As an independent organization without state, federal, institutional, foundational or corporate funding, whose services have always been provided to millions each year at absolutely no cost — not low-cost, not sliding-scale, but for free — sustaining ourselves has always been a challenge. For a very long time now, almost our whole history, we’ve made clear that we can’t sustain ourselves, and all our services, at only the meager level of support we’ve had to work with.
The kind of work we do is unsupported. Sexuality, sexual health and relationship education for young people, including additionally marginalized young people, like those who are LGBQA, transgender or otherwise gender nonconforming, those in or working to heal from abuse, those with disabilities, or of color and/or in cultures or communities deeply unsupportive of sexuality or sexual health outside very limited parameters, is unsupported. That is particularly so when our larger aim is happiness, autonomy and pleasure within our users sexual lives, not just a decrease in unplanned pregnancies or STI rates, or getting young people to Just Say No to sex.
It’s been challenging because providing good sexuality education to young people, particularly such a diverse population of young people, is a hard job, especially when you have to try and do that job while endlessly lobbying for the right and the means to do it at the same time. It’s been challenging because organizations with a lot of funding already convincingly talk about how little they have to work with and wind up getting donors they don’t need half as badly as we do. It’s been challenging to stay afloat because independent organizations and independent media like us are unsupported. It’s been challenging because for a long time, and sometimes still, people think that if most of the work you do is on the internet, it’s not real work and doesn’t cost anything.
For the fifteen years we’ve been working, we’ve stretched funds that have always been far less than we needed, and we’ve gone without a lot, including a consistent living wage for myself, our only full-time employee, an experienced teacher of nearly 25 years. Some years I’ve not only worked more than one additional job to support myself — often still working nearly full-time here — but have needed to put some of my own income into Scarleteen to keep it afloat. Our freelancers, when we can afford them, have always worked at a discount, and our hardworking volunteers only receive tiny stipends at the end of each year, if that: this is unacceptable and unsustainable. All of us who work for Scarleteen or do other work like this need and deserve more to take care of ourselves and to do our jobs well, on top of Scarleteen needing funds to pay for all its other costs.
Over the last few years, we’ve watched donations go from bad to worse, despite our traffic remaining high, despite adding more services for our users. Last month, we did our big once-a-year ask. Things went from worse to all-time-worst. Despite spending less than $1500 on labor for the fundraising, a very low cost for fundraising for an organization of our size, we barely broke even. In fact, only around 50 people donated in the whole last month; just fifty of more than 350,000 unique visitors who came to the site during that time, just fifty of the millions who use Scarleteen or refer people here in a year.
We’re deeply disheartened to announce that we effectively were able to raise nothing from this year’s ask. Nothing from the one big ask we depend on to keep going, whose returns, when we see them, are needed to pay for our basic costs so we can provide things people rave about day after day, year after year.
What we’re left to work with at the present time, then, is what we receive on average from donors right now, which only comes out to around $3,000 a month. That’s less than the monthly median household income in the United States to run a single household, when we’re an organization that serves millions each year; one of the few places online created and run expressly and solely to provide truly comprehensive sexuality and relationships education, information and support for young people, for free, and has been doing so for a decade and a half as a pioneer and leader in the field. That’s not enough for us to do all that we do.
In other words, we have kept saying that eventually, without more support, we just won’t be able to keep doing all we do, the way we do it. And now we’re there. It’s happening. We’ve stretched and stretched some more, as far as we can at this point: we just can’t stretch any more. We’re sex educators, not wizards.
With no radical change in giving and support immediately — and a change that is permanent, not just reactionary — Scarleteen as we know it, and as our users use it, may just be over.
Which is why we feel it may be time to strike.
Come May Day - May 1st - unless something radically changes, Scarleteen will begin a strike.
Striking is something we can try to stay afloat and get what we need in order keep doing all we do, not a skeleton of what we do. Striking is what we do, as teachers, as workers, when all other attempts at getting a living wage and reasonable working conditions fail. We’ve tried many approaches in seeking support over the years, and have worked hard doing so, but despite our best efforts, we’ve never had the level of response we needed.
We have discussed and thoughtfully considered what we have left to try, and that we can try within these limitations. Finally, though very reluctantly, limiting our services so that we only provide what we can actually afford seems to be all we have left to do. We’re hoping this is a way to do that, if we must do that, that will make it most likely to be temporary rather than permanent.
We don’t want to do this. A strike — and making clear now it can easily be avoided with an increase in individual support — is simply all we feel we have left to do to make clear we’re not cracking foxy when we say we can only do what we have the support and funds to do and to respond to the limits a lack of support presents. When you can’t pay the electric bill, the lights eventually get shut off. If we can’t pay our bills, our lights, both literal and symbolic, eventually will have to get shut off, too.
Making some of our most essential and important services go dark is the very last thing any of us here want: we’re gutted by this possibility. We love our work, even when it’s hard. We understand more than most how necessary it is. We absolutely do not want to leave young people without what we do. But we can’t do the work without the support needed to sustain it.
What would a Scarleteen strike involve?
