kid is not a change an abuser appreciates. But for a little while, I remember feeling strong, like I perhaps could go to battle in this, go to battle for myself, and just might be able to win.

But it quickly seemed I was going to get bested, in a really terrible way. My stepparent came up with a “last resort” of many abuses-disguised-as-therapies to deal with me; to have the control he clearly wanted, and the family he wanted, which did not include me. He was apparently going to utilize his counseling connections to get me institutionalized out of state. This threat, coupled with some escalating abuse, sapped my spirit, and made it feel like my idea I could get out of there and survive was a total delusion. It’s always so hard to look back on how I felt then because in hindsight I can see that this person had very little power at all, over me, in the spheres he claimed to, save the power I and my mother gave him.  In my adult eyes, I can see him as the pathetic pretender he was, and see that it was, in fact, my power he was so reactive to. But that’s not how he looked and seemed then. Then, he looked and seemed, particularly with this new plan, like a very potent overlord with the capacity to make my whole life whatever he wanted.

In actuality, his connections were only so good and he still had to work within the system. To make an institutionalization like that happen, an outside counselor needed to recommend it. It was a given that my previous counselor would not make that recommendation. Before I’d started seeing that counselor, though, there was another counselor we’d met with, who I strongly disliked. My stepfather really liked him. I remember thinking he seemed cold, but the fact that my stepfather thought he was awesome was all I needed to know I wanted to stay the hell away from him. I can’t remember how I managed to win the battle to not see that person and see Barb instead, but somehow I swung it.

So, of course, this was the counselor they wanted to try and get that recommendation so I could be sent away, sent away for good, I was told (which was a lie, obviously, but I didn’t know that at the time). I figured I was doomed and defeated. All I saw in the few days before this appointment in the life ahead of me was no windows and no future. I saw myself losing the few good connections I had in the world, to my father, to my few friends, to my plans for my life which I’d only recently felt the desire to even have again, having stopped wanting to die. I saw myself doped up and locked up forever. I snuck out of the house in the middle of the night to say painful goodbyes. My boyfriend and my friends tried to help me come up with any possible out, but I felt so beat down that though I think there were things I could have done to make that happen, I believed in my stepparent’s claimed omnipotence, I had started to believe that I was just nuts and broken, I believed again that I was powerless.

My stepfather, my mother and I drove a long way to see this guy. As ever, I had my giant bag I panhandled with packed with my own version of survival goods (loose change, some clothes, a couple pieces of fruit and bread, my journal, a mix tape or two, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, my teddy bear, eyeliner, sleeping pills, caffeine pills and an ever-present can of Aqua Net, extra-strength) in case I got the opportunity to run. But they seemed pretty prepared for that possibility by that point, and it didn’t seem likely I’d get the chance. To boot, where we were heading was so far outside the city, I had no idea how I’d even get anywhere if I could get away.

I went in to be assessed. I held back a lot, not feeling safe to disclose, especially in a system where my stepparent had made himself seem like Napoleon. But I did disclose some of what was going on with me, some of what was going on in my house, some of how I felt, and certainly how powerless I felt. I voiced feeling my own life was being taken out of my hands, and a hard, tired acceptance of that. In spite of myself, I did share how awful it felt to live in a house where no one liked you, seemed to care about you, or recognized how much pain you were in and how badly you needed help, and how much I wanted to be with people who cared for me and where I could do all I knew I was capable of. Because I was madly in love and loved back in the same way for the first time, I of course couldn’t keep from talking about that, too. I left his office, then, and went into the waiting room, silent and scared to death.

Then he took a turn seeing the two of them. They were in there for a long time: every minute felt like an hour. Then he called me back in again. I went back in. I sat down, awaiting doom. He was quiet, contained, and his face didn’t give anything away. And then he said something like this:

“I talked to you. I talked to your mother and your stepfather. I do think there are mentally unwell people in your family. I do not think you are one of those people. I think it’s amazing you’re doing as well as you are, I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through what you have, and I’m sorry I didn’t see what was going on the first time I saw you. I think if you are unwell or in trouble, it’s not because of who you are or because something is wrong with you, but because you are living in a very unhealthy environment and there is something very wrong with that environment.  I am not going to recommend you be sent to Kentucky. I am going to recommend you live with your father, or in some other placement, because if we want you to be and feel a lot better, it seems to me we need to get you out of that house. I am going to call them back in and tell them this, too, but I wanted to tell you alone first.”

I think I still have a bruise on my thighs from my jaw falling so hard unto them in that moment 25 years ago.

I had so not seen that coming, even though my existing counselor had voiced similar sentiments (which is why I wasn’t supposed to be seeing her). I know and remember that I trusted and valued her words, and felt similarly relieved when she’d said them, but this was something different that had a much bigger impact on me. For starters, this guy had just effectively saved my life when it felt moments away from being a total loss: in some ways literally, since I no doubt would have gone back to trying to off myself in an institution, but it was bigger than that. He’d helped save and secure the possibility of my both having the life that I wanted, outside a lockdown, outside abuse, and helped me save my own sense of self, because I’d heard enough to squelch it that the lines had started to become blurry. I’d started to believe what I was told in abuse, and what I felt in neglect: that I was awful, worthless, ugly, defective, wrong and broken from birth, crazy and would always be all of those things at my very core.

In a string of words that didn’t even take a minute for him to voice, he’d done so much. When my stepfather came back in the room, I got to watch his face twist and then hang defeated when this guy voiced similar words to him, and I got a whole new wave of feeling empowered and brave. For a minute, it seemed like even my mother wasn’t convinced he had all the power anymore. Back in the car, as we drove to a friend’s house of his, I was told, from between gritted teeth, that if I could manage to get myself back to the city alone AND gather whatever of mine I could out of the house AND be gone by the time they got back AND if I accepted that I “should never ask either of them for anything again” (a deal I had to think about for all of a nanosecond, since some of my most basic needs hadn’t been met for years, so I couldn’t figure what exactly it was I would have gotten from them if I did ask) THEN I would be left to live with my father IF he would take me. Long story short, I managed to do it with the one phone call I was allotted, some expertly nimble window-scrambling, a sympathetic taxi driver and a whole lot of courage and confidence that counselor had provided me. If that had been an Olympic sport, I’d probably still hold the world record. That day ended in my father’s apartment, with my Dad on one side of me, my boyfriend on the other, a pizza, and all of us crying and laughing and hugging with relief and joy and gratitude for hours and being able to fall asleep in the company of two people who I knew loved me immensely. It wound up being one of the most happiest nights of my life.

This did not fix everything for me. Six days later, my boyfriend took too many ludes too near his idiot housemate’s loaded rifle. My father and I lived in deep poverty over the next couple years. I still had years (and do still) to work on trauma from all my abuses and assaults, to accept myself, to repair deep wounds that usually feel pretty well healed, but sometimes still feel raw and seeping.But it’s okay. I’m okay. I’m really excellent, when it all comes down to it. It’s kind of a miracle, and no small amount of it has to do with an hour of time and an ounce of compassion someone who didn’t even know me gave.

That guy supported me. He listened, and he trusted my words. He was clear, he was calm, he was centered when I couldn’t be. He gave me information I needed and dismantled misinformation that was hurting me and would continue to hurt me. He validated my feelings. He showed me I had and could find more allies. He watered my strength and courage. He gave me hope. He believed in me and helped me get back to believing in myself. He showed me that however scary disclosing is, you have to risk it sometimes because you have to risk being supported, not just being unsupported. He did something and said things that would make it a million times easier for me to really start talking to other people about what I had been through, would still later go through, what I was feeling and how I needed to be helped. And he was one of the rare and wonderful adults during that time of my life who demonstrated that someone like him, who did for me what he did, even though it may have felt smaller to him than to me, is a vital lifesaver.

The older I get, the more my memories of all of those years get blurrier, but this particular moment is deeply etched. Every time I call it back up, I wind up weeping with a revisited relief and gratitude; not just because he helped save my life, my self, my goddamn soul, but because he modeled something for me that very clearly took root and has allowed me to be able to do something a little like what he did for me for many, many young people who, however different or similar their circumstances, need that now just as bad as I did then.

* * *

Lately, there’s been some growing awareness of, and attention given to, young people who have killed themselves or been killed due to isolation, harassment and other abuse; around or related to gender, sexual orientation, sexual abuse or assault, interpersonal or interfamilial abuse or assault. There are always the omnipresent news stories about kids who shoot other kids, kids who die from overdoses or drunk driving or kill or harm other kids that way. But these stories, however important they are to tell — and they absolutely are — are about when the absolute worst has happened: when some young person simply can’t take living anymore, or decides no one else should; when young people implode or explode. This is already a limited scope, and who knows how long even this level of awareness that young people often have it very hard will last. Unless something in the world has radically changed around young people, and I’m not seeing any evidence that it has, this will likely be a moment in time that passes, as many have before.

What doesn’t often make the news, and what most folks so rarely see, are the young people who have been traumatized, challenged, squashed, mistreated, neglected, dismissed or just have been poorly served who turn it around. They don’t implode or explode, they survive, thrive, endure, inspire. Those who slog on and pull through, even if all they can manage at first is to just get from one day to the next. But I see these young people all the time at Scarleteen, in other work that I do and in other work and environments like this (which sadly remain few and far between). That’s because the young people that pull through tend to because they get some ongoing, reliable and compassionate information, help and support.  That’s because one of the biggest and most important parts of what my work is to be a person that’s there for them to get those things from.

At Scarleteen, we see the young person who comes in making sexual choices that are simply not at all right for them, that they don’t feel good about, don’t like, or where they’re taking risks they don’t need to be or don’t want to be. We see the young person who knows or suspects — and is usually deeply afraid — that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer, and/or that they are trans or otherwise gender nonconforming and has no one safe to talk to. We see the young person who’s had an unintended pregnancy, and in all sorts of circumstances; who may need help finding or being supported in abortion, or being supported in pregnancy and parenting, including after they’ve given birth when the folks who were so invested in them making that choice stop giving a damn because them making that “right choice” was all they cared about. We see the young person who’s been sexually assaulted or abused; we see the young person who is currently being abused, who feels trapped in abuse and does not know how to get out. We see the young person who’s only ever had abusive models of relationships and so has no idea that the abuse they’re in is not okay and is not healthy. We see the young person who wants so badly to connect to others, but who just does not know how or who has a disability that makes it even harder for them to connect than it is for abled teens. We see the religiously conservative young person who has so many questions, or has even had something terrible happen to them and isn’t their fault, but who’s gotten the clear message that they can’t bring those questions or needs to their community without being scorned.

We see the young person who grew up with so much shame around their sexuality that the mere fact of its growing existence, whatever it’s like, has them terrified and desperately trying to crush it any way they can. We see the young person whose hatred of their body is so profound they are asking how they can literally cut certain parts off or starve certain parts away. We see the young person who’s being told, endlessly, everywhere they look, how incapable they are. We see the young person so desperate to try and redo their own lousy childhood that they’re trying to get pregnant at 14 in the hopes that creating their own family will give them love they never found and still don’t have. At Scarleteen and every time I do the in-person work via CONNECT (the in-person outreach I do at youth shelters which is now part of Scarleteen) we see young people who have been rejected and cast out by the adults who were supposed to be the ones they could trust and rely upon most, the young person who is, with myself and/or other volunteers and staff, having the very first supportive and caring exchange with an adult they have had in their whole lives. We see the young person whose esteem and self-worth is so low that they simply do not care that their sexual partners are treating them like garbage, or who welcome being treated like garbage because it at least gives them some momentary sense of worth. Some of these young people are in times in their lives like I was in mine. Some of them have different challenges, and some of them are far less or far more challenged than others. Our world as a whole is highly unsupportive of young people, even in the best of circumstances. Our world as a whole is highly fearful of sexuality. Those worlds collide for me and for the people I serve every day.

But what we see in all of these kinds of scenarios and more are young people who have identified a place to be supported and helped, a place to utilize to try and make things better for themselves; a place to try and get even a little of what they need to care for themselves. If and when we interact with them directly, as we do with around 20-50 of them each day, we also see young people who are willing to take a risk and ask for help directly, often fully expecting that they will be denied, teased or shut down. And what we also see every single day are young people who often have those terrible expectations and don’t have them met: who DO get the help and support they are asking for. Who DO get the information they need and are asking for.

What is it we do for them? It’s often both as small and as potentially big as what that guy did for me. We give them information: information they ask for within the scope of what we do and what we know. We give them compassion and care.  We listen. We respond to what they say and ask for, not what we want to hear and say. We support them. We always try and tell them the truth and to do so with kindness and care. We have and demonstrate faith in them. We work hard not to judge or project our own stuff on them. We treat them with respect, accept and embrace who they uniquely are and encourage them to do the same. We connect them with other systems of support and coach them in reaching out. We help them in steps that can improve their lives over time — sometimes immediately, but more often it takes some time — but we don’t blow off that if we’re they’re at right now hurts like hell, it’s painful and uncomfortable. We sit with them in that. We give them hope. We create and hold a space where we work to make it as safe as possible to take a risk and open up, and where they can also learn how to interact with others in safe, supportive ways, even when voicing things that hurt or are scary or uncomfortable.

For millions of young people around the world for around twelve years now, we are and have been that guy. We’re not the only place to find that, but for many of teens and twentysomethings we are the only place at first, or the first place. Some have voiced that at a given time, we are, literally, the only place they feel able to talk and ask questions and the only place or people they know they can count on to be available for that, year after year.

I rarely get letters from a person we helped with taking a pill on time or working through a standard-issue breakup. Who I do get letters from, often years later, are the young people in places a lot more like I was. Usually, there’s a lovely thank you, but the very best part is that they’ll usually fill me in on how they’re doing, what they’re doing, and on how wonderful their lives are becoming, which is all the thanks I need, and what I always hope I’ll hear in time, especially when I go to bed some nights having sat with someone through something terribly painful. I can let them go, both for my sake and for theirs, but some part of me always wonders and worries and hopes and hopes and hopes. Knowing that when I hoped for the best for them that the best is what happened is an incredible gift. And I’m very certain that there are many letters we don’t get but would otherwise, because a lot like me, those now-adults remember the help they got and the impact it had on them, but for the life of them they can’t even remember the name of the person who helped them. (Which is maybe how it should be when we do it right.)

Obviously, not every young person who comes to Scarleteen is dealing with the toughest-of-the-tough-stuff. I don’t highlight our toughest interactions all the time because to do that paints an unrealistic picture of young people’s diverse lives and the work that we do, which sometimes is about work that’s much easier and less meaty than this. I do believe that a lot of what we do helps prevent the a lot of tough stuff in the first place; whether it’s teaching someone about healthy and unhealthy relationship models, helping someone avoid infection or an unwanted pregnancy, or helping people set up a healthy sexuality before they can get solidified in typical, unhealthy and unhappy patterns. But I think it’s important to also give visibility to young people’s lives and stories like mine, and to make clear that one of the biggest things we do is to help some of the most vulnerable people, for whom good support and information — often a challenge to even find — really can be the difference between life and death, or between living and barely being alive at all.

* * *

I’m directly asking for your support right now, like I do once each year. Scarleteen is very undersupported financially. We always need more financial support and I would very much appreciate having yours. I think we do a fantastic, important job, think we have for many years, and I intend to do all I can for us to keep doing that job for many more to come so we can remain a place young people know they can come back to, and don’t have to worry about passing in the night when a media or cultural tide shifts. I think Scarleteen and all that happens at Scarleteen is very worthy of being supported and sustained. To make that happen, we need more than just my own stubborn and dogged commitment and that of our volunteers: it also takes some dollars (and possibly a can or of Aqua Net, a mix tape and most certainly a teddy bear). In the last month we have been fundraising, and unfortunately, it’s been very unsuccessful this year, even though we’ve provided the same level, quality and scope of service we have for the last twelve years, and the young people who need us keep on coming in droves. From today through the 18th, a small team will be matching funds raised up to $1,000, so if you haven’t given yet this year, now would be a great time, and your gift would be deeply appreciated.

I felt a little strange that when I went to write a blog entry asking for support, this story is what came out. I wondered if it was appropriate or gauche to ask for financial support while also telling this story. But then I realized not only was it okay, it was actually ideal.

I grew up having plenty of things and people I wanted to be when I was grownup. I wanted to be the musician and artist I had all those talents for. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a lawyer, a doctor, a firefighter, an activist, a muckracker, a lion tamer. I wanted to be Emma Goldman, Patti Smith, Jane Addams, Judy Blume and the doctor who worked with my Mom I called Dr. Harry, who had webbed feet (he was really nice, but also, unlike the nurses who gossiped about it, I thought webbed feet must be the most awesome thing to have in the world, especially in the pool at the Y).

But most days, I wake up and jump energetically into my work even if the day before wiped me out, and I realize that who and what I most wanted to be, and clearly still want to be, was that guy who kind of gave me my whole life back in but one hour and a short string of words. For someone. For anyone who needs me to be and for whom I can be. I don’t even remember that guy’s name, but I know that most days, most of the time, he’s who I want to be; he’s who I try to be. He’s better than my hero: he gave me access to what I needed to be able to be my own hero, and gave me something core I needed to keep trying to do the same turn for others every day, probably for the rest of my life.

When I ask for support for Scarleteen, one of the things I’m doing is taking some of what this guy gave to me and trying to keep it going. Because so much of Scarleteen is made of my personal time and effort, I’m asking for your help and support for my own aspirations to be like that guy, and for our staff and volunteers to do the same. But I’m also asking for help and support for a kind of intention, service and sustained space that I think, in the biggest of all possible big pictures, helps and supports every single person we help and support to be that guy, if not for a whole bunch of people, for at least one or two other people and most certainly for themselves.

That’s a different end result to aim for than a reduction in unwanted pregnancy, lower rates of STIs, less abuse and more love and pleasure, better body image or people just being more informed so that their sexuality and sex life can be as good for them and any partners they have as it can be. You won’t find a grant to fund sex education that wants a logic model for way bigger pictures than those, and I don’t know that we can build something evidence-based on the grandest goals. You won’t tend to hear people presenting this much-bigger-picture as part of sex education, even though I think it’s implicit in all quality sex education, and some part of what every thoughtful sex educator is doing and aims to do. Teaching and modeling compassion, care, responsiveness and support, in everything, but especially in the stuff that’s most loaded, is no small part of any good sex education because it’s such a large part of any good sexual life and healthy sexuality and relationships.

I think — and that’s hopefully obvious — that all of those kinds of less lofty goals are crucially important, at the end of my day, what I want to have seen and done is this bigger stuff that lies underneath it all. I want to go to bed knowing it was at the heart of everything I did, that in ways great or small, I was able to teach or model something for everyone I interacted with that’s all about being that guy for yourself and that guy for others, which I believe would be world-changing and also believe is absolutely attainable and should be as supported by all of us in all of the ways that we can.

UPDATE A generous ongoing donor has just agreed to throw an extra $1,000 in the kitty for matching through the 20th!  So, now, up to $2,000 in donations will be matched for donations made from now until Saturday!

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Life on the island is fantastic. I absolutely love it here. I feel at home, I feel at peace, and I find it very easy both to work and to relax, the latter of which is, was and always having been the bigger challenge for me. We’ve just had three days of nonstop rain, which hasn’t bothered me, but since the sun is out, I had Blue move my big blue easy chair out back so I could get some sun and some writing here in.

I didn’t mean to let a month lapse since I last wrote. I know this site of late (read: the last couple years) is something I’ve kind of neglected, or at least which has gotten far less of my time than it has in years past.  I want to just kind of sit with this today and thin — and write — about why.

