Scarleteen founder Heather Corinna wins 2015 Sexual Health Champion award

Vancouver’s Options for Sexual Health honours sexuality educator and youth advocate

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      When the popular sex-education website Scarleteen got off the ground in the “dark ages” of the late 1990s, its founder and director decided to stop working as a Montessori kindergarten teacher.

      “I thought at the time I was making this big decision between being a teacher and not being a teacher,” Heather Corinna told the Georgia Straight by phone from Vashon Island, Washington. “Then, I think, a couple years into this, the joke was on me, because this is what I do all day. I just have a really big classroom.”

      Next Thursday (February 12), Corinna will be in Vancouver to accept the 2015 Sexual Health Champion award from Options for Sexual Health (Opt), the nonprofit formerly known as the Planned Parenthood Association of British Columbia. The 44-year-old sexuality and sexual-health educator and youth advocate, who identifies as queer and uses the pronoun they, will give the keynote speech at Opt’s second Sexual and Reproductive Health Day Breakfast, a fundraising event.

      Scarleteen is now a Seattle-based organization whose site is accessed by millions of people a year. It features many “expansive” informational articles, such as “Anal Sex: No Different?” and “Figuring Out How to Be a Lesbian Safer Sexpert”. There are also interactive features, including a moderated message board, a text-message question-and-answer service, and a live web-chat service.

      Corinna—the author of S.E.X. (Da Capo Press, 2007), a guide for high-school and college students—said Scarleteen has always strived to be as inclusive as possible. According to Corinna, the site and organization have managed to survive without government funding or institutional sponsors.

      “People talking candidly about sex with teenagers is not exactly culturally supported,” Corinna said. “A lot of the ways in which we’ve done it, you know, kind of break the ‘rules’ of the way it’s barely acceptable to do it. So, we’ll talk to them about pleasure. We’re not just going to talk to them about what’s scary. We present sex to them as something that’s not just good if somebody didn’t get hurt. It’s not just about getting hurt and not getting hurt. It’s about things that are potentially fantastic also happening and being part of your life.”

      When Scarleteen launched in 1998, sex-education programs teaching abstinence were just starting to pick up steam in the United States. With abstinence-only sex education now “pervasive” in the U.S. and parts of Canada, Corinna noted, Scarleteen is seeing people in their 20s seeking help because they have fears and misconceptions but not facts.

      “The United States, we’re like an infectious disease sometimes with the terrible things that we do. Other countries should learn to ignore us,” Corinna said with a laugh, “and not copy us.”

      In 2013, Opt presented syndicated sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, whose column appears in the Straight, with its inaugural Sexual Health Champion award. Jennifer Breakspear, executive director of Opt, called Corinna an “innovative voice” who is known for making sex education “tangible and accessible” for young people.

      “We operate an information line,” Breakspear told the Straight by phone from downtown Vancouver. “It’s called the Sex Sense line, where people call with questions about sex, sexuality, sexual health, reproductive health. For the people that are on our line, among the many resources they use when they’re answering calls, the Scarleteen website is one of their go-tos.”

      Corinna has heard from people who’ve used Scarleteen and are now donating to the organization because they have kids and want the site to be a resource for them in the future.

      “I could walk away from it, and it would still be this beautiful, awesome thing that it is of young people talking with maturity and sensitivity about sex and their bodies and feeling safe,” Corinna said. “That’s a pretty cool thing.”

      Options for Sexual Health holds its Sexual and Reproductive Health Day Breakfast at the Vancouver Marriott Pinnacle Downtown Hotel next Thursday (February 12).