Sex Ed In America And Social Media Harm Reduction: For The Love Of Scarleteen

After weeks of scheduling, I finally met with documentarians for Sex In America this afternoon, a six-part series on sex around the world. I was being interviewed for their American segment. Most of their questions were about sex education in these United States, and as it happens when you explain these things as if from the outside, I realized while talking to them just how essential and life-saving the website Scarleteen has been, and still is.

We just got out of a long, long sex ed winter here, with eight years of Bush’s abstinence education in public schools barely behind us. That means a couple generations of teens all over America came into puberty, their bodies went absolutely berserk with changes and hormones and confusing urges and desires, and *all* they were told by the public educational system was how babies were made. Meanwhile, the internet exploded: these things happened at the same time, and this is important. Concurrently, information was withheld from kids, while the online world of sex expanded at an unmeasurable rate. I’m very, very glad that what I set out to try and do — be a disruptor of the sex information distribution lockdown — was possible and became a reality. When kids needed real answers, they went online. Because the various online sex communities valued education above all, from dirty birdie pornographers to sex bloggers to college advice forums, we sent as many kids as we could to Scarleteen.

The world is better for it. At SFSI we watched the horrifying (and sadly predictable) effects of Bush’s war on sex ed seep into the lives of kids across the nation. As the years of abstinence education wore on, our nightmares came true in spikes of teen pregnancy rates and STD/STI rates in under-20s. We knew this was coming, and it was underscored by the fact that more and more calls to our sex help lines were coming from more and more teens. The questions they asked got increasingly alarming in their sheer lack of understanding and information about even the most basic sexual mechanics.

Scarleteen is a non-profit that has been there for teens when our system abandoned them. We could send under-18-year-olds there and know they would get accurate sex information, real sex answers, and a carefully guarded community where they would be safe. Scarleteen has been around since 1998. Scarleteen is the highest ranked online resource for teen sex education — and it is the least funded.

See what Scarleteen does.

Personally, I think people in porn from Kink to Vivid should put their money where their mouths are and kick down to make our kids smarter and safer, for when they reach the age of making decisions about where their porn dollars are spent (or not). Imagine if some of that tech-sector money we see thrown around for bullshit startups and community website failures trying to get kids to buy more Facebook game credits — if these people put a little dosh into this vital online resource. THIS would be social media practicing harm reduction.

Instead, it is funded by people who want young people to have safe and happy lives, especially when it comes to the big scary topic of sex. People who fund Scarleteen want the world to be a better place for kids. Kids who are scared, confused, bullied about sex, being targeted, being violated, needing advice, feeling suicidal about sexual orientation or desire, kids who can’t ask anyone for help about topics ranging from infections to rape, learning about sex terms, finding doctors, learning about privacy, wondering how to say no, and desperate to learn when it’s going to be okay to say yes. No religion, no judgement, no hidden agenda. Scarleteen does everything it does, for FREE.

Today is the last day of the Scarleteen Sex Ed Blog Carnival, and I am honored to be the final participant.

You can tell kids it gets better. You can practice online harm reduction. Give to Scarleteen.

Scarleteen is also fabulous on Twitter. Photo from Sara Blomqvist by Andreas Öhlund for Stockholm Spring 2011

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  1. southern students for choice-athens · Edit

    Hello, just a quick comment from some folks here who know a little about issues related to sex education (at least where reproductive rights are concerned), young people, and what plays in Peoria, Illinois or Athens, Georgia, or anywhere where conservative Republicans predominate off campus and big airplanes more often fly over than land at nearby airports.

    There is plenty of precedent for “porn” … well, erotic businesses … supporting progressive work, including issues related to civil liberties and reproductive rights, most famously the Playboy Foundation from about the early 60s to the mid- to late-80s. If you are interested in learning more about it though here’s a couple links:

    Their history, mission, etc, is something worth studying and maybe emulating for people inclined to use some of the profits from the contemporary porn industry for nonprofit purposes. Just one thing to add though, in light of this example, what helped make their support of so much of progressive cultural trends over a few decades was that they were a foundation with a mission, a philosophy, and a conventional tax-exempt nonprofit structure, which wasn’t related the so-called “Playboy philosophy”, a hedonistic mis-mash which never got beyond a few articles ran in the magazine in the early 1960s.

