Australia’s leading international student news website

SEXtember: Scarleteen – sex ed for the real world

Grace Yew

Thu Sep 27 2012


SCARLETEEN.COM cuts through all the jargon and scary health warnings to deliver easy-to-read – and dare we say fun – tips and advice about sex and sexual health. Grace Yew speaks with Karyn Fulcher, a volunteer at the organisation, for more.

Karyn Fulcher stumbled upon Scarleteen while searching for advice on a pregnancy scare. The crisis turned out to be a false alarm, but she kept returning to the website’s forums to support others with similar difficulties, until she was invited by Scarleteen founder and executive director, Heather Corinna, to volunteer for it.

“That’s how a lot of our volunteers get started,” Karyn comments, “showing up with a problem of their own.”

“Once they’ve solved it, they stick around. That’s what happened to me.”

Established in 1998, Scarleteen is an independent (“and underfunded,” jokes Karyn) global organisation and website for healthy sex education. Most of its readers are between 15 to 25 years of age.

“Scarleteen is feminist and sex-positive,” says Karyn.

“We don’t see having sex as an inherently bad thing. It’s up to the individual to make decisions about their sex life.

“We also cover a whole range of topics like body image, relationships, and gender identity.

“We provide support for survivors of sexual abuse and rape, and get them connected with resources.

“If it relates to sexuality in some way, we can talk about it.”

When discussing sexuality with youths from conservative roots, Karyn and her fellow volunteers take a highly personalised approach, finding resources to fit different cultural contexts.

“We deal with everyone on a very individual basis, so we don’t have a one-size-fits-all model,” she says.

“We figure out what each person needs from us, and we do our best to find information that will fit their needs.

“I do think it can be very difficult to come from one culture and move to another one with very different values.”

The website also has a blog, staffed by volunteers, which often runs essay series such as 2010’s Queering Sexuality in Colour. Presently, the volunteers are working on a project in which they blog about their experiences in getting tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

But Karyn isn’t some gossip or busybody prying into other people’s private lives. She’s actually quite the authority on issues relating to sexuality. The candid, Canadian-born Scarleteen volunteer grew up in the United States before moving to Melbourne to complete a doctorate on the subject.

“I’m doing my PhD on how young people in high school talk about sexuality, gender and youth,” she enthuses.

“How they use homophobic language like ‘that’s so gay’, how it affects same-sex attraction among young people, and what it means to them.”

Other than answering questions and providing support on Scarleteen’s message boards, and contributing regularly to the website’s blog, Karyn manages the organisation’s presence on social media channels such as Tumblr and Twitter.

She collaborated with Heather on a number of articles, and is currently working on an individual series about young sexual health activists from all over the world. The first of the forthcoming profiles will be about a Canadian First Nations person who runs a sexual health network for indigenous youth.

“There’s advice on eating healthy and getting enough physical activity, but also developing positive feelings about your body…accepting the way you are rather than trying to change yourself,” she says.

Karyn feels that sexual health support networks in Victorian universities leave much to be desired in terms of catering to international students.

“There have to be more resources in different languages, and they have to be culturally appropriate,” she says.

“Student health centres should have staff who speak the same languages, who are willing to sit down and talk to students from different cultures about the cultural and sexuality issues that they face in coming to Australia.”

Echoing Scarleteen’s motto of personal initiative, Karyn encourages international students to stand their ground in the face of ongoing debates about appropriate sexual activity.

“Know what resources are available to you,” she advises.

“Figure out how the healthcare system works. Ask other students from the same country or area what they’ve done and how they handled the culture shock. How much do you want to hold on to the beliefs that you’ve grown up with, as opposed to the ones that you’re experiencing now in Australia?”

“Find what works for you, and what your own values are. It’s a lot of trial and error, but don’t let anybody else tell you what you should be doing. You have to figure out what you yourself are comfortable with, more than anything.”

For more information about Scarleteen, visit the Scarleteen website.