Women and Children First!

The subject is sex, and Heather Corinna wants to broaden the Internet's one-track mind

If you get to meet only one pornographer in your lifetime, consider yourself lucky if it's Heather Corinna. The 29-year-old Chicago transplant runs a suite of erotica and sexuality Web sites with a kind of zany glee, commanding her modest empire from the Grand Avenue walkup she shares with her husband, a multitude of cats, and a bunny. A year and a half ago, Corinna was a kindergarten teacher. Scarlet Letters (www.scarletletters.com), her quarterly "journal of femmerotica," was a side project, an outlet for her sexually tinged fiction writing and her personal interests in erotica and sex-positive nonfiction. Today, in addition to Scarlet she publishes separate sex and sexuality advice sites for teenage girls and boys--Pink Slip (www.scarleteen.com/pink/) and the freshly launched Boyfriend! (www.scarleteen.com/boyfriend), respectively--and her hobby is now a full-time job, though the constant demands and occasional rewards make it sound more like a crusade.

"One of the reasons why pornography is so infantile is because we makes things taboo," says Corinna. She laughs, then pounds out her next statement with mock severity: "We don't want this to be taboo anymore." Though she operates on the cutting edge of woman-centered erotica, Corinna's cutie-pie barrettes betray her as the sort who loves Hello Kitty with more earnestness than she'd like to admit. The décor in her home office is a curious mix of Chinese lanterns and South Park ephemera; her desk is strewn with condom samples and a review copy of the video Bend Over Boyfriend 2. Scarlet doesn't exude the polish and roster of celebrity contributors of a literary sex journal like Nerve (www.nerve.com), but it's a sincere effort nonetheless, bringing together alluring graphics, a gallery of art that favors shadowy nudes over clinical penetration shots, and thoughtful features--on the nature of kink, say, or the psychology behind a man's fear of being "crushed" by a fat partner--that at times border on the academic.

It's tempting to view the Internet as a realm of total freedom, where entrepreneurs are liberated from the shackles of bricks and mortar and ideologues frolic through a fertile marketplace of ideas unhindered by prejudice or government control. The Web's seductive amalgam of libertarian idea exchange and low overhead seems like a perfect fit for a young woman who alternately expresses grave concerns about the lack of quality sex education in America and jokes about dropping off a pot roast at the governor's mansion and introducing herself as "your local pornographer." But Corinna's two-year online odyssey has been a struggle.

Webmadam and femmerotica crusader Heather Corinna
Daniel Corrigan
Webmadam and femmerotica crusader Heather Corinna

Everybody knows about America Online's no-adult-material policy, but other services can be just as touchy. This past August one of the Internet's largest hosting companies, Verio, canceled Corinna's account only two weeks after she signed up. Corinna says she was told she'd been the victim of hackers and that the company could no longer handle the security issues that come along with adult sites. "Bogus," she contends. "We checked the logs--no one had hacked into our site."

A Verio official confirms that the company now refuses to host adult sites. Though the company wouldn't comment on its reasons for its sudden policy switch, it's clear that the rapidly increasing demand for e-commerce affords big firms like Verio the luxury to pick and choose clients. Genevieve Field, co-publisher and editorial director of Nerve, says her company recently lost out on some highly desirable office space in New York's Silicon Alley because the building's owner checked out the site, whose content is similar to Scarlet Letters. "We had it all set to go," Field says. "Then he saw that we had pictures of naked people on our site, and at the last minute he got cold feet."

By nature quick to laugh, Corinna can chuckle at how people misread Scarlet, but she gets serious when the subject turns to Pink Slip and Boyfriend. The former, which launched a year ago, grew out of Corinna's dissatisfaction with the quality and accessibility of sex information for teenagers on the Web. Part of what frustrates her, she explains, has to do with the way a search engine reads a Web page's metatags--text embedded by a Webmaster to describe his or her site's content. Corinna found that in addition to employing every imaginable vulgarity, adult-site Webmasters were using metatags like "human anatomy" or "sex help," squeezing out serious sexuality sites through sheer volume. The word "teen"--porn code for legal-age models dressed like underage girls--is omnipresent. Because most search engines list results based on the number of hits or the amount of traffic, a high schooler seeking legitimate sex advice is unlikely to find Pink Slip by looking for "teen sexuality."

Porn's white noise aside, Corinna scoffs at the preponderance of teen sexuality sites that seem to adhere to the notion that only adults have sex. "Whatever these kids are doing, even if it's just kissing, it's sex," she says. "It's not something else just because they're not adults." She applauds Planned Parenthood's teenwire.com, for example--but with reservations. "It's full of trouble," she argues. "It's the kind of place you go when you're already pregnant or you already have an STD." (Indeed, the first hyperlink one encounters at teenwire is labeled "yikes!") By contrast, information at Pink Slip and Boyfriend! is dispensed with flip humor--a penis quiz in the current issue of Boyfriend! is titled, "Do You Know Dick?"--and the guidance is free of judgment. Thanks to the anonymity afforded by the Web, kids can get advice on how to roll on a condom or whether it's time to lose their virginity without worrying about embarrassing themselves in front of peers or parents.

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