Sex Educator Profiles: Heather Corinna
What led you to become a sex educator?
In some ways, the more pertinent question may be how I possibly could have avoided it. My father was a political activist, my mother was a nurse who has been working in infectious disease since I was a teenager, including work with one of the first children’s HIV wards in the 80’s. Before I was a sexuality educator, I was a Montessori ECE teacher. I grew up queer, I survived sexual abuses and assault but have had a marvelous and diverse sex life all the same, I was an erotica writer, I’m an artist who works primarily with themes of body image, I’m a very sensate critter.
In other words, I think all paths pretty much led me here whether I liked it or not. Thankfully, I do like it a lot. I love to be constantly challenged and to challenge others, to work in something where there’s never even the vain hope of having “the” answer much of the time, and to engage both the activist and the helper in me: working in sex education feeds both my head and my heart really well.
What kinds of sex education do you offer?
Since I came into making sexuality my core work over 10 years ago, my focus has primarily been women and young adults of all gender identities and sexual orientations. I pen articles and other sexuality tools online — at my organization, Scarleteen, through my weekly column at RH Reality Check and sometimes at other online publications — and in print, including via my book released in 2006, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College.
I’m everything from the executive director to the janitor at Scarleteen, and spend a lot of my day engaging in online discussions about sexuality, sexual health and relationships with young people via our message boards and other parts of the website/organization. Scarleteen has served millions of young people since we started, so it’s a very busy gig. Additionally, I direct an outreach sex education program here in Seattle, CONNECT, where I provide in-person sex education to homeless youth as well as in abortion clinics to women under 25 who are there for terminations. I’m also a recent addition to the editorial board of the American Journal of Sex Education.
How did you start giving sex advice?
I got in a hair-puller of an argument when I was 10 with a friend about whether or not women could orgasm. I knew we could, not just from raiding my parent’s bookshelves, but because in a couple of our very physical play-fights, I was pretty darn sure that’s what had happened to me. She insisted it wasn’t possible and patently refused to change her position. Some years ago she tracked me down, having found me and the work I was doing online, and in catching up, she did finally admit I was right.
That’s the first time I can remember, but ever after, growing up, probably in part because I was the queer girl everyone knew was having sex who wasn’t denying it, I got asked questions by my peers often and I did my best to give answers. They probably weren’t the best answers ever, mind, but they all came with the best of intentions.
But when it comes to giving sex advice as my job, ultimately someone just asked me a question I knew the answer to. People kept asking questions, and I kept either knowing the answers or being able to find and research them as needed. My overall life philosophy has always been that when it comes to giving help, if someone asks for help and you can help, that’s just what you do. People keep asking, so I keep helping.
Where did you get your education in sexuality?
When I was in college, everything I wanted to study kept revolving around where sexuality showed itself or was expressed in literature, sociology and psychology. If I’d have finished that program, I would have left with a self-designed major in “erotic spirituality” (oh, liberal arts schools, the goofy things you let us do). I’ve done extensive in-person “field research,” and I mean that both in the serious way but also as a euphemism for having lots of sex, but that’s where it all started when it came to book learning. Since that time, I’ve built a library for myself and have read anything and everything I could get my hands on, and I’ve gotten a lot of my training working right in the field both with my work online and in-person.
As much as possible, I try to learn most by observing and listening to the people that I work for and work with, and then merging that with the context of broad studies and more academic approaches. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to not only have a fantastic group of colleagues and mentors to bounce ideas off of over the years, but to have so many people coming for my help who trust me with their own stories. Many other educators have to put formal calls out to hear from tens of thousands of people and go nuts trying to get responses, but that’s been a blessedly easy part of this job for me: I’ve had people come to me on their own en masse over the years. Sure, I help them, but they continue to educate me, and in that way, we very much mutually benefit each other.
What do you love about giving sex advice?
I love being able to be an advocate for pleasure and self-discovery. So often, so much of the world that we live in presents pleasure as this luxury-extra, as something which can be great, but is a non-essential. Our sensory, sexual and intimate experiences are such a huge part of what makes a life fully lived rather than merely sustained.
What is the most difficult or hard-to-answer question you’ve ever received?
When I was first starting in the field, for a brief time I tried working giving sex advice at an adult women’s site where the population most often was older, heterosexual, married women. All too often, the heart of what those women were voicing was many years of dissatisfaction in their relationships sexually, and having attempted a world of different things to try and fix that with little to no change. More times than not, it was clear they were simply in relationships where there was not going to be any real room made for them to really explore and have their own authentic sexuality and/or their partner just wasn’t going to see why it was so important there was room for that; their sex lives had long patterns of being dictated only or solely by their spouse’s sexual needs and desires, not theirs.
I can handle — it’s hard, but I can handle it — young people in some really deep crises, some of whom are really hurting and in exceptionally tough places, but I just couldn’t come up with any good answers for those women besides, “You need to leave that relationship. Like, yesterday.”
There are some educators out there who are so amazing with that population. I’m not one of them. I totally sucked at it.
What is your favorite sex toy or product and why?
I really wish that young women had more access to vibrators. For sure, some enjoy masturbation with their own hands, or water, and some get creative when it comes to finding things that vibrate, like electric toothbrushes, that do the trick. But a Hitachi wand a toothbrush is not. Confession? I nicked a vibrating egg from a couple I did babysitting for in junior high. (Better late than never: I’m very sorry, couple whose vibrator I stole.) Considering nothing was ever said to me about it having gone missing, my best guess is the woman in that couple felt then the way I do now and was letting me have a gift.