When I started writing over here in 1999, Scarleteen was still in its infancy, the dot bomb hadn’t happened yet, and I was doing just as much work around sexuality and art for adults as I was doing sexuality work for young people. When it all comes down to it, I started this site, and writing here, not to long after I’d made some really major changes in my life, particularly leaving classroom teaching in order to make my work both online and around my arts and I’d moved to Minnesota after Chicago had been my hometown for most of my life.  I’d just come out of a few pretty damn dark years: of illness, of heartbreak, of almost winding up homeless again. I was 29 years old, in a relationship with my best friend at the time, and doing work that most people weren’t yet recognizing as work, or of anything of value, at all.  I was still doing some modeling for other artists, not just for myself (nor had I yet moved behind the camera, which is about 80 million times more interesting to me). I had a lot to sort out and suss out, very few supports in it and frequently fluctuated between states of intense inspiration and intellectual clarity and feeling totally, utterly lost, not knowing what the fuck I was doing in every area of my life. On top of that, very few women — or people, period — were talking about and working about the things I was. This site made a lot of sense then, and it makes less sense now, when so much of all of that has changed.

It’s so cliche, but I’m one of those creative people who tends to be most creative when I am hurting, angry, in a new emotion or in some kind of crisis or conflict.  I’d feel more stupid about that if there didn’t seem to be so many other artists and creative folks who are the exact same way.  All the same, it feels silly; lazy, even. I mean, if you can only artistically express a limited range of emotions, how creative are you, really?

So, here’s one thing: on the whole, lately — as in, over the past year and change — I’ve just been happy. Not the screamy, high-energy kind of happy, but the quiet kind, the kind that soothes and calms and contemplates and doesn’t have a lot to say a lot of the time. The kind that doesn’t keep its mouth shut because it feels silenced or scared, but because it’s just contemplating a gentle hum and finds it has little to report back.

The kind — no sense in being dishonest — I really don’t know much about at all. I’m a newbie. I can think of very few times in my life I experienced this, and the couple times that come to mind, I was so certain I was mistaking happiness for settling or complacency or detachment that I overthought it so much I didn’t really fully experience it at all, and also ran from it in due course.

But right now…okay, here’s my right now: I can pay most of my bills. I live in a rental — but a house — that is both beautiful and not in any way broken. I am in the middle of the woods, every day. More friends visit now that I moved out here than I saw when I was in Seattle-proper, and when they visit, we’re very rarely in the position where one or more of us is crying or venting because our lives suck in some major way. My sister even just moved to this state, a sister I have never really had a relationship with, but who it looks like I finally can, especially with both of us being so far away from home. I’m partnered with someone I have dearly loved on and off for 20 freaking years, who is both a peace and a passion in my heart and my mind.  All the drama around that when it restarted has since subsided. I feel able to be myself pretty much 24 hours a day, every day, no matter who I’m around.

Work is often a lot to manage (I’ll get to more on that in a minute), but it’s going well.  I’ve been doing what I have been doing for around 13 years now, solidly, and I know what I’m doing, I have way more support for it than I used to, it’s recognized as an actual job, and as something of value.  While funding, as ever, is always an issue, it’s not as much of an issue as it’s been in years past, and even when the shit hits the fan, I can usually figure something out.  I’ve been able to do some work through my work — like working for the abortion clinics and the teen shelter — I really wanted to do.  I may soon be writing a second book, which will carry a ton of stresses, but is something I very much want to do.

I could feel better physically, sure: my health is still not anything close to a non-issue.  Some things could be a good deal more stable.  Work could be less stressful.  But I’m 40, an age I never thought I’d even reach as a teenager, a concern that was more than valid then. I’m sitting on an overstuffed chair in the woods on an island, with a nice glass of wine, birds flying around me singing away, the sun is shining, the air is clean and warm and I’m comfortable.  And happy.  And mellow. In a couple hours, I’ll go make a delicious dinner with my sweetheart, which we’ll savor leisurely, then wind down with some lovely way of connecting and chilling, and then I’ll sleep like a baby in the perfect black dark.  It kinda rocks, to say the least.

Not only am I just learning how to be like this, I have yet to learn how to do my own creative work when I feel like this. I’m determined TO learn, mind you, but I’m not there yet.  And I forget, just plain forget, about my own writing or making art a lot of the time because I’m all caught up in my reverie.  When I realize that’s happened, I’ll start to give myself shit about it, and then I just stop.  Because I don’t have to do any of these things if I’m not feeling it.  But what I do have to do is learn to just let my heart be happy and my mind be quiet, one of the lone areas in life in which I am a late bloomer, and something I am actually learning to do at long last.


Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

In case you haven’t noticed in your Internet travels, we’re getting towards the end of our big end-of-year fundraising drive for Scarleteen.  This drive is crucially important for Scarleteen as an organization and for myself as its executive director and lone full-time staffer. I haven’t blogged about it here yet, because I was holding out for this week.

From Friday morning through Sunday night, two awesome donors will be matching funds raised up to $2,500.  As of right this second, we’re at 1/3rd of our goal, which we have raised since releasing our appeal a little less than one month ago.  I’m hoping that over the weekend, we’ll be able to make some serious headway: while we really need to reach our goal, even if we can raise $2,500 to have it all matched, we’ll be past the halfway mark, which will also make a tremendous difference.

So, I’m including our appeal here.  You can check in with our meter on the site to see how we’re doing on the home page for the appeal here, if you like. If you can give during this time period, that’d be absolutely fantastic: same goes for getting the appeal out in front of more eyeballs.  Thanks so much!

You probably know Scarleteen has been the premier online sexuality resource for young people worldwide since 1998. We have consistently provided free inclusive, comprehensive and positive sex education, information and support to millions for longer than anyone else online. We built the online model for teen and young adult sex education and have remained online for nearly eleven years to sustain, refine and expand it.

What you might not know is that Scarleteen is the highest ranked online young adult sexuality resource but also the least funded and that the youth who need us most are also the least able to donate. You might not know that we have done all we have with a budget lower than the median annual household income in the U.S. You might not know we have provided the services we have to millions without any federal, state or local funding and that we are fully independent media which depends on public support to survive and grow.

You also might not know Scarleteen is primarily funded by people who care deeply about teens having this kind of vital and valuable service; individuals like you who want better for young people than what they get in schools, on the street or from initiatives whose aim is to intentionally use fearmongering, bias and misinformation about sexuality to try to scare or intimidate young people into serving their own personal, political or religious agendas.

To try and reach our goal, we’re asking our supporters to consider a donation of $100 or greater. If that isn’t possible for you, whatever you give will still help and will still be strongly appreciated. To donate now, click on one of the links below. If you’d first like more information on why we’re setting the goal we are, what Scarleteen has done in the last year and during the whole of our tenure, our plans for 2010, and what the scoop is with our budget and expenses, keep reading.

Ready To Donate Right This Very Second?

  • To donate to Scarleteen by credit card, online check or via a PayPal account: click here and choose the button at the top of that page for the donation amount and style you prefer.
  • To donate by check or money order directly to Scarleteen: make checks payable to Scarleteen and send to: Scarleteen, 1752 NW Market Street #627, Seattle, WA, 98107.
  • If you would like your donation to be tax-deductible: you can donate through The Center for Sex and Culture, a fiscal sponsor of Scarleteen online here (scroll down to the option to donate to Scarleteen on the left side of that page). To mail a tax-deductible donation, make your check out to The Center for Sex and Culture, writing “For Scarleteen” in the memo. Mail that to: The Center for Sex and Culture, c/o Carol Queen, 2215-R Market Street PMB 455, San Francisco, CA, 94114. They will send a written acknowledgment of your donation to you for tax purposes, and will send us donations made to them on our behalf after deducting a very reasonable percentage.
  • However you choose to donate, if you want to be listed as a donor on our site, please send us an email to let us know how you’d like to be acknowledged.

Want some more information? So far, in 2009 Scarleteen has:

Had around 1 million overall hits to the site each day from an average of 25,000 unique users daily. Scarleteen has a very high page-load rate as compared to other websites: on average, our users load 3.5 pages each when visiting Scarleteen. Since 2006 alone, our site has had over one billion overall hits and nearly 70 million page loads.

Currently, Scarleteen is the #1 ranked site by Alexa for teen sexuality education/information and for general sexuality advice for users of all ages. It is ranked 27,823 of all websites internationally, and is ranked 11,210th in the United States (on 10/12/2009). Our core users are international, 15-24 and diverse in their race, gender and sexual orientation. To see some of our user testimonials, click here.

To find out more about our educational philosophies and model, you may want to read Scarleteen Is…, What Is Feminist Sex Education?, On Innovation and Inclusivity in Sex Education, A Calm View from the Eye of the Storm: Hysteria, Youth and Sexuality or look at our general about page. If you’ve never taken the time to just look around the site as a whole, please do!

Engaged in over 4,000 conversations with young people on our message boards, providing them factual and friendly answers on contraception, sexual anatomy, safer sex, sexual health, masturbation, interpersonal relationships and other related topics; helping them through struggles like pregnancy scares or unplanned pregnancies, STIs, sexual harassment, rape and intimate partner violence or abuse; talking them through relationships and breakups, family conflicts, gender, sexual identity or body image issues and their sexual decision-making; discussing political issues pertinent to sexuality and youth rights. Most posts at the boards are answered within a few hours, some within minutes. Many of our board users return to the boards again and again for more help, to engage in deeper discussions or to talk with or support other users.

In total our boards have over 43,000 registered users who have posted over 60,000 topics: all have been answered by one or more of Scarleteen’s staff and volunteers. Our boards are fully moderated and a safe space for young people. To help protect our users from potential harassment, they may not share personal information like full names, e-mail addresses, messenger or social networking handles or personal webpages. Managing and moderating the message boards often requires the bulk of our staff and volunteer time.

Answered nearly 100 column-length young adult questions in our Sexpert Advice section, which is also syndicated weekly at RH Reality Check. There are around 900 Sexpert Advice columns in total published at the site. However, our advice queue typically has over 500 questions waiting for answers. In order to catch up with this backlog, we need the funds to acquire more staff to handle the high demand for the longer, in-depth answers our advice column provides and our users are seeking there.

Generated fresh static content. So far this year, we have posted 42 blog entries, half of which were penned by young adult volunteers, and have added more than ten new full articles to the site. Some of our most recent articles include Positively Informed: An HIV/AIDS Roundup, Boys Do Cry: How To Deal With a Breakup Like a Man, An Immodest Proposal, Chicken Soup for the Pregnancy Symptom Freakout’s Soul, Let’s Get Metaphysical: The Etiquette of Entry, Give’em Some Lip: Labia That Clearly Ain’t Minor and Love Letter. We have also added several new youth-written articles this year, and updated several existing articles to be sure our information is accurate and timely.

Excluding the message boards (where there are tens of thousands of pages), Scarleteen currently contains around 1500 pages of content: articles, advice answers, blogs, external resource listings, polls and more. We are not able to pay authors for articles, though we often are queried by authors we’d love to hire who have great ideas. An increase in our budget would allow us to provide more new articles and to further diversify Scarleteen’s editorial voice.

Received media coverage: In the last year, Scarleteen was mentioned by/in Salon, Glamour, BUST magazine, Medill Reports, TIME Magazine, City on a Hill Press, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, Utne Reader, CBS News and other outlets. To see some of this and more media coverage for Scarleteen in previous years, click here.

Provided direct community education and outreach: In the last year, Scarleteen director Heather Corinna gave talks to sex education students, sex educators and sexologists, youth and/or their allies via presentations at or for the University of Texas (NSRC Regional Training), the sex::tech conference, the American Medical Students Association, Harvard College, the NARAL Youth Summit and Garfield High School directly reaching around 350 total participants. In addition, through the CONNECT program for Washington Corinna currently directs through Cedar River Clinics, direct to-youth sex education was provided on an ongoing basis both to Cedar River young adult clients and homeless teens in Seattle at Spruce Street SCRC, a secure residential shelter. In 2010, Scarleteen will inherit the CONNECT program and continue Seattle-based direct outreach. We also have plans to continue providing information and education both to youth and other educators via conferences, summits and other public outreach opportunities nationally. In addition, with the help of a student intern, Scarleteen is preparing four informative pamphlets for print and distribution to clinics, schools and other groups which serve young people on sexual readiness, consent, managing sexuality after rape or abuse and on how to be queer and trans friendly.

New at Scarleteen in 2009

In 2009 we ran a pilot program to train young adult peer sex educators online. To find out about that program and see what trainees had to say about their experience click here. We want to provide two more sessions of the training for 60 trainees in 2010. We have also just debuted a new SMS service for young people to text sexuality, sexual health and relationship questions to us and have them answered on their mobile phones. For more information on the text-in service, click here. As with all of our services, both of these new services are provided at no cost to youth.

Goals for 2010:

On top of continuing the existing services we provide, we would like to continue to grow, adding new sections, functions and levels of service.

  • Find-a-Doc is a user-fueled database we’d like to build to help young people find the in-person sexual and reproductive healthcare, counseling, LGBTQ support, rape and sexual abuse survivor support and other services related to sexuality they need. Unlike many adults, young people often lack the ability to get a recommendation from a friend: many of their peers and partners do not often yet use or know where to get these services, either. Some do, but are reluctant to disclose they have used them. This database would allow a user to enter one of these services they have used and would reccomend to another young person. Scarleteen staff will validate the service/provider by phone before publishing the listing. Our users in need of these services will be able to search for these services by choosing the type of service they are looking for and entering a zip code.  They will also be able to read comments from others who have used these providers/services to help them make their best choices in care. Find-a-Doc has been on our list of to-do’s for two years now, but the budget has not yet allowed us to pay a tech developer what would be needed to build it.
  • Improved Mobile Performance: More and more users are accessing the web via their mobile phones.  While Scarleteen is currently browsable via mobile, it is not optimized for that use.  Site improvements for mobile use can help us expand our reach and the ability of users to get to us exactly when and where they need us.
  • Volunteer stipends: Our volunteers are an integral part of Scarleteen. Most of them are young adults themselves, and having peer or near-peer voices and perspectives on the site is crucial to keeping Scarleteen youth-centered and accessible in tone for young people. Not only do our volunteers have their own valuable experiences in working as volunteers, they help keep parts of the site running smoothly and assure our users who are asking for one-on-one interaction get it from caring, compassionate and informed people. And the longer we can sustain a volunteer, the more skilled they become. Beyond slathering them in thanks and providing them skills and training, having some reasonable stipends is one way we can help retain the volunteers we value so much.  For more about our volunteers, as well as more about our executive director, Sexpert Advice authors and guest authors, click here.
  • Scarleteen would like to increase our traffic and our reach. Increased reach not only means more young people getting the sex information they want and need, it also can help support Scarleteen by creating greater opportunities for fiscal sponsorships and advertisers. Scarleteen has never purchased any kind of advertising to let young people know about our services. Given that all of our traffic has been via direct referrals and word-of-mouth, just imagine how many youth we might be able to reach with other means of promoting the site. We would also like to serve our global reach better by adding more sexual health resources specifically tailored to our users in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the South Pacific.

What We’ve Got & What We Need: As of November 1st, 2009, Scarleteen has received approximately $42,000 in grants and donations, the bulk of which has come from a single private grant. Only around $8,000 of that total has come from individual donations, $3,000 of which was from a single donor. To meet our needs for 2009 and the start of 2010, we need $70,000 in total financial support. Our goal now is to raise at least $24,000 in the next two months to meet our needs and cover the costs of 2009, as well as to walk into 2010 on financially healthy footing.

Beginning next year, we will require a minimum annual operating budget of $75,000 and the revenue to support it. While that is a substantial increase from our existing budget, it is essential: our existing budget cannot adequately sustain our staff or the organization as a whole. That new minimum budget is also still incredibly low: it accounts for the site running at a total of around $200 a day to provide all of the services we do to all of the young people and their allies who use them.

75K is exceptionally cost-effective and reasonable for the level of service we provide, especially compared to other organizations and initiatives, including those which do not match our reach and our level of direct-service. To find out details about our budget and expenses, and to compare them to other budgets and expenses of both similar and opposing sex education initiatives, click here.

As you can see, we need your help.

Please make a donation if you are able, and consider the value and level of the services we provide to young people in doing so. A $100 donation can pay a major chunk of our server bill for a month, or half the monthly cost of the SMS 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 would very much appreciate your a donation at any level.

We’d also be grateful if you’d share our appeal with your own networks to broaden ours, and let the people who care about you know why you care so much about us.

In advance, we thank you for all you can give us and all you do or have done in support of Scarleteen.  We fully intend to keep doing all we can to give just as much back.

Once More with Feeling

  • To donate to Scarleteen by credit card, online check or via a PayPal account: click here and choose the button at the top of that page for the donation amount and style you prefer.
  • To donate by check or money order directly to Scarleteen: make checks payable to Scarleteen and send to: Scarleteen, 1752 NW Market Street #627, Seattle, WA, 98107.
  • If you would like your donation to be tax-deductible: you can donate through The Center for Sex and Culture, a fiscal sponsor of Scarleteen online here (scroll down to the option to donate to Scarleteen on the left side of that page). To mail a tax-deductible donation, make your check out to The Center for Sex and Culture, writing “For Scarleteen” in the memo. Mail that to: The Center for Sex and Culture, c/o Carol Queen, 2215-R Market Street PMB 455, San Francisco, CA, 94114. They will send a written acknowledgment of your donation to you for tax purposes, and will send us donations made to them on our behalf after deducting a very reasonable percentage.
  • However you choose to donate, if you want to be listed as a donor on our site, please send us an email to let us know how you’d like to be acknowledged.

If you would like to support us in some other way, such as through advertising, sponsorship or by volunteering your time or if you have any questions about donating, we’d love to hear from you.  You can contact us via e-mail here.

P.S. If you’re curious about how I’m doing, this is me in a nutshell: I have the working-too-long-on-fundraising crazies.  My main computer here kicked it a few weeks back, and thankfully I got a good deal on a new system, but am still switching everything over, which is the pain that stuff always is. (And means the new photo work I have ready will still be a wait, as I will now need to learn and use a whole new application for the site here.) The dogs are getting along swimmingly.  Blue and I are happy as clams, even though it is freezing cold in this house and we rarely see one another without hats on, that given.  I’m overworked, but what else is new? I need more coffee, but what else is new?

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

I’m posting most of the text of the lecture I just gave at UT last week, because a bunch of people asked for it, and because it was a great experience (and how awesome was it to be in a room full of current and potential sex educators?  VERY).  So much of what I said really sums up where I’m at with work right now and have been going.  I say “most of,” because some of the text here were points I knew I’d riff on some more casually, which I did, but this is still the meat of the thing.  My riffs are where I tend to be funnier, so my apologies for not remembering what the hell else I said.  I’ve gotten a lot better with my comfort level with more formal public speaking over the last year or two, but am still uncomfortable enough that when I’m done, I feel like I’ve just come out of some kind of hypnotic trance.

You might also notice that some of this lecture borrows some bits from a couple other pieces I’ve written recently, namely this one.

My name is Heather. I’m turning 39 this spring, and I’m a full-time sex educator.

I was asked to come talk to you to about how to be both innovative and inclusive with sex education.

In many ways, sex education often seems to get stuck in two big places.  Plenty of people seem to think that if you’re talking about sex to young people at all — no matter how you’re talking about it, no matter why you’re talking about it — that’s progressive enough, and for some, that in and of itself is too progressive.  Despite Americans having over 100 years to get used to sex education at this point, for many it still seems an innovation, and not a particularly welcome one.  Hopefully I don’t need to tell this group too much about how so many ideas about inclusivity in young adult sex education — when the notion exists at all — often come from a place more concerned with political correctness than real equity.

