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Scarleteen’s Heather Corinna on Feminism and Sex Ed

Scarleteen's Heather Corinna on Feminism and Sex Ed
By , 18, Staff Writer Originally Published: August 14, 2014 Revised: April 3, 2017

Every day I seem to find a new reason to stop in my tracks and think, This is why we need feminism! Whether it’s a new state law that seeks to restrict abortion access and limit women and girl’s choices or an advertisement featuring a nearly-naked model that reinforces this idea that all women have to offer is what they look like, we are bombarded with messages that put limits on how women and girls look, think and act. The more instances of gender inequality I observe, the more I want to make a difference as a feminist and a sexual health advocate. Luckily, there have been many trailblazing feminist activists who have paved the way for us.

Recently, I was lucky enough to interview one of them. Heather Corinna is one of the pioneers of providing sexual health information on the Internet. Heather is a feminist, author, activist, educator, artist and founder of Scarleteen, a website and organization devoted to comprehensive sexuality education. Heather believes that sexuality education goes hand in hand with feminism, and she works to provide people of all ages with the sexuality education and support they need to make informed decisions. Heather is truly an inspiration!

Sex, Etc.: What is the connection between feminism and comprehensive sexuality education for you?

Heather Corinna: At its core, while feminisms vary, nearly any kind of feminism is about seeking equality.

Healthy relationships and sexual lives have to be centered in equality to even have a shot at being healthy, and we know that inequalities, especially gender inequalities, have long played a huge part in domestic and interpersonal violence and other abuses. Gender inequalities have played a huge role in a lack of real access to contraception and reproductive healthcare, including all the choices with pregnancy, like abortion and like a pregnant person having a real say in their experience with pregnancy and birth. Gender inequalities have played a part in only some information about sex and sexuality being put in front, with others—particularly women’s sexuality—put in the back. Honestly, I could go on with this list for days, because, to me, feminism and sexuality education are so intertwined, I wouldn’t know how to separate them if I tried!

Sex, Etc.: Was there a specific moment where you remember thinking, “I’m a feminist” or “This is why we need sex ed”? Can you describe it for us?

HC: I can’t remember ever not thinking about myself as a feminist!

With sex ed, for me, it was something I took a bit for granted coming of age. It’s not that we had anything great or even close to comprehensive, we didn’t, but I certainly had some basics to build on. I had access to the library and medical books—and a whole lot of intellectual curiosity to spur me on! I also had a parent willing to be open and to talk with me about sex and sexuality.

In hindsight now, I can easily see a lot of gaps, especially for someone who knew very early on they were bisexual as well as around sexual assault and abuse I suffered when I was young. But I think at the time, it was one of those things where it’s hard to know what you’re missing when you don’t know what could be available to you. And since I was often the go-to person with my friends for all things sexuality, I probably figured that I must be pretty well informed (which was likely an incredibly foolish assumption).

So, ultimately, for me, until I started teaching—before I was actually teaching sex ed—and was able to see the way even otherwise good, well-intentioned teachers or parents were very poorly addressing or handling sex, sexuality and sexual health with children, I was not aware that the need was as great as it was. But it’s really once I started getting e-mails from young people asking me for information that it became most clear we not only needed sex ed, we needed it pretty badly if young people were tracking down strangers on the Internet to e-mail such personal questions to.

Sex, Etc.: Where do you find the inspiration to continue advocating for sexual health and continuing to be a feminist activist despite the backlash feminist and comprehensive sexuality education advocates face? 

HC: I’ll be honest, I stopped getting a lot of big attacks a while ago (knock on wood!). They don’t happen for me or us with the frequency or volume they did when I first started working visibly.  I don’t tend much to go to, or do work at, places where I know or am pretty sure abuse happens, or where it’s clear from the start people are not open to or welcoming the kind of work I do and things I have to say. Though I’ll be honest, at times and places in my life where I have had some of those battles, some of them have been very rewarding. For instance, stepping up to have the back of someone at a clinic to get an abortion whose boyfriend is harassing them, and being able to see their confidence and esteem get a boost when you won’t back down from having their back?  It’s a pretty great thing.

Being a sexuality activist and educator—especially from a feminist standpoint, especially from the standpoint of strongly feeling everyone has a right to a sexuality and to consensual sexual expression that is right for them— is challenging enough already.

But even when the backlash happens, you know, most of what it is to me is just a reminder that we all have to keep on keeping on. After all, if we were in a really sound place when it came to equality, a really sound place when it came to sexuality, there wouldn’t be that backlash in the first place. When it happens, it’s just showing us how essential this work is. Plus, people don’t tend to lash out when they don’t feel threatened, so it can also show us that what we are doing is obviously powerful.

This was the second installment of our conversation with Heather Corinna. If you missed the first installment where we got to know Heather, catch up on part one now!

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