    We’ve got no idea if the so-called porn industry has a similar foundation but if it does we won’t be in line to ask for funds. It’s not because we don’t want to be connected with “porn,” because as any pro-choice activist knows when it comes to name-calling we can get called a lot worse things than “pro-porn.” We’re not going to be seeking their funding because we have had a commitment since starting over twenty years ago to never take on more of an overhead in expenses beyond the kitchen-table-produced fanzines of that day, so we’ve always been able to independently raise all the money we need to produce our newsletter and action alerts and such. We want to inspire prochoice little student groups to get started on their own and do their own thing in raising funds, and they’re going to do that by benefits and dealing with student government in their colleges and high schools and by doing things more like bake sales and not by anything related to, um, porn. Plus there’s so much free porn to be had by going online that we’re sure we could never compete by producing or marketing our own. :)

    But anyway if the porn industry does not have something similar in the way of an independent foundation created to do charitable work — and they probably have had something like that at least in the past related to STD awareness in the industry — it’s something that would help enormously in building a rationale and strategy for appropriately funding nonprofits, especially awesome efforts like Scarleteen.

    To paraphrase Margaret Mead, it takes VERY little money to move a group of committed citizens along on their way to changing the world. Progressives taking a small amount of money with the right intentions from producers of works with erotic content has decades of precedent. It’s not easy money, but no cause worth working hard for is likely going to be especially “easy” — if it was easy, it wouldn’t be so worth doing.

  2. Mike: some members of those groups have ALREADY called Scarleteen porn simply for our own content.

    We also took a bunch of garbage a whole bunch of years ago because Babeland supported us. Don’t even get me started on the COPA case. I’ve taken many hits from all kinds of places over the twelve years I’ve run Scarleteen: we can handle it.

    Perhaps even more to the point, while it’s so awesome when parents give teens our URL — and some do! — my impression is that most who do are very progressive. Those who are not would/do have objections to our content alone, simply because we do talk about sex, and often even more to the point, because we have a mostly-queer staff and are fully inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities. So, for the most part, I’d just honestly say that while I appreciate the concerns, I think the folks you’re concerned about censoring it or objecting already do based on other things entirely.

  3. Violet – I get the distinction, I just don’t think some people will. Maybe it’s where I live (very conservative Cincinnati, OH) but I’ve heard people refuse to see distinctions many times. To them, it’s ALL porn. And, I wouldn’t want the work Scarleteen does to be harmed by the anti-porn groups. (Not like some of them don’t want real information removed as it is). I work with teens, and have in different ways for years, and I get how important the truth is to them.
    That said, I didn’t know that donors to Scarleteen COULD be anonymous (why I didn’t know, I can’t say) but I think that’s perfect. So, that settles my point. And, I should donate soon, myself!

  4. Violet: thanks for this!

    @Mike: many of our fiscal supporters are anonymous. So, this needn’t even be an issue at all.

    We also do not make our content or organizational choices based on anything those who donate may want, nor are they even consulted. So, effectively, it would be a non-issue by that token.

    At Scarleteen, we can’t/don’t outlink to 18+ sites, including in donor listings, but I can certainly say here that we did receive a donation last year from Feck, who expressed that what Violet is talking about — and the fact that they didn’t think porn should be substituting for sex ed — was why they were donating. Jiz Lee also did some fundraising this year. While again, plenty of donations are anonymous, so I don’t even know sometimes who an individual making one might be connected to, I’d say this is fairly unusual so far 9and apologize if I have overlooked anyone), but agree with Violet that it should not be, whether it’s about support for Scarleteen or any other sound, accessible sex education org.

    In the off-chance a parent took issue with that, I’d have no trouble at all taking the time to express both our editorial policy (per not basing it on funders, ever, as we never have and don’t ever intend to) and why I’d also agree that some fiscal support from the adult entertainment industry would be very sound.

  5. @Mike, I see what you’re saying, but —

    Scarleteen is a sex education website and parental resource — especially for what kids encounter online — it is not a “sex website” for kids — HUGE distinction.

    Porn companies make a big deal about protecting kids, and they throw a lot of money at (and social pressure to support) ASACP. Their sponsors are huge, and rich:

    But I see Scarleteen doing more harm reduction and online sex education and protection for under-18s than anyone else. They are on the front lines, where the kids are — online. I’d just like to see adult webmasters giving as much to help where it’s needed (Scarleteen) as they are to cover their own asses (ASACP).

  6. While it would be a good thing, and a worthy cause, I think the idea of porn companies funding sex education for teens would be far more likely to backfire than to do good. Can you imagine the reaction from parents?

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