We infrequently seem to even address either of these issues, in part because American sex education seems to be stuck at the world’s longest red light: the discussion about it starts and ends with if abstinence-based sex education is best or comprehensive sex education is.  Progressive sex educators will always — validly –  tend to strongly voice that comprehensive sex education is best and that’s what needs to be provided.  For sure, medically-accurate, secular sex education is vital.  However, I think all too often progressives don’t realize how little difference there can be between the two, and how limited so much current sex ed of all types is.

To get us all started on the same foot, I want to address what those three terms usually mean.

Abstinence-only sex education is no kind of sex education at all, ultimately: it’s about why NOT to have sex until (heterosexual) marriage, and based around unwanted pregnancy, STIs, and ideology about how sex before or without marriage is bad news.  Most of it makes no effort to be medically accurate — quite the opposite — but instead relies on fear tactics like the notion that condoms have microscopically-small holes which sperm and infections can swim right through, or that people who have more than one sexual partner lose the ability to emotionally bond with others.  That education does not usually give instructions on using birth control methods or safer sex — it often furthers that any of this education would encourage sex (and that these things are not needed in marriages), though I can’t help but wonder sometimes if that also isn’t just about the fact that many abstinence educators also just don’t know how to use these things themselves.  It focuses almost entirely on refusals of sex, if it teaches any usable skills at all. Abstinence-based sex education also is by nature heterosexist and not merely gendernormative, but relies strongly on binary and traditional notions of gender and sexuality.

Abstinence-plus education does tend to include practical information, and much of it is medically-accurate, and may also be evidence-based, however its supposition is still that it is best for teens not to be sexually active or sexual in any way. It, too, also tends to be very gendernormative and not very inclusive.

Comprehensive sex education is medically-accurate, does (or is supposed to) include instruction on birth control and safer sex and may also include address of topics like anatomy, sexual orientation, masturbation, relationships, sexual abuses, pregnancy options and more, and should come from a place where no one set of sexual choices is privileged as best or right.

But in a recent study of comprehensive sex education in the state of Illinois, of 17 possible topics, emergency contraception was mentioned least, taught by only 30 percent of teachers. Only 32 percent of teachers brought up homosexuality or sexual orientation, 34 percent taught how to use condoms, 37 percent taught how to use other forms of birth control, 39 percent discussed abortion and 47 percent taught students where to access contraception and sexual-health services.  So, even when sex education is comprehensive…well, it’s often not comprehensive at all.

Most of the sex education available to young people right now is either abstinence-only OR abstinence-plus.  Very few curricula or programs are without some kind of abstinence ideology.

Despite thousands of years of young adults being sexual people in any number of ways, and every evidence possible that this is totally natural to them, many adults and sex educators  — even plenty we’d think of as progressive — have in some sense become apologists for sexuality, particularly that of young people.  We’ll talk about it because we have to, because many are going to try “it” and be sexual, but more and more, in sex ed, sex is discussed a lot like the common cold: fairly inevitable, but something you’d probably be best to avoid, which is a pretty wacky way to talk about something that is primarily about pleasure.

The vast majority of sex education available today is also centered around reduction or management of risks of unwanted to negative outcomes, giving the message that the best sex has to offer is nothing bad happening to you because of it.

I had a wake-up call a little while back when I spent some time reviewing some of the top comprehensive sex education curricula.  I, too — when it came to sex ed provided in schools — had made a lot of presumptions about the comprehensive curricula.  I knew they were medically-accurate and often also evidence-based, but I had made a bunch of other assumptions.  I assumed most, if not all, would have detailed address of sexual and whole-body anatomy, that they’d discuss or even masturbation, that they were inclusive — when it came to sexual orientation and gender identity, to race, to class, to relationship models and a variety of sexual choices –  I expected at least some address, though perhaps minimal or watered-down, of desire, of pleasure, of the sexual response cycle.

Yet most of those curricula have little to none of those things.  In fact, at a meeting to review a few of them, sure that I had merely overlooked or wasn’t seeing inclusion, in four of these curricula, I asked where the inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth was and was told that one of the curricula had a scenario listed in which both teens in the story where named Joe.

Hopefully, I don’t have to tell you that inclusion is a lot bigger than two people named Joe  — which doesn’t even assure those two people are the same gender or sex in the first place — on one page.  Nor do I likely have to tell you that sex is about a whole lot more than merely avoiding — or winding up with — unwanted or negative outcomes: if we get pregnant or don’t, get a sexually transmitted infection or don’t, are or are not sexually assaulted.

There are a few reasons all of this is the case.  A lock on funding for comprehensive sex ed since the end of the Clinton administration, and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars pumped into abstinence-only through the Bush administration is certainly is one of them.  A general discomfort with sexuality as a whole among teachers, school administrators, parents, healthcare providers — and, by proxy, teens themselves — is obviously another. It’s no newsflash that we continue to have big problems — far bigger than many people like to admit — with sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, sizeism.  And all of these issues have certainly impacted sexology as a whole, a field of study which has always been highly male-dominated, very white, very heteronormative and gendernormative.  Sexology has certainly been becoming more diverse over the last twenty years or so, but it still has a long way to go.

So, what informs sex education?  These cultural attitudes, the limits of what has been studied when it comes to sexuality, which is also often informed by these cultural attitudes and blind spots.  The medicalization of sex is also a factor, as is the fact that America is far less sexually liberated than she likes to think.  Toss in an age-old fear of young adult sexuality — hell, a fear of teens and young people, period — then try and stuff it all into formats which can fit into mainstream models of public education, pass a parent and a school board, work in the often toxic social environment of high schools and junior highs and you get an idea of what we wind up with, and how, even if medically-accurate, even if it’s comprehensive, most sex ed is still woefully substandard.

I haven’t chosen to try and provide sex education in schools, but instead, have done so through an online medium to a widely diverse, international userbase for just over ten years, as well as with some in-person outreach and through print publication.  I don’t have to write a curriculum that passes anyone’s muster but that of the young people who choose to utlilize it, and I don’t do any sex ed that isn’t 100% opt-in on the part of young people.  I’m an anarchist by nature, an alternative educator by trade, and that is the way that I do sex ed.  As a young person, I was massively helped by alternative education environments — it’s even safe to say my experimental arts high school saved my life, and certainly my sanity and sense of self –  and before I worked in sex education, I spent several years as a Montessori teacher, a model which informs a lot of how I have done things right from the start with Scarleteen.

To give you a little history in a nutshell, in 1997, I was still teaching in Montessori, but had never stopped writing.  (A lot of my background is in the creative and performing arts, and I started publishing early, in my teens.) Much of my written and artistic work always had a whole lot to do with sexuality and sensuality, and other than bruising my head any more from banging it against the walls and doors of what existed in terms of publishing opportunities for that work, in 1998 — when the web was still very new and all of our web design skills were atrocious –  I rolled out a website called Scarlet Letters, which was the ‘nets first site which focused on female sexuality and eroticism.  Why the net?  Because it was dirt cheap, mostly, and because something about the newness of it: the pioneering nature of being on there seemed a great fit for pioneering ideas.

Within just a matter of months, I began to find letters in my inbox from younger people — Scarlet Letters was intended for adults — with questions about sexuality, stating they just didn’t know where else to go.  My first impulse was to look for somewhere for them to go, and when I did, I — as they clearly had — found nothing.  So, for a little while, I’d just answer the questions in email.  Most of them were pretty rudimentary — Am I pregnant?  Am I gay?  Where the hell is my clitoris and why do I care? — and as the go-to girl for sex in high school and college, the daughter of a public health nurse and and activist and, well…someone who liked sex a whole lot and had done more than her share of field research, they were relatively easy to answer.

And they kept on coming.

By the end of that year, I added a section of pages  of these questions and answers to Scarlet Letters which would later become Scarleteen. I hadn’t kept up with young adult sex education since I had it, I was only aware of how it played out in the ECE and elementary environments I’d taught in.  Naively, I had figured that sex ed had pushed off from many of the progressive efforts of the seventies and early eighties and must — I thought — be pretty okay by that point.  It didn’t take more than a few big batches on the constant influx of letters for me to do some research and find out how completely mistaken I was.

Let me fill you in a little on the Montessori model: Maria Montessori is a fantastic example of  being an innovator.  The first female doctor in Italy, during the first World War she was assigned to care for children in the ghettos.  Those children were intensely independent, used to caring as much for their families and self-care as their parents, and traditional notions of containing children, having them sit in neat rows and be directed by an adult just didn’t suit them.  So, Montessori, very organically, and based on the unique needs and stages of her students, developed her own method.

The primary way Montessori works is this: as educators, we are primarily observers.  Based on our observations of our students self-directed interests, skills (or lack thereof), unique needs and questions, we choose what materials to make or find and what to present to them. In doing this, we’re also trying to help students learn to be observers, as well as working to empower them when it comes to trusting their own interests and instincts and to be self-motivated and self-directed, rather than reliant on — or vulnerable to — others to give them directives. Montessori teachers see ourselves more as helpers, as guides, than as directors or teachers. We see our students as the real directors, not us: it’s our job to follow their cues, not to teach them to obediently follow ours. Questioning is not discouraged, but intensely encouraged. The principles of Montessori are all about independence, liberty and freedom, without which one cannot achieve, develop or experience self-discipline or learning, or live a life of any real quality. Montessori wrote that, “Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.” 

(This is also a particularly pertinent notion when we’re talking about sexuality, and says — I think — quite a lot about what we can expect when we come to sex education or sexuality from a standpoint of sex and sexuality being something we and others must control.)

Particular areas of what we call absorbency — times during which a person is most able to learn something and can most easily and enthusiastically absorb information — is also something we pay close attention to and bear in mind. The big deal that identifies a time of absorbency is when a person is both expressing a strong interest in a subject or area of development and is just starting to use and hone those skills: ages 1-3, for instance, as children are learning to speak and are fascinated with language, is usually the time of the greatest absorbency for language. If we help children be exposed to and learn language then, not only is their mastery best, they usually can also learn more than one language, more easily and ably than they will be able to during other times in life.

It doesn’t take someone with Montessori training or keen observational talents to identify the fact that when it comes to sexuality, the minds of adolescents and pre-adolescents are greatly absorbent. Because part of identifying what and when to present certain things has to do with when a person is starting to use what they learn, we can easily spot adolescence as a great time for sex education. In working with young adults, while I’m not really getting in on the ground floor since so many sexual attitudes are learned in childhood, I’m still in early enough so that our readers can get help forming healthy habits and attitudes at a dawn in their sexuality and during a time when they are very absorbent. I’m not just working with them just so that they can use this information and these skills now — after all, some of them want the information now, but don’t intend to, or are not, putting all of it to practical use, while others are becoming or already sexually active — but so that they can have them early, available to them for the whole of their lives.

Using the models — or really, the un-models — of education I liked best, like Montessori, like ideas from John Holt and A.S. Neill, the first thing I did was assess my students, not based only or mostly on statistics or standardized testing, but based on who they really were and what they were telling me.  I had needs clearly expressed to me by young people.  They had important questions about sex and sexuality which were not being answered, and they needed and wanted answers.  Clearly, they also felt comfortable asking via the new terrain of new media, and also felt comfortable approaching me, personally, likely due to both my openness about sex, my casual tone and probably also because they were so desperate for anyone willing to answer their questions who seemed likely to have answers, and also likely not to be able to hold them accountable for asking,  that they were not being particularly selective about who they asked in the first place.

What were my tools and materials? I had what felt like the perfect fit for their needs with the Internet.  It was anonymous.  It was relatively cheap (and while my costs have certainly grown with our traffic, compared to print media, it’s still peanuts).  I was not going to have to try and slog through endless beaurocracies to provide what the teens were asking me for, wasn’t going to have to argue with parents and administrators — though later I did have to argue with the federal government, but we won that argument.  I would be able not only to build what I felt was best based on their expressed needs, I’d also have the freedom  — should I need or want to — to knock it all down and try something completely different on a whim, a flexibility and whimsy which often had not exactly been appreciated the few times I’d tried teaching in pre-established systems with administrators, but which is central to student-based and directed education.

I had me, someone who had been a teacher for some time and loved teaching, who had had an incredibly challenging adolescence and an easy and intense compassion for children and teenagers.  I had a set of diverse skills I could draw on which helped: I had writing skills, design skills, and the great gift of a sense of humor, which tends to be a godsend when talking with people about sex.  I had  the ability to camp out at the library and further my education as much as I liked with sexuality and related issues, a field of study I had already gotten into in college.  I had a love of anarchy, and of pioneering: I preferred to start with my imagination, rather than with pre-existing systems.  I brought my own diversity to the table: I grew up very marginalized in a handful of ways, had some views and experiences that were often outside of what many teens were exposed to.  I was queer, I wasn’t on the marriage-and-baby track, I came of age in the 80’s and made the absolute most of it, I was comfortable with the provocative, but not all that impressed with it, either. I was beyond comfortable — and quite happy — with sex and sexuality.  And I was impressed with that plenty.

That’s the way Scarleteen started, and at more than ten years since, that is still much of the way I direct it.  By all means, we are monstrously larger than I ever imagined we’d be: I certainly did not forsee this becoming my full-time job and my life’s work with those first letters, nor did I imagine we’d have 20 - 30,000 readers every day.

But I still stick to the same model I had at the start: the content we have is almost entirely based  — with some unavoidable but relatively minor limitations — on the content our users have asked for, which, as it turns out, has tended to result in an incredibly comprehensive, inclusive and holistic body of work. When you have this many people to work with, from this many places in the world, with this kind of diversity, in a medium with this much openness and an aversion to control, and you let them lead what you do, it is going to tend to result in a body of work and a community which is highly diverse, inclusive and holistic.

I rarely, if ever, have to think about what to teach, and what information to give: my users and clients — when I do in-person outreach — tell me that, and I trust them to know what they need.  More times than not, what it is I have to figure out is HOW to provide it for them, and I do that most by asking just as many questions of them as they ask of me, and by being open to what they tell me, willing to adjust my thinking at any time.

It might sound simplistic to posit that coming to sex education not through what we as adults deem important for young people to know, but by starting — and primarily staying with — what young people themselves tell us they want and need to know seems to solve many of the typical and current pitfalls of sex education.  But that has been my experience.

I also very strongly believe that  when we move past risk management, and address sexuality more holistically, not only do we better equip young people — any people — to have a happy, healthy sexuality that is self-designed rather than conformist, we also tend to also help young people build skills and a knowledge base which easily includes risk management and provides them with additional context and tools to make reducing and managing risks easier for them.  If a young person can talk to a sexual partner, for instance, about something as loaded as pleasure and desire, as perhaps not reaching orgasm through intercourse or even finding it all that compelling, or can openly show a partner where to find a clitoris or prostate gland, to discuss what dynamics they do and do not want in the relationship, negotiating condom use or discussing birth control can tend to be a piece of cake, and inclusivity also gets a lot easier.  This information also tends to come about pretty organically and in a way that makes a lot more sense, and is a lot less scary or intimidating.

For instance, if a young person does ask what a clitoris is, what it’s for and where it’s at, once you answer them, they might then ask how it is someone might experience pleasure that way.  In giving them that answer, you’re going to address sexual activities that aren’t for one given kind of couple, and which will likely challenge some heteronormative ideas, and likely ALSO wind up talking about how certain activities with the clitoris do or do not pose risks of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.

If we teach young people about things like how incredibly diverse sexuality is, because it is, if we model active and compassionate listening when it comes to sexual pleasure and creating agreements in a relationship, not only can they use that knowledge and those tools with their own sexual lives, and in the way they think about sexuality as a whole,  they can also apply those skills even more broadly, such as for conflict resolution and understanding in other tough or loaded places.  Honestly, all I have to do to know that most of the members of our last administration didn’t have a really good sex education is to look at how they handled international diplomacy.

I feel like sex education in and of itself is still revolutionary, to be sure, but I also feel like most sex education at best is not very revolutionary, and at worst, is about devolution.  But real-deal sex education — that is open, that is honest, that is a lot more fearless, that is human and comes from who it’s being given to, that nurtures inclusivity and diversity of thought and experience — is seriously revolutionary stuff.  And I think it’s totally doable.

I want to leave you with a strong sense of how doable that is, and — hopefully — a desire to do so.   On the note, I’ve a few helpful hints I’ve picked up over the years I want to toss out at you about how to be — in my book — a totally fantastic sex educator.

• Be yourself and be honest. You do get to have boundaries — and limits and boundaries are vital with any relationship between teens and adults, and all people, and setting them is certainly one of those things that gives them some great tools for their sex lives. So, if a student asks you something you’re not comfortable answering, or it feels like an invasion of a privacy you need, you get to tell them that, though I’d advise really telling them that.  In other words, rather than saying “I can’t talk about that,” you say “You know, that makes me uncomfortable,” or “Actually, that for me is something I like to keep private.”  But ultimately, they’re looking to you as the person to be candid with them, and you can benefit them by repping you and sex as it is, in all its diversity, silliness, awesomeness, awkwardness, complexity and joy.

• Assume yours might be the only formal sex ed that they get.  Hopefully, that will NOT be the case: ideally, everyone should get sex ed from multiple sources and perspectives.  But all too many people really don’t, including well into adulthood.  So, don’t put undue pressure on yourself, but bear in mind this may well be a one-shot deal, and it’s best to make the most of it.

• Ask as many questions as you give answers.

• Recognize that no matter how protected an environment teenagers will inevitably feel vulnerable when discussing sex, meet them in that space.  If they’re vulnerable, but you don’t allow yourself to also be vulnerable, that creates an imbalanced dynamic that asks a lot more of them than it does of you.

• Peer educator training: any time you are doing sex ed, you are also effectively doing peer sex educator training.  More than anything else, teens get their sex information and education from each other.  So, when you educate one of them, you’re always educating more than one of them.  Teens having accurate information isn’t just about their own sex lives, but about the sex lives of all the teens they may wind up talking with about sex and sexuality.

• Take risks.  Know that if you take a risk and find yourself in a pickle, you’ve always got the ACLU.  I’ll give you their number.  Seriously.  They love sex educators.  A lot.

• Consider that an unhappy sex life or sexual self is just as dire an outcome as an unwanted pregnancy or a serious sexually transmitted infection.  I think we need to accept that it is, especially if we’re serious when we say that sexuality is huge and important.  Plus, from everything I have observed over the years, people at peace with their sexuality and in healthy sexual relationships tend to make smarter choices when it comes to things like contraception, safe relationships and safer sex.

• Lastly, don’t stop educating yourself.  As you probably already know, sex and sexual health information changes constantly and sometimes quickly.  What you learned in med school five years ago can quickly become archaic.  And that education includes your own personal field research. I’m talking about your own sex life. If you aren’t honest about your own areas of growth and doing your best to have a sex life and sexuality that is healthy and enriching — alone or with partners, and whatever that means to you — I’m just not sure how great a sex educator you can be, just like I can’t imagine that an English teacher who hated to read or only read the Cliff’s Notes would be very inspiring and effective.  Be an aspirational sexual demographic.

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

I had a really wonderful morning today that very quickly turned bittersweet on me.

Today was one of my days to do sex ed outreach to the street kids at the temporary teen shelter in the International District. The group was all girls this morning, which rarely happens. I don’t mind teaching when boys are part of the group, but the mixed-gender group with this particular population really makes a big difference. I actually don’t think the difference is about sex or discomfort with the topic: rather I tend to think it’s about gender posturing for who is the toughest or the most disaffected. In any event, it was nice to only have girls today.

They were pretty bubbly when I came in, but when it was said what I was going to be doing there, half the group was delighted, and the other half expressed disgust or disinterest. (And I always make a point of making clear that no one is obligated to participate.) They all stayed, and I started going through the birth control and safer sex portion of my presentation. When I asked how they felt they and their friends were at handling safer sex negotiation, one of the “I’m not interested” asked about dealing with that when you’re on-street.