All too often, young women come to partnered sex in part because they’ve gotten messages that sexual pleasure isn’t something they can provide for themselves, or that their sexuality isn’t something already in them; that both pleasure and their sexuality are something they need a (most often male) partner to magically bestow them with. That can set them up for a pattern on capitulating to what partners want, rather than creating mutually beneficial sex lives that are a collage of the sexualities and desires of themselves and their partners. And, suffice it to say, many of those same young women don’t find that sex with partners wind up providing the results they were expecting, so they wind up taking risks for something that all too often, nets them with few benefits, and come very late to finding out how to first please themselves. Sometimes I can’t help but think that if people were truly serious about cutting the rates of young adult unwanted pregnancy and STIs, they’d trade scare tactics for the provision of vibrators.
There is a still a big stigma around female masturbation, especially in many peer groups. Young women will often tell each other how “gross” it is, despite the fact that some of them saying it masturbate. I find that young women who, if and when they do come to partnersex, do so having already learned hot to get themselves off, having found out what kinds of touch and sensation they enjoy alone, having done some real exploration of their own bodies first are in a much better mindset of walking into sex with a partner that they better enjoy on their own terms, and tend to be less inclined to rush into partnered sex, particularly vaginal intercourse, than those who have not.
How do you think your book/film/website is different from others out there?
The narrative for young people from adults when it comes to sex so often presents sex and sexuality as a zero-sum game at best. Either bad things will happen to you, or, if you’re lucky, bad things won’t happen to you and you’ll be left the same as you came to it, untouched and untarnished. Of course, if all any of us, at any age, had to gain from sex and sexuality was simply not getting hurt, most of us would probably always choose to just get the laundry done, instead.
Young people know, intuitively, that sexuality and sex (of any kind, even if we’re talking masturbation instead of partnered sex) offers them not just potential risks, but potential benefits. It’s not like they’ll only know or discover it’s about pleasure if I, or anyone else, tells them that it is.
When Scarleteen first came around in the late nineties, there really wasn’t anything else about sex for young people online. Thankfully, in the interim, that has changed. However, many other organizations only or centrally approach teen and young adult sexuality within a framework of risk-assessment of unwanted or negative physical or emotional outcomes. We talk about those issues as well, but even in addressing those possible outcomes (rather than the good stuff) we’re always acknowledging that exploring our sexuality and engaging is sex presents risks of positives and wanted outcomes, too. We afford teens who choose to be sexually active with just as much respect and faith in their ability to make sound choices and those who choose not to.
That approach and philosophy certainly makes it harder to get supported as an organization, because it’s strangely seen as provocative to address young adult sexuality that way. However, it’s not only much more truthful, but hopefully helps (and the youth do express that it does) young people discover and create a sexual life that offers them a lot more than just not getting sick or not having their hearts broken.
Additionally, very few YA sex ed initiatives are as inclusive of all gender identities and sexual orientations as we are. That’s important no matter what, but it’s been all the more critical with the advent of abstinence-only sex education, which either leaves GLBTQ youth out of the picture altogether, or sends strong messages that it is immoral or unacceptable to be anything other then gendernormative or heterosexual.
How has what you’ve done or found at Good Vibrations helped you?
Good Vibrations simply EXISTING has helped me. I have Good Vibes to thank for there even being an environment for me to do what I do the way that I do it. Historically, GV played, and still plays, more than a minor part in changing some of the cultural conversation around sex and pleasure, particularly for women.
What would be your number one piece of advice for someone interested in a career of sex education?
Remember that your goal shouldn’t be for you to become the capital-E expert, but to guide and help others become the experts of themselves.
What’s the best thing you’ve learned or best advice you’ve received?
Really, it’s the most basic, core stuff all of us who are educators tell people in the education we’re giving all the time; things that are even cliche. Listen to and trust your instincts. Follow your bliss. Tell the truth. Take good care of other people. Accept diversity. Be yourself.
These are not golden nuggets of wisdom I only ever heard or learned in doing sex education. But when you speak them in the context of educating, and see and hear them reflected back, especially by young people, you can feel and get their deeper import, the real weight of them and stay perpetually reminded that it’s this core stuff that’s the heart of everything.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about sex?
That sex is about product, nor process. Like the idea that there is one “right” or “expert” way to do something sexual. In other words, the notion that a person can, for instance, learn how to engage in oral sex with one or two partners and thus, have oral sex “down” and assure all partners thereafter will be totally satisfied with that one particular approach, so long as oral sex is done in the way it was with the partners that enjoyed it before.
For sure, accumulated sexual experience can benefit us or our partners, but that benefit really comes from how we can become more comfortable being sexual with other people, how we acquire and improve communication skills, and how we — hopefully! — learn that we’re always learning anew with every new partner, not from the ability to move our tongue in this way or that just because that’s what one or two people liked or reached orgasm with. If what we experience and take away from sexual experiences is more about product than process, that experience can sometimes offer us or our partners nothing at all, or even create a barrier to sexual satisfaction because we’re so hung up on getting results that we miss out on really engaging in unique, holistic experiences.