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The Scarlet Letters: “SE” for Sex Ed

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In a perfect world, every child-guardian relationship would be punctuated with down-to-earth, all-your-questions-answered talk about the young person’s emerging sexuality.

  Scarleteen - The Queen Mother

With 750,000 visitors per month, mostly between the ages of 15 and 25, Scarleteen claims to be the top sexual education website in the world. Its founder, Heather Corinna, is a trained Montessori instructor who has worked in early childhood education and with adults with developmental disabilities. Corinna is also a writer, photographer and graphic artist with a strong interest in feminist sexuality. She edited, which published sexuality-related poetry, prose, nonfiction and visual art before going on hiatus in December 2006. She started Scarleteen in 1998.

Some of Corinna’s inspiration for the website came from the national push for abstinence-only sex ed. The abstinence-only movement in the U.S. has always been driven by politics, not research. A wave of abstinence-only programs sprang up beginning in 1996 as an offshoot of welfare reform legislation. They flourished during the George W. Bush administration, despite little evidence for their success. At best, a 2010 University of Pennsylvania study suggested, abstinence-only programs may delay first sexual activity among middle-schoolers.

The sex ed pendulum has since begun to swing away from abstinence-based programs. A 2007 study initiated by the U.S. Congress concluded that such programs have little effect on teens’ sexual behavior and are not effective in preventing teen pregnancy or HIV infection rates. Funding for abstinence-only programs was cut from the Obama administration’s 2010 budget plan, and in March 2011 members of Congress proposed the Repealing Ineffective and Incomplete Abstinence-Only Program Funding Act.

Heather Corinna was one of the first to recognize that teens needed a source to find factual information free of political or religious influences, outside the school and, perhaps, away from the family. Her website is an independent, grassroots effort, not affiliated with any other site or organization. Its educational model is based on Montessori and unschooling theories (under which the learner chooses her own learning style) as well as U.S. and international models for teen sex and relationship education.

Scarleteen is monitored and moderated to help keep its content accurate and its message boards safe for minors to use. Its motto is, “At Scarleteen We Want Sex Ed in the Hands of the People.” It offers answers to questions sent via text; users can text questions to 66746 using the keyword ASKST. In addition to the Internet and text message services, Scarleteen also has staff who answer the phones. The website makes referrals to mental and physical health care, LGBTQ, sexual abuse/crisis and other support facilities as users need them, including prenatal and abortion services. Scarleteen has also spawned the All Girl Army, an online support group for feminists aged 10-25.

  Sisters In Arms

Three other websites young adults can turn to are Go Ask Alice!, Maria Talks and Sex, Etc. Like Scarleteen, Sex, Etc. was founded by an educator. Sex, Etc. is affiliated with Rutgers University and with a group called Answer. Susan Wilson founded Answer, formerly known as the Network for Family Life Education, in 1981 while serving on the New Jersey State Board of Education. She recognized the need for sex ed after taking part in a discussion of teen pregnancy. Sex, Etc. gets about five million visitors a year, and also has a print version with 45,000 readers. The website features a state-by-state guide to teens’ sexual rights, a Sex Terms Glossary and a collection of educational videos. Its motto is “Sex Education For Teens, By Teens,” and it uses a peer-to-peer educational model.

Maria Talks, centered in the state of Massachusetts, came about as a result of teen focus groups held by the AIDS Action Committee, funded in part by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The website is the Committee’s only initiative not dedicated to HIV/AIDS prevention. Users can also access Maria Talks by calling 877-MA-SEX-ED. By calling the number or entering a Massachusetts zip code into the website, users can get referrals to emergency contraception, STI or pregnancy testing, domestic violence/crisis or abortion services.

Recently, Massachusetts anti-abortion groups have campaigned to get governor Deval Patrick to revoke funding for MariaTalks. State legislator Marc Lombardo has supported the effort, but as of May 2011, the Department of Health had no plans to change or remove the website.

Go Ask Alice! is another website that started out with a local focus, then broadened to include users from all over the world. According to the “About” page, the name came to the founder in a dream and is not related to the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit” or the faux-journal Go Ask Alice by Anonymous. GAA! started up in 1993 and claims to be one of the earliest major health Q & A sites in Internet history. A service of Columbia University’s Health Services, it was originally only for Columbia students. It offers, but is not limited to, information about sexuality, sexual health and relationships. Users can also turn to GAA! for general health questions, including nutritional information and information about alcohol and other drugs.

  Shared Values

Scarleteen may be queen of the hill with the most visitors, but these four websites all share a set of values. They’re designed to treat all users as equals and inclusive of diverse age groups (within the tween through young adult spectrum), geographical locations, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations and gender identifications. Teens who value abstinence before marriage as part of their religious beliefs are as welcome as teens coming out the closet who may feel alienated from the religious beliefs they grew up with. These sites recognize sexuality as a normal part of human development, not something to be ashamed of. They thrive on the notion that knowledge is power. They thrive in an atmosphere that encourages self-respect and respect for others.

Perhaps the single most important factor in the success of Scarleteen and similar sites is that they’re driven by what users ask for. They’re largely independently funded, unlike the public schools in which so many Americans receive sex ed, so messages filtered down through federal mandates don’t affect their content. Their content is generated by matching the knowledge real young adults want with current findings in medicine and social sciences. Young adults are empowered to be active participants in their own sexual development. They arm themselves with the knowledge they need to draw their own conclusions, rather than being pushed toward any one dogma. In their fierce independence and knowledge-is-power philosophy, Scarleteen and its sister sites represent an informed sexual citizenry that would make Thomas Jefferson proud.



Websites with reliable information on teen sexuality and conception are an extremely important weapon in our battle to combat teen pregnancy. Although rates have come down, the US still enjoys the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world.

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I have done my small part with a new young adult novel THE BATTLE FOR TOMORROW: A FABLE ([]). A book about youth activism, it also frankly addresses teen sexuality, contraception and abortion.


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