Without really meaning to tell a personal anecdote — rather, because I think I so often take for granted that my whole life history is right there on my face — I said I remembered that a few times when I was on-street in my teens, when I’d agreed to an exchange of sex-for-place-to-sleep, how that was probably the toughest spot I’d ever felt with negotiation: my having shelter was on the line. ALL the eyes got big then, and ALL of the girls jumped off the couches and came into a close circle around me on the floor. We then talked some more about how being on-street makes a lot of these issues different and more difficult before it turned into a two-hour long very random Q&A about everything from who’s fallen for the blue balls whine, how their gay male friends can use female condoms, why you shouldn’t use flavored condoms vaginally, where their uterus actually was, some talk about sex readiness and age, the works.

In the middle of all of this, the one girl who leapt furthest from the couch told me that she really wanted to do exactly what I was doing for street kids once she got off-street, and that she “didn’t mean to be a jerk,” but she only wanted to listen once she realized I’d been where she was because they had to hear from so many people who never were. She made “I’m so going to be you when I grow up” eyes at me for the rest of the session, which pretty much broke my heart into a million little pieces.

I don’t usually do condom demonstrations with these, but instead ask if they feel like they need one. Usually, they’ll say no, and often, too — especially in those mixed groups — I get the impression the comfort level among them just isn’t right to be yanking a dildo out of my purse. When I asked today, they were all over it saying, “Do you have a PENIS with you?” The fact that I did apparently was the funniest thing that ever was, second only to that giving them the permission to tell me what to do with “my penis” — “give me your penis,” “pass the penis, please,” and “no, it’s my penis right now, I’ll give it to you in a minute” — thereafter.

I got accused online the other day of trying to turn teenage girls into “temporary lesbians,” so I had to keep from cracking up myself when one of them had the dildo in her hand and said, “Doesn’t this ever get soft?” and I said, “No,” and she was quiet for a minute before saying, “Oh. Cooooool.”

I’d say I don’t know if I’ll ever be told again, “Put your penis back in your purse, Heather,” save that I know I will. Lord knows I have before. Welcome to my life.

In any event, it was a really great session, very dynamic and warm and hysterically funny after we talked about the tougher stuff. I wanted to put all of them in my purse with the penis, take and give them a place to have that slumber-party energy they seemed to be enjoying today in a real home, not a lockdown. It was a total daymaker, and I also left with this sparkle in my heart from just having a few minutes in there where I was reminded why I’m Buddhist. There was some big ol’ bodhisattva energy in all of those girls and they really gifted me by opening it up more around me.

Unfortunately, once I left and got on the bus I got whacked with the big-heart-ow of those girls being total throwaway kids as far as their parents or guardians are usually concerned.  Some of them are going to be on and off-street until or even through their adulthood.  Often, I feel that going in, presenting and coming home: things don’t usually get so spirited that I forget it for a while. I forgot today. Then I remembered.

When that reality came hurling back, it hit hard and left marks.

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

I’m up all too early because I head back to work in-clinic today in order to start a new part of the CONNECT program.

Basically, I’m bringing sex ed and CR into the clinic, giving women in the waiting room an option to come sit in the cozier room with me and other clients to do Q&A and discuss all things sexuality, reproductive health, sexual health, abortion, relationships, the works.  Hopefully, I can find a way to do this so that I don’t seem like a clown sent into the old folks home: I need to figure out a way to invite them in where I’m not poking my head into the waiting room, hawking my wares with a “Yo, sex education is in the house!”

All the same, I’m excited. It feels like a first day of school: I even have some new school supplies.  This is one of the first things I proposed to diversify the works and help our clients when I took over directing the outreach program.  If all goes well, they stand to learn a lot, I stand to learn a lot, and I think it could be a truly marvelous thing.  Plus, I have really missed being in the clinic over the last monthish, and I’m really looking forward to giving my co-workers big, bear hugs.

In other news, I am hoping to present a panel with a group of fine, fine women at the 2009 SXSW Interactive Festival and I need your assistance.

Here’s the info on what we’re hoping to present:

Sex Ed Online: How Teens Self Savvy

Creators of popular online teen sexuality content—including the Midwest Teen Sex Show and Scarleteen.com—community educators, scholars and advocates discuss teenagers, sex, and the Internet. Content developers, parents and teens: Bring your questions, fears and hopes. We’ll answer generational quandaries. Apparently, there are prizes for the best questions, but I have no idea what they are.
For the uninitiated, here are the deets about the SXSW Interactive Festival:The SXSW Interactive Festival (http://sxsw.com/interactive) is an industry conference for web developers and digital creatives, held in Austin and now in its 15th year. These days the conference has become so popular that it gets hundreds of proposals, like mine, from people who would like to present at the conference.

To help the SXSW Interactive folks sort out what people what to hear, the conference organizers now use a web-based panel picker. Please visit and use the panel picker and to place a vote on it for my proposal and leave a comment.  It’s fine if you don’t currently have plans to attend SXSW Interactive 2009 - anyone at all can vote and leave a comment.

Leaving a comment would be especially helpful, because the SXSW people pay more attention to those comments than anything else.

So, if you’ve got a sec…
==> Please go to http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/  and, in the search box, enter “Sex Ed” in order to quickly find the listing for my proposal, place your vote and leave a comment. The panel picker will be active until August 29.

It will take you less than 3 minutes and costs nothing, but you must open an account on the panel picker to post a comment. You are not signing onto any e-mail lists by giving  your information, and you do not need to attend the conference nor must you have attended it in the past in order to vote for my panel.  While votes to rate the proposal (1-5 stars) are valuable, I’m told that what really counts with the organizers it is having comments written about why someone would be a good speaker and/or why the topic is of interest. So please vote for my idea and comment

And here are more details about the women who’d be presenting with me: Karen Rayne, Karen Kreps, Nikol Hasler and Kris Gowan PhD.

* Nikol Hasler is one-third of a highly entertaining podcast, “The Midwest Teen Sex Show.” A Midwestern mother of three (who isn’t afraid to use her children in the service of sex education) Nikol has no formal training as a sex educator but along with her co-creators Guy Clark and Britney Barber, she has created a great sex education tool, playing with stereotypes not just about sex, but about age, race, class, and orientation in a way that is engaging and opinionated enough to be useful.
* Kris Gowan has a Master’s in Education in Human Development and Psychology and a PhD in Child and Adolescent Development. She is the author of “Sexual Decisions” (Scarecrow Press, 2003) and started www.teensforum.com (but left before it became overly commercialized) Her research has focused on healthy relationships/sexuality in adolescence and lately on positive youth development and the intersection between youth, the Internet and sexual development/sexual identity.

* Karen Rayne earned her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, which she puts to good use educating parents about how to talk with their teens about sex and romance. She also provides comprehensive sex education to teenagers.
* Karen Kreps will be moderating the panel. Karen has more than two decades developing interactive content (www.netingenuity.com), and has written and published the book, “Intimacies: Secrets of Love, Sex & Romance,” a collection of columns she has written for The Good Life magazine. See http://trueintimacies.com. For six years, Karen hosted monthly public discussions about love, sex and romance.
Some of the questions that will be answered on this panel include: 1. What do teens want to know about sex? 2. How do they use the Internet to find answers? 3. Which social media tools provide the best sexual education? 4. What positive or negative impact can the Web have on teen sexuality? 5. At what ages should online use by children and teens be monitored? 6. Are parents abdicating their roles as sex educators to the Internet? 7. Does online info encourage or discourage sexual experimentation by teens? 8. What role does the Internet play in educating youth about sex? 9. Can the government regulate online sex education and should it? 10. Can online sex info be trusted for accuracy?

I will be most grateful for any support you can offer and hope that you will please use the Panel Picker and vote for our proposal. Thanks!

And with that, I’m off like a good hair day in the rain.  Literally, unfortunately.  Monsoon season seems to be starting early here this year.  Great.

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

One of the things that has a great influence in both how I enact sexuality education and how I conceptualized my approach from the get-go is my background with teaching in the Montessori Method.

Overall, the primary way Montessori works is this: as educators, we observe our students, and based on our observations of what their self-directed interests, skills and questions are — basically, what they’re drawn to in terms of what activities they choose for themselves and what activities and areas they express interest in — we choose what materials to make or find and to present to them. In doing this, we’re also trying to help students learn to be observers, as well as working to empower them when it comes to trusting their own interests and instincts and to be self-motivated and self-directed, rather than reliant on — or vulnerable to — others to give them directives. Montessori teachers see ourselves more as helpers, as guides, than as directors or founts of knowledge. We see our students as the real directors, not us: it’s our job to follow their cues, not teach them to obediently follow ours. The underlying principles of Montessori are all about liberty and freedom, without which one cannot achieve, develop or experience self-discipline or learning. Montessori wrote that, “Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.”

Particular areas of what we call absorbency — times during which a person is most able to learn something and can most easily and enthusiastically absorb information — is also something we pay close attention to and bear in mind. The big deal that identifies a time of absorbency is when a person is both expressing a strong interest in a subject or area of development and is just starting to use and hone those skills: ages 1-3, for instance, as children are learning to speak and are fascinated with language, is usually the time of the greatest absorbency for language. If we help children be exposed to and learn language then, not only is their mastery best, they usually can also learn more than one language, more easily and ably than they will be able to during other times in life.

It doesn’t take someone with Montessori training or keen observational talents to identify the fact that when it comes to human sexuality and sexual attitudes, the minds of adolescents and pre-adolescents are greatly absorbent. Because part of identifying what and when to present certain things has to do with when a person is starting to use what they learn, we can easily spot adolescence as a great time for sex education. In working with young adults, while I’m not really getting in on the ground floor since so many sexual attitudes are learned in childhood, I’m still in early enough so that our readers can get help forming healthy habits and attitudes at a dawn in their sexuality and during a time when they are very absorbent. I’m not just working with them just so that they can use this information and these skills now — after all, some of them want the information now, but don’t intend to, or are not, putting all of it to practical use, while others are becoming or already sexually active — but so that they can have them early, available to them for the whole of their lives.

Young adult sex education isn’t just about young adult sexual activity, just like young adult education in mathematics, social studies, physical education or language isn’t just about their use of those skills now. We teach these things with the understanding and expectation that they will be useful and needed now and later or now or later.

Most teens have an expressed interest in sexuality, and feel and express a need to find out about it now, which makes now the best time to teach it. When children and young people ask us or each other questions about sexual anatomy, sex, and sexual relationships, when they are starting to consider how sexuality will be part of their lives and what they want from it, they are communicating clearly to us that they feel a strong need and desire to learn and want our help. Even if you’re not a Montessori-enthusiast like myself, this idea is woven throughout nearly any educational approach you can think of.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why or how people can selectively forget that what we learn about sexuality is information most of us will need for the whole of our lives. When we learn about sexuality, we’re not just learning for what we need and will use right at the moment we are learning, and no matter when or in what context we have a solo or shared sexual life, that activity itself cannot teach us all we need and want to know, nor can learning only through sexual activity later tend to result in sound sexual, physical and emotional health.

I confess, I quietly slipped out the back door years ago when it came to doing adult sex education, because I often found it deeply depressing and frustrating. We all know it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and it is often just as hard for adults who have firmly established certain sexual attitudes and behaviors to change them after ten, twenty or forty years of thinking and/or doing things differently. I heard so much “But my husband just won’t listen when I say this doesn’t feel good for me: I’ve told him a thousand times,” or “My wife just won’t believe that how I feel is normal and common,” or, “But we’ve never used birth control so he can’t understand why I need to now and just won’t do it,” some days — so many firmly cemented attitudes and practices making so many people unhappy and unhealthy that I felt helpless to counter — that I just had to step back from it in order to preserve any sense of sexual optimism about the world at large.

In my job at a women’s clinic, where part of my counseling is to try and help my clients who want them to find and use sound birth control methods and safer sex practices, and to have sexual lives which are truly beneficial and safe for them, I hit the wall of this daily, both with them and with their partner’s compliance. With some women, we have to have a conversation as to how she is going to convince — not request, and know that request is all she needs make — her partner that he is not entitled to sex with her at any time and will, indeed, need to withhold from sex with her for two weeks after her abortion to prevent her from getting an infection or complication. Plenty of those clients will express a strong feeling of hopelessness, or a history of failed attempts at changing established norms of behavior, when it comes to their ability or the ability and willingness of their partners to change those habits and attitudes. I know, plainly, that had many of my clients and their partners learned these behaviors, in terms of their physical health and their social relationships, and started out with inclusive, factual and compassionate sex education earlier that these situations would be far more rare.

Those clients are lucky to even have an opportunity to get some sex education later in their lives: there are not many avenues for older adults to become sexually educated (which explains why we see some of them come to Scarleteen for help in their twenties, thirties, even in their sixties). When I hear those who protest young adult sex education in high school and college, I’m often left wondering where, exactly — if indeed, as many express, young people will all just elect not to have any kind of sex until they are older — they think older adults are going to get that education. Last I checked, major corporations aren’t giving sex education seminars to their employees, and many general doctors, like many people period, remain uneducated on, and uncomfortable discussing, sexuality.

That isn’t to say educating older adults is an impossible task, but it seems a needless challenge when we have the opportunity, as educators, as a culture, as communities, to teach sexuality and sexual health way before that time, when absorbency is far greater, and when a person is either in the dawn of their attitudes and practices, or is able to start learning them before they’ll apply them at all. What we establish early as norms, and hear pervasively as norms, is incredibly sticky. We know that when someone learns to do something incorrectly or incompletely, that the longer they go doing that thing that way, the tougher it becomes over time for them to learn differently or to add on additional steps and skills. This is true with sex as much as it is with anything else.

The practical application of all of this aside, I’m never going to be able to let go of the idea that without liberty, real learning — learning, not indoctrinating — can’t happen. If in any of the ways I educate, I seek to hinder or protest that essential liberty, I’m not only hindering learning, but the quality of life of my students, and it is my job to very carefully consider how I educate through that lens. It is not my place to tell my students or clients when to have sex, how to define their own sexuality, to tell them they are good or bad people based on their sexual desires or choices, or to tell them that they do not need to know the very things they are asking me to inform them about. I cannot ever call myself an educator if I purposefully slam the door of knowledge in my student’s faces because I, not they, feel that it’s for their own good.

Rather, it is my place to observe be responsive to the cues they give me in terms of what they need and want from me to help them learn about sexuality and sexual health, and to give them as wide an array of factually accurate and inclusive information, resources and discussions as I am able so they can create lives where their sexuality is part of their liberty; where the attitudes and practices they develop are in as best an alignment as possible with their and their partner’s unique set of needs and wants. It is my place to share with them as much of what I learn and know as I possibly can when they invite me to. This is part of why I feel so blessed to be able to educate in environments which are completely drop-in and also very one-on-one — or without my intervention at all, unless it is asked for — where even the onset of the education I provide isn’t determined by me, but by my students or clients themselves, and where every person I interact with is able to expressly ask me or my co-workers for exactly what they feel they need, rather than what I or others determine is right for them.

It is my place to allow and encourage the opportunity for them to draw their own conclusions, and to provide an environment for them where they feel they have the inarguable right to use that information however they please without my value judgments. It is my place to make clear to them that questioning my authority is always acceptable, that while I do my best to be as educated on these issues as possible, I am not infallible, without my own biases which inevitably will occasionally leak through, or somehow representative of one universal truth, and when they have questions or doubts, it is my place to direct them to other sources of information besides my own.

Every now and then, when doing an interview or a press piece, I’m asked why I give the information I do with the approach that I do, and if I’d ever consider doing it differently. And every time, I make clear that I walk into each day ready to do it differently, because if my students and clients — through my observations of them and their direct requests — asked me to, felt another approach would be more helpful, or showed me that the way I am doing things is not helpful for them, and is not what they needed, I would be obligated to adjust my approach based on my own educational ethics. Were I shown that, say, my students and clients were all made happier and healthier in the whole of their lives by only ever having sex within heterosexual marriage, only having sex for the purposes of procreating, or in going without sexual healthcare and birth control, even if that conflicted with what I have found keeps me happy and healthy, by all means, I’d have to seriously consider that. But again, I’m a trained observer, I observe daily, and that’s not something they express or I see. I do not tend to hear that knowing how to use a condom, how the sexual response cycle works, how to negotiate sex with a partner, how varied human sexuality is or how to prevent unwanted pregnancy at any age has done a person emotional or physical harm: I, do, however, hear and see the inverse daily. I do what I do the way that I do it because I do my level best to base it on mindful observation with the aim of being a partner in the learning of others, not a director or a dictator.

Like much of my father’s family, Montessori was an Italian Catholic, and designed her educational model during a historical time when sex education wasn’t an issue on the table. The only sex theorist she even had to draw from was Freud, whose ideas on infant and child sexuality — sensibly so — she rejected. She did however address that sexuality was a particular issue for adolescents, and one which can be so encompassing and distracting for them that adaptations may need to be made in their education — such as allowing them more physical activity during the day. I can’t know, ultimately, what Montessori would have felt about sex education as it is today overall, save that it does seem to me to be part of Practical Life (the area of the classroom and materials in Montessori that focus on care of oneself, others and the environment) for older students. We can glean some ideas based on how she felt about education for ages 12 - 18 (see From Childhood to Adolescence for more on that). She felt it vitally important to recognize those ages as a passage into adulthood — not an extended childhood — to help students of those ages to feel capable and able. She emphasized adolescents’ need to separate from adults, rather than to be dependent on us or exploited by our determination of what is right for them based on our ideas-in-hindsight of what would have been right for us. She protested the notion that we need to save them from themselves, and worse still, try to do so in a way which is purposefully misleading and a barrier to freedom, motivated by the idea that the ends, however deceptive and controlling, justify the means. Fascism is incompatible with learning and liberty: this is why Montessori left her home country in the 1930’s.

She would have been very much opposed to any kind of education — sexual or otherwise — which denied what we observed in our students, denied the needs our students express and demonstrate to us; which was based in ideas of controlling their behavior by making them fearful of life and others rather than providing them with the information and tools they need in order to exercise their liberty to make their own choices and to follow their own interests and development.

Uncannily enough, Montessori once wrote something else which seems a sound representation of our current conundrum with approaches to sex education in the States. It was this: “The task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility and evil with activity.”

The inverse of that statement defines abstinence-only approaches to the letter. While good and evil is not a dichotomy which particularly speaks to me — few dichotomies or binaries do — ideas of good and evil, rather than ideas about liberty and learning, are foundational in abstinence-only education approaches and arguments against honest, factual, inclusive and comprehensive sex education. That simple sentence can tell us much about the flaws in a lack of sex education or abstinence-only sex education and the idea that the only way we can help protect people from activities which can carry risks is to keep them from them, teach them that they have no real means of managing them, or to urge them to be inactive — in both how they behave sexually and how we educate them sexually.

It shows up the red herring in the proposition that abstinence-only “sex education” is sex education at all, due to the approaches it takes, the purposeful misinformation or incomplete information it provides, and the place of control and withholding — a place with no allowance or respect for liberty — it’s all really coming from. It demonstrates an awful lot about if denying young people free and factual information and real opportunities for learning is really about health and well-being or really about being “good.”

(cross-posted at the Scarleteen blog)

Friday, January 11th, 2008


That was a sign being held up by a protester in front of our clinic this week. Two words, but they speak volumes. (Though I confess, it took me a little while to get pissed, because I couldn’t stop saying it in an Elmer Fudd voice for a few minutes.)

