Saturday, January 28, 2006

Scarleteen, the Internet Confessional, and Girls' Sexual Health

Scarleteen is an online sex ed resource covering topics such as sexuality, sexually transmitted infections, and reproduction which is intended for teens and is very frank. The site is not run by health professionals, but by self-described "sexpert" Heather Corinna. The site also includes a message for parents on why direct, honest sexual education is important.

Earlier this week, I stumbled upon Corinna's post about a crisis that seemed to be unfolding on Scarleteen's discussion forum. A user under the screen name Windowshopper posted the following question:
"my boyfriend recently put his penis inside me, i don't think we had sex because it only lasted about 3 minutes, although he ejaculated i don't think i could be pregnent because we didn't actually have sex. He wasn't using contraception because i am a devoted Catholic and i don't believe in it.
Upon being informed that, yes, she did in fact have sex and could possibly have become pregnant, the user responds that she feels stupid and though sex had to last at least 15 minutes to "count." She then asks if it's advisable to throw herself down the stairs in order to "get rid of it," even though she has not taken a pregnancy test. Oh, my.

The user then posts additional topics indicating that she has been told she is pregnancy by the board's respondants (who actually told her she could have become pregnant - possibly) and is cutting into her vagina to try to "cut out the baby." Her posts are here and here.

Corinna took this very seriously, but came to the conclusion that the storyline was a fake. She mentions in her blog that on past such occasions, she has become involved in reporting situations described on the user forums when a poster seemed to be in a dangerous situation.

The entire incident is very disturbing. Assuming the story is true, Windowshopper is very uneducated about sex and her own body. She seems very conflicted in that she isn't willing to break Catholic doctrine about contraception, but breaks it for premarital sex. The internet may be a blessing in some ways, in that individuals who would have previously remained completely ignorant of some things can get information from resources such as Scarleteen. Interactive forums turn the web into a kind of online confessional, where users profess their lack of knowledge and seek out answers. However, situations such as Windowshopper's raise the question of just how involved providers of online information should be. Should a site owner such as Corinna feel compelled to track IPs and emails and intervene in someone's real (non-virtual) life? How does one weed out those who are posting outrageous questions and situations simply to create drama and get attention? How can people who are committed to bringing information to those in need combat a culture that seeks to keep young women ignorant of their bodies and so discourages honest, in-person conversations, leaving girls to turn to anonymous advisors online? A brief review of other questions on the Scarleteen forums demonstrates that there are many, many underinformed young women out there. These girls obviously have questions. The problem lies in whether or where they are going to get real, honest answers (online or not), and how equipped the online community is to deal with situations like Windowshopper's.

Some resources related to sexual health for and about teens and girls:
  • Ten Tips for Parents to Help Their Children Avoid Teen Pregnancy and Talking Back: Ten Things Teens Want Parents to Know about Teen Pregnancy(National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy)
  • How Do I Know if I'm Pregnant? (JAMA Patient Page - PDF)
  • Sexual Health (multiple questions and answers for teens from the Nemours Foundation)
  • Especially for Teens: Birth Control (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, via Medem)
  • Homosexuality: Facts for Teens, STDs: Learn How to Protect Yourself, Sex: Take Time to Make the Right Decision, and What to Do if You Are Raped (American Academy of Family Physicians)
  • Sexual Health Glossary
  • (sexual health and STD info for teens from the American Social Health Association)
  • Human Sexuality: What Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It (Planned Parenthood)
  • Making Health Sexual Decisions and Your First Pelvic Exam: A Guide for Teens (Center for Young Women's Health: Children's Hospital Boston)
  • How a Woman's Reproductive System Works (Association of Reproductive Health Professionals)
  • State policies on minors' access to sexual and reproductive health services (Guttmacher Institute)
  • For Teens and Young Women (links to a lot of sexual health information from the Feminist Women's Health Center)
  • Helping Yourself, Helping Others (sexual assault info from the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network)
  • (resource for teens on recognizing and stopping relationship violence)
  • SEX, ETC., A Website By Teens For Teens

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    MeSH Tags: Sexual Behavior AND Adolescent

    Blogger Kat Coble said...

    Sassy magazine came out when I was a teenager. They were frank and honest in the way they dealt with sexuality, and I really appreciated it. They actually played a small part in my deciding to not have sex with my boyfriend, because they were honest about some of the physical complications that other sources gloss over.

    Parents complained and the magazine toned it down. Which really made me angry.

    I'm always for as much information as possible.

    10:21 AM  
    Blogger Rachel said...

    I loved Sassy, until it became "glossy" content-wise and certainly toned down. The first issue I received in the mail featured results of a survey about sex. There is nothing like it out there today that I've seen.

    11:26 AM  

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