This has been one of the biggest blind spots I’ve had to contend with when it comes to both working in sexuality education and working in women’s health, and with women’s reproductive choice. There’s a very pervasive idea out there — and boy howdy, does it serve the agenda of the far right — that somehow, getting married fixes absolutely everything for women when it comes to unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and just about anything and everything you could think of when it comes to sex, sexuality and reproductive health and choice. That married people — but more to the point, married women — don’t need sex education, don’t need birth control, don’t need abortion, don’t need sexual healthcare, don’t need to know about their bodies, don’t need safer sex, don’t need to know sexual negotiation skills. Women, if you want to be protected and safe, get married. That’s what’s been said to women for most of our history, and despite knowing better now — especially if you provide any of the above services and happen to notice that married women are among the clients you serve — it’s still what is said to women daily and incessantly.

I’ve talked before about the flaw in that logic when it comes to STIs. Historically and currently, marriage, in and of itself, does not and never has offered protection from sexually transmitted infections, especially when you consider not only what the rates of infidelity are — particularly among men, who more often transmit disease to their spouses, simply when we’re talking about the physiology of sexually transmitted infections — and as well, when you consider that most people will have had other sexual partners before marriage, and how many people (again, especially men) never get STI screenings, and also don’t use latex barriers consistently, or at all. I’ve talked before — and you hardly need me to deliver this news flash — about how anyone with ears and eyes knows that marriage does not guarantee a safe or satisfying sex life. I’ve talked before about how given domestic violence rates, the notion that women are guaranteed lifelong safety, on every level, simply by getting married is an incredibly cruel piece of propaganda.

There’s not likely a woman in the world who needs me to tell her that getting married does not mean that birth control is no longer needed or wanted at times, or constantly — remembering that funny little factoid that not all women or couples want to reproduce at all — or that getting married does not mean a woman thus wants to spend the rest of her reproductive life pregnant or risking pregnancy. Getting married doesn’t necessarily provide even the woman who DOES love being pregnant and does love rearing children, who wants to be pregnant and parenting every waking minute of her life the financial or practical means to do so. My mother grew up with two parents in an Irish Catholic family: she has eight siblings, and would have had more save one stillbirth and a couple of miscarriages. Mind, her mother hardly had a choice in when she got pregnant, or when she had sex, but still. Anyone who wants to tell me I just don’t know what I’m talking about and what nirvana it is to be a kid in a household stretched that thin can bite one of my grandmothers dry Bisquick-and-water biscuits (and be unable to afford the dental care needed to repair their chipped teeth, too).

Even most conservative women know these truths. They too, are either using a method of birth control, or if they are not, are trying to just avoid sex to try and prevent pregnancy. Very few women in the world with any real agency are choosing to have ten children, and to be at constant risk of pregnancy, unsure when they’ll be pregnant again at any time. Conservative women come into clinics for abortions who make very clear that they do not believe in abortion, all while choosing to have one. For those most vocal about how not-okay with abortion they are, when a clinician tells them that IF they are really not okay with it, they can’t perform a procedure for them, the outrage is often astounding. (Because, of course, abortion providers are supposed to be just DYING to give everyone on earth an abortion, since the aim is apparently to wipe out the human race and make millions from abortion procedures, so we are never, ever supposed to say no to anyone. After all, we’re supposed to be lying when we say that we’re committed to women, committed to their choices being choices they can live with: when we show up that untruth, the antichoicers get mighty pissed.)

I’d posit that a lot of conservative women have the best of all possible worlds. They can malign or try and limit sexuality education, birth control and abortion all they like, even very publicly, even fight it actively, and yet, it’s still there for them — for now, and tenuously because of their efforts to make it so — when they need it, without judgment, and most of them do use at least some of these things. They can benefit from the feminist movement when it comes to getting them out of the house, allowing them the ability to be public spokespeople, to be politically visible, and reap those benefits while denouncing their source. They can even beg off sex to prevent pregnancy by being able to say they are so, so tired from doing the things in a day that only movements they oppose have allowed them to do. They can also cheerlead marriage and abstinence even if their marriages are a mess and they didn’t abstain from sex themselves. They don’t have to be consistent or truthful in any of this, because they know they can rely on our consistency, and the truth of our commitments.

From what I can gather by polls at Scarleteen over the years, as well as the daily conversations I have with teens and young adults there, around 30% of our users are not yet sexually active. Plenty have no intention of becoming so any time soon, and plenty are, in fact, right now waiting for marriage. (Some of them are even swift enough to know they may well change their minds about that later on, but acknowledge that even if that’s how things work out, this is their plan for now.) What they’re doing, see, is this crazy-smart thing we call preparing for the future. They know that someday they likely will become sexually active, and that at that time, they’re going to need to know about their bodies, about how to work sexuality out alone and with partners, about birth control and/or safer sex. They’re looking this stuff up now, asking questions now because they both know they’ll need it later and because they are curious about it now. Some of them WILL be people’s wives or husbands later, but most are smart enough to know — smarter than some of their elders in this regard — that that doesn’t mean they won’t need to have an idea about using birth control or how to take care of their sexual health. I feel pretty confident saying that most teens would do this — including those who do become sexually active in their teens — but many don’t simply because having the information in advance isn’t an option for them, and they don’t know where to find it.

As a former — though it still informs the way I educate — Montessori educator, it’s a very big deal to me to try and educate in such a way that I am teaching what I am in the windows in which someone’s mind is absorbent, or for you non-Montessori geeks out there, at the times when a person is in a stage of development where a given set of skills or knowledge are most likely to be learned, and a natural curiosity is most prevalent. For instance, the usual window for language is, not surprisingly, under the age of six. Children under six can often become bilingual or trilingual without even trying, just by listening and being talked to in several languages, simply because that time is when they’re forming most of their basic language skills and when doing so is so gangbusters for them. And one of the ways we, as educators, determine windows of the best absorbency is simply by watching and listening to our students: they tend to show us or ask us, pretty directly, when they want to learn something. Of course, when it comes to sex education, that can be tricky simply because so many young people have been shown by so many that it’s just not okay to ask questions about sex.

In the same vein, it’s no big shocker that during the big peak of physical and emotional sexual development, young adult minds tend to be particularly absorbent to sexuality information. For sure, if they are or are becoming sexually active at that time, that information is all the more essential because it has a very immediate and practical application. But even for those young adults who are NOT yet sexually active, even for those few who WILL not be in any way sexually active until their twenties, this is STILL a great time to teach them about it because they are so absorbent, and also because it’s obviously ideal to educate someone about something they will need before they actually need it. There’s a reason we try and do Driver’s Ed before someone is ever behind the wheel, after all, and why people who start factory jobs with big, sharp machines are given training first, rather than just being told to blindly try it out, see what happens, and hope they don’t lose a limb.

Again, I’m going to state the obvious. Speaking as one longtime sex educator, the idea that I somehow would profit from someone getting a sexually transmitted infection is hilarious. No one is going to donate to Scarleteen because what I do results in greater levels of infection. I bust my arse trying to do everything I know or suspect will be effective to reduce rates of STIs. Really, either way, profit isn’t my motivation, because I’d be a moron if I hadn’t figured out by now that no matter how great a job I do, I will rarely get paid, and when I am, I should never have any expectation that I will be paid at a rate at or much higher than your average high school kid working at the drive-through gets: in a good year, I tend to make around the minimum wage. If I wanted to work in sex ed for money (and had no problem leaving my conscience at the door), I’d work for the abstinence-only faction. THAT is who has been making the big bucks in sex “education” over the last ten years, kids. Leslie Unruh, for example, as executive director for the Abstinence Clearinghouse, reported compensation in 2004 at $109,920. In the same year, her reported compensation as executive director of the Alpha Center — a CPC — was $57,547. That’s an annual personal salary — not a gross for her organizations — of almost $170,000. I haven’t done my taxes yet, but for my sex ed work — at Scarleteen and with the book — I’d estimate (and I just took a closer look) that my personal salary for 2007 is going to have been somewhere around $16,000, if that, and I likely work more hours than she does, no less. Without the one larger private grant I get (knock on wood), I just couldn’t do this as a job at all anymore — in 2004, the same year Unruh was raking in the big bucks, that huge profit I was making from sex ed was a big, fat $7,026 — and it’s been crystal clear over the years that how hard I work, how many people I educate, or how good a job I do has little to no bearing on if I get paid and how much. No matter what, this girl just picked the wrong side of the wrong fence, and it is THAT which influences my finances.
I’m sure I’d horrify Wendy Wright and her ilk and perhaps even prove the link she’s reaching for: after all, I now am not only a sex educator, I also work at an abortion clinic. Surely, this has been a very crafty plan on my part. Work like the demon I am in sex ed for ten years, talk myself blue in the face about safer sex knowing that all sexy talk about condoms and Chlamydia is only going to make teens want to race out and have sex even more (Herpes sores, in case no one told you, are all the rage now, because with all that public hair removed, you’ve got to have something to decorate your vulva with, after all), know that those young girls with the STIs will get pregnant because of them, which assures that they’ll wind up for an abortion at my other job. And don’t you think for a minute that given the lousy pay, I didn’t negotiate in advance for a steep commission from all that new business I’m going to be bringing them. I’m no fool.

(Ten bucks and two doses of EC says that at some point I find what I just said there quoted out of context in some conservative blog or book.)

But what Wright and the woman standing in front of our clinic doesn’t seem to realize is that our lobby isn’t overflowing with nothing but teenagers and fallen, unmarried women. Married women are in there every single day, some even with their husbands sitting right beside them. Some of those couples are military, flag-waving, apple-pie baking, churchgoing folk. Why on earth would they be there?

It’s a stupid question, and we all — even Wright — know the obvious answer. Because there is NO woman on earth, no matter her age, marital status or station, for whom it is always the right time to be pregnant and no child on earth for whom it is always the right time and environment in which to be born and raised. Women like Wright, of course, are likely planets away from families who can barely afford to feed themselves, let alone more — or any — kids. Most women who come into the clinic do already have at least one child. I saw someone just last week who already had two, and whose biggest concern about having an abortion was that it would impact her fertility, because while there was just no way she could afford to remain pregnant or have another child now, she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t want to have another somewhere down the road if things improved. She “chose wife,” and yet, there she was. A lot of women who get abortions do use birth control, and plenty correctly — this business about BC not being 100% effective isn’t a fairy tale. This one, though, not only wasn’t, she didn’t know how to. No one had ever taught her how, discussed her options, or even let her know that if she wanted to keep using natural family planning as she had been, there was a far more effective way to do that than the calendar method.

Suffice it to say, an abortion clinic doesn’t profit from STIs. That’s just silly. But it also doesn’t exist to profit from unwanted pregnancy. When I took this other job, for certain, some of it was financially motivated. I was working full-time and still having a helluva time paying my bills, despite already being without things many people have: a car, a house they actually own or are in the process of buying, health insurance. And this other job will help me pay my bills, but only because I live so leanly to begin with. Your average pencil-pusher makes more on the hour than most of us at the clinic, just for sitting in a cubicle and clockwatching every day, and he’s also not risking being shot or bombed, nor is he likely responsible for anyone’s physical or emotional health. And if suddenly there were methods of birth control that were 100% effective, totally safe for, and affordable and available to everyone (and you can tell me complete abstinence is when a) people stop having a libido and b) men stop raping women or obligating them to have heterocourse), if suddenly there was no more unwanted pregnancy, ever, I can assure you that not a single person at the clinic would shed a tear and be upset that the part of our job that is about providing abortions was over.

The thing that gets me the most about this “Choose Wife” stuff, whether it’s on a sign in front of my workplace or on the nightly news is that I have to also hear strong statements — from these same mouths — that women are no longer mere chattel. And yet, it is also stated or implied that once/if a woman marries, there’s just no need for any of these discussions about birth control, choice or sexual health because part of marriage presumably still requires a woman to forfeit all of that agency to one’s husband, or somehow removes a woman’s desire to have any of that ownership over her own life and body. Suffice it to say, it also — so far as I can make sense of it — implies that these children we’re told are SO important, are so UNimportant as to disregard their quality of life, whether we’re talking about having the means to feed and clothe them or we’re talking about assuring that they grow up without one or both of their parents resenting the hell out of them, telling — overtly or covertly — them HOW much they gave up to bring them into the world. Gee, thanks, Mom: lucky me.

I’m a blunt gal. I’m not going to say that some people’s opinions don’t horrify the hell out of me, they obviously do, particularly when they seek to make those personal opinions public policy. However, even with the seriously scary stuff, I prefer it straight up.

If you just think, as a woman yourself, that it’d be best for women to be without options anymore, for women’s lives to revert (and when I say that, I’m not even talking about all women: for the poorest women and women of color in many areas, marriage never even pretended to offer financial security, stability or safety) to being about nothing but preparation for marriage-and-mothering-as-career, then just freaking say it, and out of both sides of your face, please, with baby food in your hair and in your sweatpants, not a $500 hairdo and a Brooks Brothers suit. If you want to say that comprehensive, accurate sex education benefits no one, then you’d best start planning now for how you’re going to cover it up when your perfect teenage kid who has pledged abstinence gets knocked up, or winds up with PID due to an untreated STI from their new husband — who wanted to marry them, so he must have been a good guy, and who said he loved God and was waiting until marriage, so he must have been — an STI they didn’t even know they had since marriage = safe sex and no one who waits for sex until marriage needs regular pap smears and STI screenings. If you think, as a woman, women should have no choice as to when they have sex, when they become pregnant, if they remain pregnant, if they parent, then just say so and mean it…. which means you’re going to be saying it to a house full of whining tots, not on the evening news, not in your new Random House book; not with your sign you can somehow afford to stand holding every day in front of clinics where women are working, plenty to support the freaking kids women have already, plenty to support women just like you on the day you show up there, talking about how against abortion you are while you’re there getting one.

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

You have probably heard that the teen pregnancy and birth rate is up in the United States, for the first time since 1991. As is reasonable, the primary issue most talking about this are addressing is abstinence-only sex education and, due to the way the U.S. has only given federal funding to those programs since 1996, the lack of comprehensive sex education. Of course, too, the ab-only corner is immediately coming to the table with the strange idea that pregnancy and birth rates are up because of comprehensive sex education. Logic and sound data obviously is not the order of the day for that faction, including in their curricula chock-full of intentional medical and practical misinformation, so it’s hardly a shocker that they either haven’t looked at the facts here or have, but don’t care about misrepresenting them.

It’s not tough to find the flaw in that supposition: we’ve only had the abstinence-only mandates, and the popularity of those programs, in this country since 1996, and those mandates have grossly limited comprehensive sex education for teens everywhere. It was during the heyday of comprehensive sex education in the States — combined with the heyday of the greatest access to and awareness of reliable methods of contraception — that we saw teen pregnancies and births begin one of the strongest declines ever. As well, if they’re going to posit that comprehensive sex education is to blame, then as Desi Arnaz liked to say, they’ve got a lot of ’splaining to do, Lucy. Why, then, aren’t we seeing these increases in other nations, in which comprehensive sex ed, and contraception, is often even more widely available than it is here of late? Why, before the advent of abstinence-only, and in the swell of comprehensive sex education, did we see a decline in these rates begin around 1990, and a rise again now? If social and sexual conservatism is the answer to teenage pregnancy, why does the U.S. and other socially conservative nations have the highest rates of teen pregnancy?

As someone who talks to scores of sexually active teens every day, and has watched these trends closely for many years, I worry that critical issues will get lost in the battles between groups of adults fighting about who is in the right when it comes to sex education that isn’t even for them in the first place. Increases in pregnancy and birth rates to any group, including teens, are about more than just what sort of sex education people are getting, and tunnel-vision or polarized thinking is never helpful.

By all means, a lack of accessible, approachable and accurate comprehensive sex education is always going to create problems with unwanted pregnancy. It always has. Heck, in any given day, we see at least one teen — and sometimes full-fledged adults — who really, truly, doesn’t even know exactly how pregnancy can occur (and most abstinence-only curricula are incorrect or incomplete in that regard). If you don’t know how something even happens, and know ALL that you can do to prevent it, it’s not rocket science to figure that preventing it is going to prove a challenge. So, we know that sound, accurate sexuality education is a vital starting point, but what else should we be addressing?

1. The refusal of men of all ages — but particularly teen men and older men sleeping with teen women — to always and gladly use condoms. It’s a given that this remains one of the biggest problems with sexually transmitted infections, but this is also a huge issue when it comes to teen pregnancy. Many teen women do not have — and many cannot get — another method of birth control. Even when the female partner is using a method of hormonal birth control, effectiveness rates for those methods are lower among teens than they are for adults (largely due to so many teens having to hide use of that method from parents). If I had a dollar for every teen who I have had tell me that they (usually if they are male, or if they are female, if their male partner has given them this message) or their male partners “just don’t like” condoms and “can’t feel anything,” I would be an incredibly wealthy woman. Ironically, I get as many teens saying that as I hear about condoms having slipped off without anyone even knowing. We hear a lot about how condoms aren’t “natural” (as if hormonal birth control, the preference of most men, was), how they “get in the way” of sex (as if headaches, extra depression and decreased libido and vaginal lubrication on the pill don’t), and about how teen women will often go without them, even when they don’t want to, because it isn’t worth the strife and conflict they get from their male partners.

That negativity is often learned. A lot of the time we dig deeper into condom bellyaching, we discover that at least half the time, the guys complaining have never even used a condom, and/or have gotten messages that risk prevention is only women’s responsibility. They’re often parroting what they hear from other men: fathers, brothers, friends, men in media.

Too, girls are still getting the message that if they want to be sure to be prepared even when their male partners are not by having condoms in their own pockets and purses, then they must be sluts. “Good” girls don’t carry condoms: they may still have sex — and that can be socially acceptable, especially if they are in love, and especially when it’s what their male partners want — but being prepared on their part FOR that sex is not very acceptable these days. Condoms, in particular, are a no-no for girls to carry because it’s often assumed that they’re then concerned about STIs, and would only have that concern if a) they didn’t trust their male partners, and/or b) they have had many sexual partners and an STI themselves.

Condoms are, in my book, the best birth control going, especially for teens. They protect against STIs as well as pregnancy, they have no side effects for either partner, they are one of the least intrusive methods when it comes to impacting the sexual experience of either partner; they’re cheap, easy to find, and easy to use. And when a person knows how to use them and uses them properly, they are nearly as effective as any hormonal method. To boot, they engage men in taking equal responsibility in managing the risks of sex, and allow female partners of men to earnestly feel that investment when men not only use condoms, but do so gladly and of their own accord.

2. Steep increases in costs of birth control methods and the decreased access to birth control methods and sexual health services. Birth control costs have been skyrocketing, especially for student health centers, due to a loophole in federal law which penalizes companies (by receiving lower payments from Medicaid) for offering prescription medications at a discount. Some student groups and organizations have been working to try and subsidize birth control costs for students to offset this, but many young women are having to just leave methods behind which were working for them.

While it should be obvious, it’s always worth reminding everyone that birth control methods fail. Sure, we can say that abstinence does NOT fail, but the problem is that it does, because few people WILL remain abstinent for the whole of their lives (and unwanted pregnancy is still unwanted pregnancy, even in marriages). Abstinence-pledges have NOT proved more effective than most birth control methods: based on the data we have for the long-term effects of abstinence programs, we can basically say that abstinence is about as effective as the withdrawal method.

3. Rising rates of poverty. In every country, during every time, poverty has always created increased teenage pregnancy and birth rates, as well as presenting additional health and quality-of-life risks to young, pregnant mothers and their children. Worse still in the states, family planning services through Title X — and the placement of individuals in that department who outright oppose the services it is in place to provide — have been diminished or cut off for the poorest young women. The Senate tried to give it an increase in funding last month: the . It’s particularly nefarious in an antichoice administration which never shuts up about how concerned it is about giving children life, knowing that poor mothers equal children living in poverty, too. No child left behind my fat fanny: the United States ranks next-to-last in child welfare in a recent United Nations survey of the wealthiest countries.

Teen pregnancy in poverty increases health and other quality-of-life risks to mother and child, makes it even more likely for poor young women to complete their education and reach life goals, and it is usually far more challenging to be a teen parent than it is to parent at older ages. Don’t care enough about teen parents and their children, or about those living in poverty, to feel this is your problem? Then you probably at least care about our collective wallet: teen pregnancy costs the U.S. over nine billion dollars a year.

4. Self-esteem issues and lack of assertiveness among young women. Young women often struggle with low self-esteem, especially in a culture where everywhere they look — the media, peers, and from the right and the left — they’re sent endless messages every day about how their appearance and sexual appeal to others is everything. We’ve also been seeing with some feminist backlash in terms of gender roles, resulting in young women getting the message that they are supposed to be passive about sex and with sexual partners. Several times daily we counsel young women at Scarleteen through sexual conflicts and negative consequences due solely or largely to lack of esteem. And abstinence-until marriage attitudes don’t help that at all. Telling young women that sex is only acceptable within the context of marriage, and that they aren’t as good unless they do does not increase their self-esteem. Telling young women and men that sex is only okay (for them: you can say it’s not okay for men either, but male sexual behavior and cultural double standards about male and female sexuality show that up) within a certain type of exchange — in other words, men “earn” sex from women by marrying women — only enables and validates the message that women’s primary value is a sexual one. Positing every aspect of sex as something that needs to be bartered with or controlled is not empowering. On the other hand, young women generally report that learning how to set limits and boundaries, that they have their own sexuality which they can choose to share or not, on their own terms, that sex is about personal expression, not performance or duty, about how their bodies and sexualities work and learning how to use safer sex methods and birth control — even if they don’t plan to do so for a while — IS empowering for them. Not sure what young women need to raise their esteem and learn to be assertive? Then ask them.

In order to teach young women to be assertive, we have to protest traditional gender roles and heterosexism, because they are based in male assertiveness and female passivity as well as the notion that the only basis for relationships between men and women is sex and/or romance. We need to be talking to teens about sexuality honestly. We need to counter the messages they’re sent from the media about appearance and its value; about women as sexual objects or conquests. We need to let young women know that a young man not being down with them taking a turn in the driver’s seat is not the worst thing that can happen to them. We need to challenge young women to create a better world with better dynamics than the one they’ve got now, not just figure this is as good as it’s going to get.

We also need to pay teens real respect. The fact that most of the argument we hear about teen sexuality and sex education happens among a group of people it isn’t even about, and who are not directly impacted — adults, and adults who often aren’t even parents to teens — speaks volumes about the respect we have for young people. The fact that it’s up to adults what kind of sex education teens receive — rather than say, voted for amongst student bodies in the schools teens attend — is appalling and patronizing, and no wonder many kind of sex education aren’t effective. Speaking for teens without speaking with teens doesn’t increase esteem: we need to be their allies, not their zookeepers.

5. Rape and gender-based violence. Studies have found that between 11% and 20% of pregnancies in teenagers are a direct result of rape. 62% of pregnant and parenting adolescents had experienced contact molestation, attempted rape, or rape prior to their first pregnancy (Boyer & Fine, 1993). Around 60% of teenage mothers state their pregnancies were preceded by unwanted sexual experiences (Gershenson et. al., 1989). Before age 15, a majority of first intercourse experiences among females are reported to be non-voluntary. The Guttmacher Institute found that 60% of girls who had sex before age 15 were coerced by males an average of six years their senior. The California Center for Health Statistics found that 70% of babies born to teenage mothers are fathered by adult men. Sexual exploitation of minors, rape and other sexual abuses are NOT a small factor when we’re talking about teen pregnancy OR a lot of teenage sex. Do the math: you can see that that doesn’t leave us a lot of teen pregnancies that have NOT had something to do with rape, abuse and exploitation.

Most messages about sex and when to have it are directed at girls and young women, and when they become pregnant, they are often told, overtly and covertly, that they have been irresponsible. And yet, rates of partner abuse and date rape among teens are incredibly high, and for the youngest women, not only was pregnancy often unwanted, so was the sexual activity which created that pregnancy. “Just say no,” doesn’t help when you ARE saying no — or don’t feel your no would even have influence — and someone else is going to have sex on you anyway.

What’s our federal government been doing about that? Well, slashing away at domestic violence prevention and gender-based violence programs like VAWA and rape prevention programs and rape crisis services included under that vetoed Labor HHS bill, of course.

6. A greater window of teen fertility due to earlier menarche. This is a simple statistical matter. With menarche happening earlier and earlier, teen women have a larger window in which to become pregnant than they have before. What does that mean to us? Yet one more reason (as if we needed more) to do all we can to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation of the youngest women, to be sure young women know that common myths like them being unable to become pregnant the first time or at a certain age aren’t true, to do all we can to empower girls from day one so that they can be assertive about limits and birth control when they need to be.

7. When two people love each other very, very much… I’ve always found it pretty darn strange to hear people trying to keep teens from sex talking a blue streak about how partnered sex — or more pointedly, heterosexual vaginal intercourse — is the most super-special thing any two people can everdo together. Not only do I tend to disagree with that — simply because it can be mighty special, but isn’t always, and there are lots of other equally special things people can do together — I can’t for the life of me figure out why that is supposed to make anyone want to avoid sex. If you’re in a relationship that feels very special, you’ve got some sexual chemistry going as well as some sexual desire, AND you — understandably — want to do something with someone to enjoy and celebrate that specialness and those desires, then sex is going to be one of the first things you think to do. especially with everyone and their uncle telling you how precious it is.

The same goes for putting motherhood on a pedestal. We can all be supportive of mothers (and fathers) without being a perpetual Hallmark card about it. If you’re wondering why so many young people can’t get how much of a challenge parenting is, look around and listen: most of the messages we’re all sent about parenting are not realistic or practical, and many make pregnancy and parenting sound like a state of constant bliss and a guarantee of unconditional love. On top of sending teens really mixed messages, this kind of treatment of parenting also makes a lot of good parents feel like awful parents, and keeps their realities invisible, because they figure all the doubts they have, all the times they’re not so stoked about being a Mom or a Dad may mean they’re substandard or bad parents.

8. Which country won’t make emergency contraception over-the-counter for teen women? Oh right, ours! EC is incredibly effective, safe and easy to use, and yet, for all the bellyaching about teen pregnancy, and despite finding no scientific data that shows EC would be a danger to young women (especially when you consider that we have plenty of OTC drugs anyone can get which can be dangerous and even deadly); even despite losing valuable FDA staff over this, the U.S. refuses to have the same policies about teens and EC that other countries have.

Many teens who want EC are still going to find a way to get it, as they should. But because EC needs to be used in such a short window of time — before a pregnancy occurs — to be effective, the harder we make it for teens to get it, the less likely they are to use it when they need to (not to mention that we then increase the stress of an already panicked teen further).

9. Stop chipping away at reproductive rights. When we’re also talking about birth rates, not merely pregnancy rates, it’s also a whole different ballgame. Whether or not a teen woman continues or terminates a pregnancy isn’t really about why or how she became pregnant in the first place. And when we consider that most of the abstinence-only faction — as well as our President — is also usually antichoice, you have to admit that it’s awfully strange to see them framing increased teen births as someone else’s fault, or as a problem they don’t like. (Leslie Unruh — who has previously offered teen women money to bribe them into continuing pregnancies and who was key in the South Dakota abortion ban — in particular did a particularly creepy spot on a news show a while back cooing about how women, period, shouldn’t be using birth control because we all needed babies, babies and more babies! Thinking about it still gives me the willies, and makes me wonder if she doesn’t eat babies or something. Her statement in that link about ab-only getting 1/12th of the funding comprehensive sex ed gets is also a blatant untruth, and one easily checked.) They may or may not desire teen pregnancy — though I think it’s more accurate to say they are more concerned about teen sex than teen pregnancy — but most abstinence-only proponents DO desire births, especially if those births occur within a marriage or result in adoption. Additionally, for those who push adoption on pregnant women, it should be noted that teens who have been reared in foster care often have doubled rates of teen pregnancy as compared to other teens. Setting aside the grotesque of guilt-tripping women into what for many is such a difficult thing to do and treating woman as baby factories, consider how many children never are placed in a permanent home here. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 1999 and 2005, each year around 125,000 children are not placed, and of course, race plays a part: the poorest women so often being women of color, their children are less likely to be adopted.

If it’s teen births, not teen pregnancy that troubles you — and when those births are unwanted, it really should — then you’ve got to make sure that abortion becomes and remains widely available, accessible and affordable, including to minors. At the present time, 87% of counties in the United States have no abortion provider. Abortion continues to become more and more costly thanks to our policies about it. Most states have laws and policies which require parental consent or notification for minors seeking abortion (and the same is not required for minors continuing pregnancies), and in several states it is illegal for a teen to cross state lines to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. I know I’m yelling into the void when I tell many conservatives that every birth and every child should be a wanted birth and child, and that we may never reach an agreement there. But if you’re going to talk about not just teen pregnancy, but unwanted pregnancy being a problem, you have to recognize that limiting reproductive choice is a huge part of that problem.

For the progressives reading sure they’re already doing all they can? One extra tip: stop apologizing for and about abortion. It’s nothing to apologize for, a procedure which most women who have it report as a positive, and there is no utopia we can imagine up — including a world where there are no-risk BC methods all women can use and afford which are 100% effective and reversible, a world where every woman always gets a say about sex, a world where infant health risks or defects are a nonissue, a world where every woman who wanted a child could afford to raise one — where abortion would not be an essential and needed service for women to prevent unwanted births. Women have had or sought abortions for as far back as we go, and the option of safe, legal and effective abortion is nothing to be sorry for.

10. An overall acceptance that teenagers always have and always will often be sexually active in some respect. There is no teen sex epidemic right now. Historically, teens have, as a group, always been sexually active, and that activity tends to happen with the physical, emotional and social sexual development that no one can halt and which is developmentally normal. By all means, it’s beyond sound to talk to teens about sex and sexuality and let them know about risks and consequences, and about what sorts of things they need to be ready to manage if they’re going to be sexually active. By all means, we should be talking to teens to let them know that if sex isn’t fully wanted on their part, then they should not be having sex (and sex-until-marriage rarely sends that message: instead, it tends to enable the message that once a person — especially a woman — is married, she MUST have sex, and often not based on her own desires). By all means, we should be supporting teens in waiting for any kind of sex until it is wanted and until they’re ready to handle it.

But trying to stop teens from doing something which is developmentally normal for them is not only ineffective, it’s ridiculous. Sure, once a two-year-old learns how to walk they’re going to face more risks and potential dangers than they did when they were less mobile. But we don’t hear anyone trying to make a strong case that because of those increased risks, we should be doing everything we can to keep toddlers from walking, an essential part of their growth and development. Sex isn’t inessential. It’s not required, but it isn’t inessential for most people and teenagers know that, even if older adults have forgotten (or their own sex lives have grown so stale and rote that sex seems inessential to them).

As a final aside, it’s important to realize that some teens choose to become pregnant. It’s patronizing and ignorant to class all teen pregnancies as accidental. Most are, but many are not. Plenty of teen women want to become pregnant, some even more than they want to sex they’re having to get there. Certainly, with many of those young women, we can identify some common causes for that desire to have a child. Poverty, low self-esteem (primarily, thinking that the only thing they have the capacity to become is a mother), loneliness, a need to prove maturity, as well as looking to try and cement young relationships have often been found to be common issues of the youngest parents who want to be parents. But too, not only are some of these some of the same reasons that older women want to be parents, some teens also share another common reason older women have to want to become pregnant: the desire to be a parent.  Whether or not you feel teen pregnancy is or is not acceptable (and from a standpoint of real reproductive choice, if you feel it’s outright not-okay when you’re not the one pregnant and parenting, I’d urge you to rethink that), it is not always accidental, and teen women do have the right to choose to become pregnant and remain pregnant if that is what they want to do.

So, you want to help halt unwanted teen pregnancy? What do we all need to do besides supporting comprehensive sex ed?

  • Teach men to use condoms, always, and without all the bellyaching. Work to make it a positive for men AND women sleeping together to keep condoms on hand. Men: support and encourage other men in condom use. Women: tell teen women about how you don’t take no for an answer when it comes to condom use.
  • Increase access to all reliable and safe methods of birth control and slash the costs of birth control. Bring back family planning and sexual health services and access for the poorest women.
  • Fight poverty, even if that means giving up some of the luxuries you call needs. Live lean, and give to organizations like the YWCA, UNICEF, your local homeless shelters and other organizations which fight poverty and provide supports for those currently in poverty.
  • Support and nurture positive self-esteem through personal achievement and value of diversity, address lookism, sexual performance vs. sexual intimacy and sexual valuation, and by treating teens with respect and AS young adults, not as children.
  • Do everything in your power to work to end rape and gender-based violence, including blaming perpetrators, not victims.
  • Recognize current changes in sexual development — like earlier menarche — and take them into account.
  • Talk realistically, to teens and each other, about partnered sex, pregnancy and parenthood.
  • Make emergency contraception easily available for all women, of all ages.
  • Help keep abortion legal — even if you have no want or need for abortion yourself — and commit to making it affordable and accessible to every woman who wants it.
  • Know and accept that many teens will seek out and have sexual relationships.

Comprehensive sexuality education does address usually all or nearly all of these issues, and incorporates an awareness about all of them into our approaches to sexuality education. Obviously, as a comprehensive sex educator, I’m all about doing all we can to get comprehensive sex back back in the game, for real. Even from a personal standpoint, every year when I file my taxes and know that I have no choice but to fund the institutionalized misinformation that I have to bust my butt every day, without funding, to correct, my blood boils. And I absolutely think that abstinence-only funding and curricula — and the lack of comprehensive sex education that has been a result — are a big part of the unwanted teen pregnancy and birth problem.

But I also think — scratch that, I know — that that’s only one part of the problem.

(Cross-posted from the Scarleteen Blog)

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

The two panels I was part of at the NARAL youth leadership summit yesterday were pretty freaking awesome. It was SO fantastic to see rooms brimming over with women in high school and college full of enthusiasm, feverishly taking notes, having no trouble at all asking questions or inserting themselves into conversations.

For the Art as Activism panel, I sat with these two freaking brilliant women, and suffice it to say — though this is easier to explain to people who know me in person and are familiar with the fact that I’m very spaztastic in my energy — Christa and I immediately leaped on the notion that we have GOT to do some kind of work together, starting, like, yesterday. But cocktails first: always cocktails first.

The other panel I did was called “Be the Media You Wish to See.” I realized halfway through that clearly, I’d interprteted that as “How to Overthrow the Media.” I’m not sure that was what they’d had in mind. Now, I don’t think that was an unreasonable interpretation on my part, but when one of the questions that came up was how choice was represented in corporate OR mainstream media (I was all, “Whaddya mean OR?”), it became clear I might be on a slightly different wavelength.

So, per usual lately, when I heard my words starting to come out of my mouth — rather than, you know, having the distinct sense I was purposefully and intentionally forming them — I realized I was likely sounding a little outer limits. I started talking to the girls and young women (and a couple young men) about how they need to be dangerous — how it is seriously awesome to be dangerous — how the price paid in a country like we live in for taking big risks with activism and our words is so relatively small, even when the worst happens. How — in response to being asked if I thought we were going to see a change in how repro rights and women’s bodies and abortion was rep’d in the media — they’re poised to have things change but have got to just take the risks right NOW; that those big changes will only happen when they DO something. (I also brought up that there is this perpetual rift between older feminists and younger feminists where the elder feel like the younger aren’t doing enough, and how it’s pretty impossible to tell if that’s apt, or just projection, but either way, everyone has STILL got to freaking start acting up and making some noise.)

That was the point at which I made clear I knew I was getting a bit intense, but they were really receptive, so I went on. I talked about how we don’t hear young people’s voices enough, and when they really speak up, they get heard, often because the idea that they’re apathetic, self-absorbed, stupid, whatever is so prevalent. I mean, that’s an awful stereotype, but it’s one they can seriously use against the whole system to empower themselves. Crappy as stereotypes are, when your character and actions fly in the face of them, it can make it a lot easier to be seen and heard. I was all, “Fuck the mainstream media and trying to be part of it, make your own,” I went on and on telling them they were powerful. I probably said that a few too many times, really, but then, what’s too many times to hear you are powerful?

For sure, I got a bit kooky, but you know, it’s not very often that you get to do events with a room full of young people, especially young women, at an event because they WANT leadership roles. (Plus, given the panel before was three of us artists clearly pulling energy from each other’s kooky, the kook-factor was inevitable.)

It’s even less often that when you talk, it doesn’t have to be academic and dense, but rather, you can just wave your bloody-red pompoms made from a million tampon strings and cheer the hell out of a bunch of young women. Too, I keep feeling like I see this really weird sell for feminism or activism that tries to say that it’s great because it’s sexy, it’s cool, whatever. And it’s not. It’s not sexy or cool, and it won’t make you fit in. But since when was anyone ever drawn to activism to fit in, anyway? From where I’m sitting, the fringe benefits of being an activist have always been about rebelling, about opting OUT, dropping out, tuning out; about being a renegade, which sure seems a lot more interesting to both me now and to 17-year-old-me than being sexy or cool, eh? At this point, you can buy sexy or cool at Wal-Mart, for crying out loud. Their value is incredibly limited, often manufactured in sweatshops, and really quite cheap.

Despite my weirdness, it seemed very appreciated, and I had a DAMN good time doing it. I felt very, very energized leaving. Because of Scarleteen, so often the majority of young people that I encounter in a day are in some kind of crisis or confusion, empowered only after doing some work with them, so when I get opportunites to see a group of them with some real clarity, feeling that empowerment from the minute they walk through the door, my job being to amp what is already there — and in abundance — up? It was a real gift.

I had to go look it up, because after Ben dropped me off at home — we ate everything in sight at Wayward after he’d picked me up after my event — I kept having these snippets of words that were echoing my thoughts in my head, and I couldn’t remember whose they were, and I knew they were far too concise to be mine. So, I was not at all suprised to be reminded that they were bell hooks’ words, from “Teaching to Transgress,”

My hope emerges from those places of struggle where I witness individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them. Educating is always a vocation rooted in hopefulness.

Yes, yes, and a million kinds of yes.

This has been a week of some really cool women, actually. This week, Renee Walker and I also connected, and had a cool, quick gab session on the phone on Friday about ways we could join forces. As it turns out, her sister is a NARAL Washington board member, so I got to briefly touch base with her yesterday, as well.

* * *
I’ve continued to think on all the flaws — not like this is anything new — of the until-marriage stuff, and look at the commentary. One of the conclusions I’m coming to which I wasn’t quite at before was that even when you set aside the very primary issues — that we simply know that marriage, in and of itself, doesn’t create any kind of unilateral protections when it comes to general or sexual health, or emotional or sexual well-being, that not everyone can get married, even when you set aside that WHO one is married to, and what a given marriage is like is not a minor part of the whole equation — we’re still left with one very big problem.

That big problem is that in anything where there is more than one person involved, we cannot (I’d say should not, but when we’re talking about conservatives, that is very much a point where we are in no sort of agreement) control the other person or their behaviour.

We can’t say marriage is lifelong monogamy, or that we could make it so because we can only choose that for ourselves: we can’t choose it or control it in a partner. We can’t choose or control if that other person to BE married to sticks around lifelong or even shows up — a commentor brought that up again, and I’d mentioned it as well, but buried in a sea of text, alas. We can’t control or somehow pre-determine the previous history of anyone we marry or partner with, or somehow guarnatee anyone’s honesty who isn’t us.

Now, from a vantage-point of very traditional marriage, I understand personally overlooking this flaw, or not seeing it that way, when faith — as in, having faith in all things, and privileging faith over reason — is a very big deal. Trouble is that when we’re talking about sexual health, faith doesn’t cut the mustard, and it never has. I’d also posit that if, for either or both parties, or an overarching culture, control — not self-discipline, not self-determination, not harmony or comparrion — is a key factor in the idea that marriage can somehow guarantee sexual health or sexual happiness and satisfaction, then we’ve got yet another conundrum, because that’s something else we know has historically (and still) hindered, not helped, and often done outright harm, rather than given protections, people’s sexual health and sexual well-being.

Sexual health initiatives, to work, always have to solely or primarily be about, and start with, our OWN actions and choices, about what we can do, ourselves, with or without cooperation from anyone else, to protect our sexual health and honor our sexuality. It’s simply not doable to improve or protect our sexual health with things we cannot control, or by putting our health, happiness and safety in someone else’s hands. This is, of course — and I say this without judgment — going to be something that is very difficult to rectify if the meat or whole of the way you live your life is about trying to put your fate or your life into the hands of an entity you cannot even have a conversation with, and if greater moral value is put on being passive than on being active.

The email overload on this score has finally seemed to subside. Really, I don’t get whirlwinds of conservatism like this very often, it’s only once every year or so, sometimes less often than that. And again, when I do get them, they’re not from the actual youth and young adults I serve: if they were, if my own clients were telling me that what I was doing or saying was not working for them, obviously, I’d be sitting down and having some big thinks on how I can better serve them. But I don’t: we even regularly have a small base of youth waiting for marriage and they do just fine at Scarleteen, laregly because they are making that choice for THEMSELVES, not seeking to enforce it on everyone else, or on a population they aren’t even a part of.

When I get these kids of emails, they are only rarely from people who are even parents of teens. Most frequently, they’re from people who aren’t parents at all, and more often than not, from people who don’t even interact with teens and young adults in any way. If they’re parents, they tend to be parents of very young children. But mostly, from what I can gather, what most have in common is that they’re just not people comfortable with sexuality, their own or anyone else’s. You do a job like mine long enough, you don’t have to be psychic when you read or listen to someone talking about sex and sexuality to be able to suss out, pretty decently, an overall tone when it comes to what their sex lives are like. And overwhelmingly, I read a flat-line when it comes to sex with most of these folks. I mean, it’s easy to argue that there isn’t much or any value in sex simply being enjoyable or a good time when you have never had a good time.

It reminds me a bit of parts of growing up poor and among poor families. I know my mother got a good deal of this in her family: my father’s didn’t live long enough in his adult life to find out about them. And I’ve seen it in other poor families around, too, this weird idea that you want your kids to do better than you did, but either only so MUCH better, or only better if when it gets better for them, it gets better for you, too. I get the impression that the same goes with plenty of families, especially conservative families, when it comes to sex and relationships — that there is this personal agenda that isn’t just about faith or about real sexual health or real happiness, but about having a really hard time figuring out how you’d deal with it if your kids were so much happier than you were when it came to sex. Maybe that’s because they feel like their kids would start to really know how unhappy their elders were, and people don’t want that shown up? I don’t know: just thinking out loud, really.

I really appreciated Courtney Martin’s “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” and in one part of it, she talked about how her generation grew up with mothers who were encouraged to be Superwomen. She spoke to the conflict she felt with that — how while she heard her mother saying you can do anything, while Mom was trying to do EVERYTHING; heard her mother saying that being able to do everything she could possibly do every single day was the best thing ever, when she looked at her mother, what she saw was not a woman elated, but a woman completely exhausted. And I know, even just from listening to kids and teens talk about parents who are pushing the wait-until-marriage stuff, that they’re often seeing some of what I’m talking about here. They hear adults and parents saying everything about sex and love is so much better when done this one particular way, and even for the minority of them saying that who even did it that way, what they often see — which is not sexually satisfied, energized people — stands in great conflict with what they’re being told.

But it’s to the point where I’m wondering if I can’t just come up with a sort of pre-emptive note in our contact form that just read something like, Before emailing, please first go have an orgasm or two. Then take a bath, or maybe a walk or a swim. Cook something decadent, and eat more than you think you should. Have a glass of wine, or some amazing juice of some kind. Get the dirt on your hands, and leave what’s left under your fingernails there for the rest of the day. Dance like a dope or sing something much too loudly and slightly off-key. Give someone a big bear hug. Play hooky. Look in the mirror, naked, and say, with great conviction, “I love you.” If you really still need to send me that email, then be my guest.

All of which, come to think of it, sounds far more like what I should be doing on a Sunday morning than writing in my office.

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

I read about this site in a book that I’m currently reading. I thought I’d check it out for myself. I think the content of your site is terrible. You think that you give teens all the information that they need so they can make informed decisions about their sex life. What bologna. The only decision that teens need to make is to not have sex until they are married. Certainly we all need to be informed about our physical health, our bodies, and how to have a healthy sexual relationship. But what about talking to teens about abstinence? And not even for religious reasons. But because it’s physically healthier to have only one sexual partner for a life time. No STDs etc. It’s emotionally healthier to have one sexual partner for a life time. You talk about separating sex from love. What terrible advice for anyone. Sex is love. Sex should be the most high expression of love. Not just some way to get your jollies. No wonder society is going in the crapper if this is the advice we are giving our children and teens. - Carolyn

You know, sometimes, I think the people who send me emails like this forget that this is my job: that I am an international sexuality educator for my living, and what I know about the sexual realities of people — more often from their own tongues than from any other source — and what your average layman knows are not likely to be at the same level. I don’t expect someone who isn’t a full-time sexuality educator to have the same level of knowledge about sex and the realities of people’s sex lives as I do, just as I don’t expect I could have the same level of knowledge about apples, however much I have loved and enjoyed them, as someone who has grown groves and groves of apples all their lives has.

But I do expect someone to afford me the respect — especially given how long I have done my job for, and for so little personal benefit — of not telling me things which anyone for whom this is a longtime job would know to simply be patently untrue, and expect anyone investing the time to send me a complaint to do their homework, even if it’s just earnestly reading my own work. (I also expect people to be a bit more realistic in assessing what power I have when it comes to the downfall of civilization, however flattered I may be at what they sometimes imply is my great and omnipotent power, but that’s beside the point. )

I don’t get letters like this every day, but I have had a recent rash of them, due to the recent release of Girls Gone Mild, by Wendy Shalit. In her book, Shalit culled a few select bits of the Sex Readiness Checklist here out of context, including ditching the opening material of that piece, to draw “her own” conclusion about those bits that nearly WAS my opening material.

“Scarleteen offers a “sex readiness checklist” for young girls to help them gauge whether they should plunge into the fun. Among the items: “I see a doctor regularly,” and “I have a birth control budget of $50 per month.” The emotional readiness a girl should demonstrate is “I can separate love from sex.” Shalit notes, “Those who can separate love from sex are mature, like jaded adults. They are ready to embark on a lifetime of meaningless encounters.”

In fact, Shalit argues, all of this advice and deprogramming aimed at women is necessary because women do not by nature thrive on casual, meaningless sexual encounters. They crave emotional intimacy and fidelity — desires the women’s magazines are at pains to quash in the name of maturity.” - Mona Charen

It very intensely misrepresented the content and message, likely because it was important to provide an “enemy” in order not only to make her points (and to give the impression they were ONLY her points), but to make it HER point so we could stay all cozily us vs. them about all of this, which is a pity when so many of us on all “sides” share the same concerns. Perhaps ironically, we’ve actually gotten more criticisms of the readiness checklist from folks Shalit would likely consider her enemy because it asks a good deal of people, far more than a gold band around one’s finger. I’ve had adults say, “Well, I don’t have $50 a month,” or “I can’t talk with my partner about sex,” to which my response is that from all I know, in the work I do, if they DID have all of those things in place, their sex lives would likely be healthier and more satisfying for everyone involved. It’s a long list, that page, because sexuality and sexual partnership are complex and multifacted. neither are binary nor simple, and we have far more than two choices — do it or don’t — and far more than two contexts in which to make those choices — married or not married — and most of us have to make those choices far, far more than once in our lives, and every time we make them is just as important as the first or last time we did.

Like I said, it’s an odd take on an article whose first five solid points, bulleted clearly include that the ability or choice to have sex does NOT equal maturity, but then, all in all, an awful lot of adult takes on young adult sexuality are pretty darn odd, which is one of many reasons why we try and keep most of the volunteers at Scarleteen in the same age range as those we serve. Considering that there is a plethora of items on the list about emotional readiness which were intentionally omitted, not merely the one listed, it is — as is much of this sort of take on comprehensive sex education — purposefully misleading. It’s a larger point for a later day, but it should be added that the conclusions strike me as odd, as well. They certainly don’t speak to scores of heterosexual married women who, for the life of them, can’t figure out why being married hasn’t equaled meaningful or satisfying sex for them, as they’re promised it will by people like Wendy, Carolyn and Mona. They also don’t speak to the scores of people who are and have been having sex they experience as meaningful outside the context of marriage. The list is also represented as only being about girls, when, in fact, it’s designed for use by all genders. But when these conversations hinge only on marital or premarital sex, they always leave an awful lot out of the picture.

So, let’s ditch all of the party lines and the oversimplification and really get down into the nitty-gritty for a change. So often, I see these conversations start with “Tell them to wait until marriage,” and end with “But preaching abstinence doesn’t work,” as if that were a productive discussion or somehow all there is to it. Every day, I see teenagers and young adults who know there’s more to it than all the adults who claim to know better than they do. Suffice it to say, brevity will not be the spirit of this piece.

I and my volunteers talk with (not to or at, if I’m doing it right) young people about waiting until they are ready for partnered sex every day at Scarleteen. Young adults also electively read any number of static articles that I have written or provided for them at the site, based expressly on their own needs and their own desire to read them. I talk with them, one-on-one, as well as in group discussions, about an awful lot of things, and when I do, they — not I — are usually those initiating the discussion, and the discussion we have is based around what they are asking me for, and what they express their feelings and experiences to be, to me, not what I decide they are, for them, or based on my own. I’m an alternative educator, and my methods come from methods I used in the classroom when I was a general educator: methods derived from or like those of John Holt, Maria Montessori and A.S. Neill. I do an awful lot of observation by reading their own words and interacting with them — affording them the respect of valuing their words, not second-guessing them — and what I tell them and write for them is based on those direct observations of them combined with observations of broader cultural topics, issues and trends, and what information they are directly presenting a clear need or desire for. I pay close attention to what results I have over time, since a great many of our “students” stick around, many even coming back as full-fledged adults, either for more information or because they want to help others the way they were once helped here themselves. Really, Scarleteen is a pretty substantial study in how this all works, because at this point in time, we’ve served millions of teens and young adults — most of whom found us themselves, by choice — so we can get a pretty darn good read on what works for our users and what doesn’t. The vast majority of email and feedback that I get from young adults usually simply starts with a capitalized THANK YOU. Often, it’s followed by many exclamation points. This comes from all genders, all orientations and it also comes from young adults who do and those who do not choose to be sexually active.

When I or my volunteers do have discussions with them about waiting for sex, it’s based on clear signs of a lack of readiness — like those on that checklist, or issues brought up in this piece, or this one, or that one, or this or this — and/or on that given young person voicing that they, themselves, do not FEEL ready (or do not feel partners are), or are not feeling good about the sex that they’re having or being asked for.

In those discussions, I do all I can to provide tools for determining both readiness and a real and realistic desire for partnered sex which can be used by as diverse a population as possible, applied to as many different situations as possible, and which I know, both from our users experiences, as well as from sound and reliable broad study, over time, HAVE really proven to be effective to best safeguard their physical and emotional health, and to best assure that sexual partnership and their own sexuality is most likely to be beneficial and positive for them and for us as a global culture. When I do have those discussions, unless they bring it up themselves, marriage or sole partnership — or waiting for that per sex, as if we could guarantee either — isn’t part of the equation, for a whole host of reasons.

For one, the teens I talk to are not all heterosexual (nor am I, the person talking with them and who you’ve emailed, thanks). Some of the teens I talk to have been sexually abused or assaulted and weren’t even given having one “sexual partner” as an option. The marital status of the young people I counsel is also a non-issue for me, as a sexual health and sexuality educator, simply because we know, historically and from current data, that while limiting partners (though not necessarily to one), as part of safer sex practice (which also includes barrier use and testing, something which often very much falls by the wayside or is altogether absent in most marriages) makes a difference, that neither hinges on marriage, nor has marriage ever unilaterally offered people — especially women — the kinds of protections against STIs, unwanted pregnancies, sexual disappointment or sexual or emotional health which its proponents like to pretend (or wish) it does. That doesn’t even touch on the matter of me not wanting to push anyone into a very intense and binding legal contract with another human being so they can get laid the “right” way, nor the fact that plenty of people have very much WANTED one lifelong partner, only to simply have that person, or any one person, abandon them or in no way treat them like a bonafide partner.

It’d be one thing if abstinence-until-marriage approaches earnestly worked, and by worked, I mean DID not only result in people forestalling sexual activity and ALSO “worked” when it came to having positive effects per unwanted pregnancy and STI transmission and also did, in fact, leave people feeling better about their sexuality as a whole, through the whole of their lives. But we know that it doesn’t. We’ve historically seen far better results with the advent, increased education about, access to and legalization of contraception, with the development of safer sex practices, greater awareness and protection given when it comes to rape and other sexual abuses, acceptance of sex in far more contexts than heterosexuality and marriage, and with work to advance and support the equality via gender, race, orientation and economic class.

However, even if it did work — and worked better than all of those things, which is salient since abstinence-approaches often are at odds with many of those matters, and our federal money to abstinence-only programs right now not only limits how much we can do those things practically, but takes funding away from many of those arenas to operate — “wait until marriage” doesn’t include everyone in the first place (heck, it sure wouldn’t have included me), so it practically cannot even be unilaterally applied, and there are also other issues at hand.

For instance, a majority of our global and local STI epidemics have started and proliferated among married couples, largely because a) marriage or sole partnership in and of itself does not mean bacteria and parasites (they don’t look at people’s ring fingers before leaping in, they’re crafty, but not that bright), b) some sexually transmitted infections — including one of our most prevalent — are not first contracted via sex and c) a marriage contract not guaranteeing fidelity, by any stretch of the imagination.

To state that if everyone only had one sexual partner there would be no sexually transmitted diseases is entirely inaccurate: if in doubt, talk to an epidemiologist. To state that marriage — or virginity — protects people against STIs is also to ignore or dismiss entire continents and large countries right now — if you can’t deal with talking about these issues in Africa (especially since they tend to show up some of the dangers in conservative thought about sex and sexually transmitted disease), then you might start by just looking at some of Mexico.

The night before her wedding, a girl kneels down to pray. She prays for 3 things:
“Dear God, please make my husband faithful to me.
“Dear God, please keep me from finding out when he is unfaithful to me.
“Dear God, please keep me from caring when I find out he is unfaithful to me.”
- Joke told in Degollado, Mexico, summer of 1996

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: we have a pretty funny habit in the States to try and dismiss or revise history, including our history with STIs (and let’s not even get started with the times we have used STIs and other infectious diseases as biological weapons). We have a “chastity campaign” — what we used to call abstinence campaigns — to thank for one of the first big waves of STIs in the states, of syphilis and gonorrhea, which occurred among married people first, due to every other countries soldiers in WWI being given condoms, knowing full well that no matter what you told them, they were going to cheat on their wives. But in the U.S., because as is the case now, somehow we convinced ourselves that “Just say No” was a workable, more morally sound option, it was OUR soldiers who came back home giving their wives the wonderful gift of VD — we DID learn our lesson that time — a very different approach was taken with WWII, with much improved results. You can guess, too, how much the shame and “You bad, bad boy!” attitudes about extramarital sex contributed to a lack of prevention and testing — which have always safeguarded everyone far greater than marriage contracts — to, as is so again now, an increased spread of disease, and greater complications from sexually transmitted infections which went undiscussed, unknown and untreated.

With around 1/3rd of just U.S. women alone who abort now being married (and abortion, through much of history most often being MORE prevalent among poor, married women who already have children; abortion historically has often been more about economic class and poverty than anything else,) we know that marriage in and of itself does not prevent unwanted pregnancy. With spousal and partner rape being far more prevalent than stranger rape, and domestic violence effecting a minimum of 10% of the population in America alone — and let’s not forget that for pregnant women, a leading cause of death is homicide by a spouse or intimate partner, and that around 1/3rds of all homicide cases with a female victim are at the hand of an intimate partner or spouse — we know that marriage does not, in and of itself, protect anyone from emotional hardship or pain, nor guarantee a healthy, happy and mutually considerate and beneficial sexual or emotional life.

It also always seems to be diminished or dismissed that we all have only so much control over if we have sole sexual partnership. Not even bringing rape and sexual abuse into the equation, from a sexual health standpoint, any time any of our partners takes another partner — including the no less than 25% of married men and 15% of married women in the U.S. alone shown in nationally representative samples who do so extramaritally — we have no longer had one sexual partner from an infection and disease standpoint, and we have no longer been in a lifelong monogamous relationship from any standpoint. Marriage or the promise of lifelong sexual partnership does not come with a guarantee. This is a particular issue when we’re talking about very traditional marriage approaches which often have pretty serious sexual double-standards, as well as in approaches to marriage in which one or both partners are considered property of any sort, sexual or otherwise. Suggesting that in those scenarios sex is healthier for both partners, and more likely to have positive results is simply ridiculous.

With my mailbag, anytime I’m doing heterosexual adult sex ed, it’s overflowing with letters from married adults, usually women, who are seriously unsatisfied with the sex they’re having with their spouse, in both the physical and emotional departments. In fact, one of the reasons I stopped doing sex ed for older people and decided to focus on young adults was simply because it was incredibly depressing to read my mail. Denying that these people are real and exist is futile: just take a look at book sales for sexuality self-help books for marrieds. Someone is buying them, after all, and it sure isn’t those of us who are not married — why would we care?

What might someone who is adamant that saving sex for marriage and only having sex within marriage tell the woman who writes in after 20, 30, 40 years of marriage, who internalized all of this hype about marriage guaranteeing a positive result when her husband is sexually abusing her or even “just” having sex with her in a way that has nothing to do with her own pleasure, comfort or with love? Little or nothing is going to change in most cases once a dynamic has gone on for so long, so besides telling them to leave — which isn’t something social conservatives are likely to suggest — what would you say? Do those people not exist? Are they imagining sexual and interpersonal problems, and if so, how are we defining what is problematic, and whom are we privileging in that determination? What do we make of elderly people who tell us that they DID have but one sexual partner in their life time and that it was NOT emotionally or physically satisfying for them, and did NOT result in their sexual health and happiness (translation: have you talked to even one grandmother about sex honestly, ever)? Do their experiences not matter or are somehow invalid? Might we even take an extra step and consider the fact that after just a couple of times with a partner sexually, we can generally get a good read on what our sexual dynamic with them will be like?

Is it, somehow, practically better to wait until after signing a binding contract, especially in communities or systems where dissolving that contract in unacceptable, to find out that your partner could give a hoot about the other partner’s needs, wants, limits, about their own anatomy and sexuality, about what roles are going to be in play? Implicit in the “saving sex until marriage” argument is the notion that a marriage is and must be a sexual relationship, and that that is no small part of that relationship. If it’s important and reasonable to find out in advance of marriage, for instance, that a potential spouse is kind to children or capable of resolving a financial conflict without striking anyone, how is it unimportant to try and determine in advance if the sex you’re signing up for, feasibly, the whole of your life, isn’t going to consider you, or your own separate sexuality and body, as a valid and equal part of the equation? I’m not stating everyone need do the opposite here as some sort of essential edict: I’m not saying that premarital sex is going to guarantee health or happiness any more than forestalling sex until after marriage is. However, I am saying that if you’re going to make sex something which is about marriage, and which marriage is about, suggesting that such a critical and large element should be a complete surprise, knowing that partnered sex does carry so many physical and emotional risks — and knowing and applauding how very binding a marriage contract can be — is a pretty bizarre suggestion if you’re going to posit that it is in the better interests of women.

As well, until we can NOT have marriage be both exclusive AND about the sexual ownership of one person by another — and that does not mean monogamy, per se, as that is only one approach to monogamy — I don’t think we can even have aspects of this conversation. Until marriage law unilaterally and internationally not only does not privilege one group of people over another, but also one partner OF a marriage over another, stating that it is sexually most healthy for anyone to forestall sex until they marry is lunacy. Much of the underpinnings of these arguments for sex-after-marriage not only dismiss the exclusivity of marriage, and the numerous places — including some parts of the U.S. — where the gender of a partner gives them lesser rights in marriage, but they also often champion very traditional gender roles/status and religiosity in marriage, two issues which have been shown in many studies on marital sexuality and relationships to play a part in greater sexual and general dissatisfaction and health.

Marriage is no safeguard of sexual health. It is more difficult for married women to negotiate safe sex and condom use than it is for single women. - part of “The Lancet’s” Sexual and Reproductive Health Online Series

Here’s one bit that no one wants to talk about: the part where half the time someone is telling you it’s better to wait, that same person is a sexual non-entity in their marriage. That during all of this all-about-love sex, often enough, one partner is hammering away on — not with — the other while that other is harboring silent resentment and some pretty deep disdain or even just resignment, not love. One partner has sexual wants and needs which not only won’t be fulfilled, but which the other partner refuses to even address or uphold as important. That in many, many male-female marriages, sex — as it culturally has been for most of our history — still starts, stops and ends with the only one partner’s genitals, and not even the whole of his genitals, at that. This is not an absolute: there, too, are marriages where these are not issues, but these are common issues and complaints which create real conflict with the idea that marriage = sexual health and happiness, especially when we’re talking about women, but hardly exclusively for women.

We often hear that it’s so important for a child to have a same-sex role model or a parent of their same-sex around. But most of us are not so foolish as to dismiss that WHO that person is and what they are like is no minor factor. Having a same-sex parent around who is a terrible parent, a poor role model or an awful person isn’t likely to net positive results, and we can generally agree that in those cases, it would be better NOT to have that person around. When it comes to marriage or sole partnership, stating that having that relationship in and of itself is going to be beneficial completely ignores and denies that the quality of that relationship or marriage, and WHO your spouse or sole partner is matters a great deal. How could a sole partnership or lifelong marriage with a lousy partner somehow net more positive results than having, say, four utterly amazing and wonderful partners?

So, people can keep saying marriage or sole partnership affords physical and emotional protections, and is more likely to create a healthier, happier sexuality all they want, but reality — sometimes even their own married reality — often flies in the face of that assertion, and quite profoundly.

* * *
An aside: I’m really bothered by what’s intimated about love in the email up top there. You know, PLENTY of married people, and plenty of people who love one another, DO have sex sometimes when it’s just or primarily about “their jollies.” If we care about and respect the person we’re doing that with, and their “jollies” are as important as our own, and if love is all its cracked up to be, then it shouldn’t be at all problematic for us to have sex as the same sort of fun sometimes — or even always — that we have playing a game of touch football, or sharing a joke, with a partner is. Obviously, we have a huge cultural mandate that says that for married women, still, sex is about duty and obligation and while it may be about male jollies, his are always privileged over hers, and we have, as ever, a huge cultural problem, still, with honoring pleasure and supporting sex AS pleasure and joy, especially if that is “all” — because these things are so meaningless, apparently — it is about.

Suggesting one be able to separate sex from love isn’t about saying that sex shouldn’t be loving, or that there is some sort of extra status when it is not. That suggestion is about realizing that sex, in and of itself, can’t create love that isn’t there already, nor repair it, and that we need to understand that sex is NOT always an expression of love, and certainly not when we mean “love” in the way many young people understand it and have been sold it, which is more about romance or possession than respect.

* * *
I often feel like supporters of abstinence, when talking to sex educators, forget that most of us who work in the field, and are bringing far more than out own sexual experiences, that of a few people we know, and what we read about in disreputable media sources, know a lot more about people’s sex lives than the average joe. I used to do a lot more adult sex ed than I do now or instance, and I know full well, from what married people have told me and asked of me, that while it has net positive results for some it has been negative for others. We regularly get advice queries at Scarleteen from unhappy, unhealthy young adults who waited until marriage, and of late, the numbers of those queries have been increasing pretty vastly. For sure, it needs to be noted that people who are 100% satisfied with their sex lives are not going to be filling my mailbag, and that’s the case with the waiters and the non-waiters alike. but the point it, that just like NOT waiting has been positive for some and not for others, the same can be said for those who waited.

Really, you don’t even have to have the gig I do, or read/counsel as many people as I do to do the math, here. Perhaps my circle of friends is simply more diverse than those who write me these sorts of letters, because even just among the people I have known in my personal life, when I’m off-duty, I know that both of these two choices (for those for whom they are available AS choices), sex-before-marriage or sex-outside-marriage, and sex-after-marriage and only until marriage, net some pretty widely varied results between people.

Nearly two-thirds of teenagers think teaching “Just Say No” is an ineffective deterrent to teenage sexual activity. - Roper Starch Worldwide, Teens Talk About Sex: Adolescent Sexuality in the 90s

What else do I know? I know that a majority of people telling this generation to wait until marriage didn’t wait themselves, and that the age of first intercourse or first sexual experience has been slowly climbing downward since the turn of the century — not just of late — which is likely due to many changes, including access to effective contraception, women being ever-so-slightly more allowed to even have and drive a sexuality of their own, lower age of physical sexual development, an increase in leisure time, delaying marriage until later ages, and a great big list of issues, many of which are positive changes.

Sure, some of these abstinence mandates are just sanctimonious blather, but some of it is based on the strange logic that says “I Did X and I wasn’t happy with the results, so one must need to do Y to get the right results.” That’d be sensible in an equation in which there were but two options, but that’s something we can’t say about sexuality and sexual partnership.

This is also about hypocrisy and awareness of projection. I have not only had more than one partner in my life, I have had far more than one partner. My circumstances, personality, and the unique conditions of my upbringing and time and place were such that I’d expect that a majority of the young adults who read Scarleteen would be gobsmacked if I shared how many partners I’d had before I was 20, because for most of them, their situations differ in many ways from my own. I also know from listening to and working with them that what worked for me likely wouldn’t work for a majority of them; what was positive for me then may not be for many of them now. Certainly, I make a darn good guinea pig when it comes to showing how well safer sex works, and that it’s totally possible to have more than one partner and feel great about it and be a happy, healthy person. Certainly, I could compare my one set of experiences to those of any other one given young women who waited until marriage for sex, and had but one partner who is sitting nursing the STI she isn’t supposed to have, who is feeling terrible about sex, and who isn’t sexually happy or healthy. In doing so, I could easily draw the conclusion that I sex before marriage with multiple partners in one’s teen years must be the right choice, and hers the wrong one. But not only would doing so be beyond unintelligent and socially irresponsible, it’d be idiot logic.

Because I am aware that my positive or negative experiences are just that, mine, and that I am not Everywoman, and because I am also aware that we, as people, have a strong propensity to project our own experiences unto everyone else, to be a socially responsible sexuality educator and a good teacher, I’ve got to do my level best to be responsible enough not only to qualify my experiences as being mine, and I need to make sure that I’m also not being a ginormous hypocrite. For me, personally, to tell any one of them that there is one choice that is best for all of them, knowing full well — especially the older I get and the more I know myself — that it by no means would have been the best choice for me (or heck, just not having made that choice myself, so having no idea at all what results it would have had) would not only be complete bullshit, it’d be incredibly disrespectful, and not just because it isn’t my job to tell them what choice to make, nor do they often ask me to make their choices for them (and when they do, I decline).

Additionally, one of the toughest things I experience in doing my job is remembering to try and always keep in check that generational differences — even just by one generation — are often far wider than we perceive them to be, especially from the vantage point of those of us who are elder, and feel we have already lived the experiences the generations younger than us have had. We haven’t, see: we’ve had our own adolescence, and there may be some commonalities, but our adolescence is just that, ours, and there often tends to be less commonality than we’d like to think. I often feel like when I may err, I likely err on the side of conservatism or overprotectiveness, which is saying a lot for an anarchist, feminist, queer rabblerouser like me, but I think it’s something that’s always very easy for any of us to slip into, even when our intentions really are good.

If, indeed, sex is love, than the way we sexually educate also has to be loving and thus, full of respect. It’s not sensible, no matter what, to dictate or cheerlead a choice for someone else just because we know or suspect it was/would have been the right choice for us, but it’s beyond insult to do so when we have absolutely no way of knowing what that choice would have been like for us whatsoever, or when we’re flat-out lying. Given the statistics on marriage and marital sexual dissatisfaction — especially per issues of lack of orgasm and sexual arousal among women, widespread complaints of a simple lack of affection among partners, sexual obligation, prolific complaint from all sides about vaginal intercourse being more often unsatisfying than not, female complaints about the frequency of sex being determined only by the male partner’s libido — and given the proliferation of those pushing abstinence-until-marriage with unfounded promises, an awful LOT of people are knowingly lying to our youth.

A survey by Northern Kentucky University revealed that 61 percent of students who made abstinence promises broke them. And of those who said they kept their pledges, 55 percent indicated they participated in oral sex. The survey queried 597 Northern Kentucky students, 16 percent of whom made pledges not to have sex until marriage. The study noted, however, that pledge-breakers delayed sex for a year longer than nonpledging teens–until an average of 17.6 years old. But pledge-makers who became pledge-breakers were less likely to use protection, such as condoms, when first having sex.

Heck, even if abstinence-until-marriage DID result in all the things it claims to and really COULD include everyone, while I’d be fine getting behind it, I’d still be honest with the youth I counsel and tell them that myself and others didn’t do that and are still having positive results.

We can certainly see negative the results, and the purposeful dishonesty, with a lot of abstinence-based approaches. One very common facet of abstinence-based sex education is fear. I talk to an awful lot of youth who have been reared with this stuff daily, and from that work alone, I can assure anyone, with great confidence, that this approach isn’t making them any smarter, nor is it resulting in any of them having healthier sex lives or feeling any better about their sexuality: it’s resulting in most of those I have encountered being incredibly scared and also incredibly challenged in things like limit and boundary setting, safer sex practices (which, to work, need to be used with ANY new partner for at least the first six months, even in marriage), birth control negotiation, acceptance of personal sexual orientation, a real understanding of the sexual and reproductive anatomy, as well as realistic expectations for what sex is once they do choose sexual partnership. I have young adults literally terrified to shake someone’s hands for fear they have recently toileted, and could thus cause a pregnancy. I have young adults so completely sold on the fact that so long as everyone is in love, or says they love them, or marries them, that the betrayals they experience when sex very much is NOT love in the kinds of relationships they’re assured it will be cause them incredible emotional pain. I have students of abstinence-only programs in droves who have so taken to heart that intercourse is the only real sex, and that that’s where the big risks lie, that almost daily, and sometimes more than once a day, we have to explain that even if one doesn’t include receptive anal sex or giving oral sex as a loss of virginity, that doesn’t make them automatically physically or emotionally safe.

For a lot of teens, even if they DO intend to wait for sex — be it until marriage, or by some other criteria — they come here or come to me because they need, and are asking for, someone to tell them not just the facts — the real ones — but that they are OKAY, they are still or will still be good people even if they do choose to have sex outside some sanctioned context or other. And sometimes, that they aren’t insane in noticing that everyone telling them to be abstinent is often talking out of both sides of their face. Too, adults forget that young adults don’t need us to tell them what is going on with themselves: they know better than we. A lot of this focus on yelling in everyone’s face to wait for sex is good, old fashioned sex panic, because plenty of teens ARE waiting, because they WANT to wait. Some are waiting for marriage, some are waiting for a certain amount of time to pass in a relationships first, and some have other criteria for waiting — for all or certain kinds of sex — entirely. half the turn-off many teens have to abstinence approaches is because they feel like they’re being falsely accused of having or wanting sex when they flat-out don’t.

Look, if this “wait-until-marriage” stuff really DID work, so far as earnestly reducing rates of STIs and unwanted pregnancies, as well as guaranteeing that partnered sex and interpersonal relationships were always or even almost always a positive for all those who wait, AND it didn’t usually include gobloads of misinformation to incite fear into the burgeoning sexuality of those it addressed, I’d sign unto this in a heartbeat.

It’s my job to do what I can to do my level best to have partnered sex and sexuality become as positive an experience for everyone, with as few negative consequences as possible. Needless to say, if all my job needed to consist of to be effective was me saying “no,” it’d sure make my life a whole lot easier, and my workday a lot less stressful. Heck, I could easily cut my work hours down to almost nothing, simply by developing a nice auto-script to just say “wait” to everyone writing me a letter. But my job has NOT been made any easier by abstinence only approaches. I have more misinformation to correct than ever before, coming from more and more sources claiming to be credible, and backed by people who really SHOULD be trustworthy. For a while there, it used to be that most sexual information was spread peer-to-peer, but now we’ve got it coming right on down from our governments, who carry a high credibility, however undeserved. I’ve got good girl/bad girl good boy/bad boy stuff to deal with that my parents thought finally, thankfully, ended with their generation. Over the years, our traffic has only increased and increased — despite us still never having done any advertising — which not only creates more and more work for me, but costs me more and more to host. Suffice it to say, every time I file my taxes I am even crabbier than most because I know that I am literally giving money from the little I make to mandates which create more work for me and which cost me money to try and repair. I am having to fiscally contribute to a system which I professionally protest, and which does harm to those I seek to help. Given that this wave of abstinence-only began in 1996, and it’s now more than a decade past, if it was working, and it was so positive for everyone, I think it’s reasonable to surmise that I should be having less and less work over the years, don’t you?

With letters like this one I usually end up scratching my head wondering why, exactly, it’s so difficult for us as a people — because this isn’t a behavior that only belongs to conservatives — to simply accept that when it comes to sexuality, it’s often a multiple choice test in which there are an awful lot of combinations that can be the right answers, an awful lot of the SAME combinations that can be the wrong answers, and it’s not the answer which dictates which will be right or wrong, but the individual involved and their very specific situation. This isn’t rocket science: this is simple observation. Let’s say Carolyn DID wait until marriage for sex, and Carolyn is pleased as punch. I didn’t (nor did I even include ideas about marriage in any aspect of my sexuality or sexual decision-making), but I’m sitting here happy, healthy and satisfied, too.

So, who’s right, then? We both are… per our own, and only our own, choices All we need is but one — and suffice it to say, I’ve had far, far more than that — letter from someone who DID wait for marriage or lifelong sole partnership and did NOT have the promised positive results, or one person who did NOT wait and has had positive results, to know that the idea that any one choice is best for everyone is flawed.

And this is why it’s so vital to just freaking quit it with this one right choice mishegoss. Not just because it doesn’t work, and because it isn’t sensible, but because it doesn’t honor the individual in any way, nor honor our diversity as individuals with widely varying sexual wants, needs and desires. Sure, there are some basic issues we really can apply to everyone — issues of consent or of sexual health, for instance — but hinging anything on something so also varied as marital status, sexual orientation, gender or age has shown us up historically, time and time again, as at worst, a grave error which does great harm to many, and as an utter waste of time and energy, and an incredibly effective distraction, at best. This is a distraction in that it very much does keep us from having to look at, address and try and develop strategies for sexuality issues which impact everyone, married and unmarried alike, issues which we often prefer to avoid or deny: sexual abuse and rape, domestic abuse, unwanted pregnancy, reproductive rights, homophobia and sexism, ignorance about sexuality and sexual response, the gross inability to sexually communicate, the works. This “one right choice” stuff is especially pernicious when addressed to women (and not only is most casual discussion on this issue about young women, most abstinence-only strategies make it very clear that sexual policing is the responsibility of women), who have spent nearly the whole of human history having our sexuality and sexual choices mandated and dictated to and for us by someone else.

We KNOW a lot of what works: we do, whether we like it or not, or feel comfortable with it or not. Sexuality education IS still a relatively new endeavor, and we are all still very much learning how to do it. I’m not comfortable all of the time either — who is when it comes to sex? — nor can I say that I am 100% certain 100% of the time that my approach with any given person or group is the right one. But I know that I’m a lot more comfortable wondering, questioning, and feeling out what might or could be right than I am when I’m somehow completely certain that I’m absolutely correct about a topic as huge, as loaded and as diverse as human sexuality.

We do, however, know that giving people as much accurate, unbiased, inclusive and compassionate about human sexuality as we can has helped people to figure out what the best choices they can make for themselves are, even when they make mistakes. We know that when we have seen board declines in rates of unwanted pregnancy — such as one we saw here in the states between 1995 and 1998 — it has resulted from comprehensive, not abstinence-based, sex education and from greater availability of effective birth control methods, and that areas with only abstinence-based sex education don’t tend to show the promised positive results (not counting the undeniable positive of activists like Shelby Knox who step up in those areas, mind). We know both because they tell us it helps them, and because since we have started to do so, we have seen some important changes more broadly. We know that doing so in a way in which we do our level best to honor the diversity of those choices, to do so without privileging ANY one choice is not only the way that information (which you acknowledge is vital) is best heard and absorbed, as is the case with any kind of real education, it also, just in that respect, gives people something many people and our culture, historically, something which they are rarely given and which may be, as far as I can gather, the single most important thing anyone can have for a healthy sexuality: a positive acceptance of their sexuality and the clear given that their sexuality is theirs to own and inhabit — not mine, not yours, not anyone else’s.

See, I — we — can’t do that if and when we tell someone that any one choice is the only right choice. If and when we say or mandate that, “the only decision that so-and-so needs to make is…”, particularly about a population which we not only are not a member of, but one whom we have any power over (and we’ve plenty), we are usurping that person’s or population’s full ownership of that decision.

I got another letter (it’s been a doozy of week for these) from a woman telling me that I just do not tell girls to say no to their boyfriends often enough. Not only do I often feel like that’s what I spend half of every day doing with new users, that letter, like the one from Carolyn, like many of these kinds of sentiments, speaks volumes. If we really are — really and truly — invested in helping young people to make sound choices, and in them having a healthy, joyful and fully-autonomous sexuality and positive sexual relationships, then the way we educate them has to be in support of them actively making those choices, has to be primarily concerned with enabling that process, for them, not in directing it. Because when we seek to direct choices, not inform them, we enable exactly that which I hear folks like this saying they want to cease. Whether it’s me, a boyfriend, or someone else, telling someone that there is only one sound choice for them based on our ideas, our wishes or our experiences, and abusing the influence we know we have with them to do so, isn’t loving or respecting them, nor is it educating them.

Even if there really was any ONE right age to have sex at, one right type of relationship to have it in, any one right way to have sex, the very moment at which someone else tells you what YOUR right choice must or should be, it doesn’t really get to be your choice anymore. It’s theirs, and for all the big talk about sex being love, denying someone’s full ownership of themselves and their own sexuality isn’t loving. The very minute that we present anything in a way that is knowingly dishonest and seeks to prevent individual critical thinking and decision-making, we are not acting out of love, but out of control, which in and of itself, makes love — in sex or anything else — impossible.

(Crossposted to the Scarleteen blog)