We would cut what we currently do to only what we can sustain with the funding we have to work with. In other words, we’d only spend what we have to spend.
With only $3,000 each month to work with, that means shutting down all our direct services — our active, moderated message boards, SMS service and our live chat, as well as the advice columns — and halting the creation and release of any new content. We will need to stop doing or scheduling any in-person outreach which we would normally provide for free or at very low cost. Our social media, save that pertaining to the strike, will also go dark. The amount of funding we have to work presently, should nothing change, only really allows us to maintain our small office and what we’ve already created in the past online, allows only the level of traffic we have now to access it, to troubleshoot and fix any minor tech issues that arise, and to make updates to existing content to keep it current and correct, and only allows for a fair wage for just one employee, part-time.
We don’t have a picket line to stand on, so if we strike, we will publish a strike blog to keep these issues and our need visible each day to try and end the strike as quickly as possible. That will be the only new content we create while we strike.
While we’re hoping it does not come to striking at all, if it does, we’ll also blog not just about what we need to do our jobs and the challenges in sustaining them, but about the larger issue: sexuality education and educators — particularly those serving youth or otherwise marginalized groups, and particularly those providing truly comprehensive, interactive and progressive sex ed — are all undersupported.
We will also not stop doing all we can to try and seek out and raise funds on our own, spending time we would normally be spending providing users for services instead, like applying for grants and seeking out other sources of funding. This isn’t about us giving up: we are not giving up. Even if a strike doesn’t resolve this, we will likely keep working to try and find what we need until we can turn our services back on and sustain them. If we can’t get support from crowdfunding — however disheartening that will be given the giant crowd we have served and benefitted, a crown made of tens of millions of people over the years — we will keep on looking for alternatives. Anyone who knows us and what we do knows how deeply dedicated and committed we are to doing this work and providing what we do: that has not changed.
This also isn’t just about us. It’s not just Scarleteen struggling. When indie organizations that provided amazing services like YWEP can’t get enough funding to keep their doors open, something is seriously wrong. When domestic or sexual violence centers that provide most of the services to those who need their help struggle to stay open, but big orgs can flourish whose primary work is just sending those folks more people to serve — usually without sharing their funding, no less — it’s bad. When most of the talented, educated and motivated young sexuality educators trying to come into the field can’t find even one full-time job that pays the same as cashiering at the grocery store, or, worse still, can only do the work they’re so qualified and motivated to do for free, it’s so bad. When most of the people we know who have been working hard in the field for decades can’t pay their rents or do this work without other jobs or a spouse or partner supporting them financially, it’s messed up. When this field barely allows for people with the most privilege to work in it, let alone anyone with less, a diversity we and all of those we serve very much need, it’s bad. Some people get paid to talk about how we need sex ed or how sex educators should be educating while many of us actually doing the work either can’t get paid or get paid a fraction of what a person does to talk about how needed we are. That’s bogus. And when we have to spend more and more of our time as educators trying to work, instead, as fundraisers, which takes us away from the actual, valuable work we want to be doing, are supposed to be doing and are trying to raise funds for in the first place, it’s not just bad, it’s outright ridiculous.
The state of all quality sexuality education remains in crisis. And it’s not just about the neverending argument about if people are providing comprehensive, factual education or not: it’s about anyone having the ability to even have a place and a means with which to provide that education in the first place and also sustain themselves in the most basic ways. For all any of us hear people arguing or fighting for the kinds of sex ed they want, or they want for young people, we rarely, if ever, seem to hear anyone even consider who is going to pay for it.
If good sexuality education is something people earnestly want — not just something they want to give lip service to — it’s got to be something everyone actively pitches in to support. If it’s something you want right now, or in at least the next couple of decades, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.
What do we need to avoid a strike?
We need a stable, sustained increase in donations by at least 50%. That means we need at least an extra $3,000 a month, every month. We need to see that change no later than May 1st.
If that sounds like a lot, consider that we’re asking for an increase from an outrageously low amount of funding to work with to…well, a somewhat less outrageously low amount. You’d be hard-pressed to find an organization with the level of quality, service and reach we have, doing all we do, without at least ten times the funding.
Consider this: if in just one day of our lowest traffic, just 2% of those visitors (which is only about 300 people), or those who referred them here, gave $10 every month? We would have that 50% increase in our funding. Boom. If twice that many people — which is still a very small number of people compared to how many we serve and benefit — gave, or that same number gave $20 each month rather than $10? We’d not only have what we needed to get back on our feet, with all of our services active, but would finally have a chance to really be solid on our feet in the first place, something we’ve yet to experience.
It’s fairly popular with asks like this to talk about asking people to give back. But we’re not actually asking that people who benefit, have benefitted or could benefit from what we do — our users, alumni, parents, healthcare providers, other kinds of educators, individuals and organizations who refer people to Scarleteen because they cannot or do not want to do the job we do — give something back. We’re asking people to give what they can so we can keep on giving all that we can.
So, what can you do?
You can donate. Even just a few bucks can help a whole lot, especially if a lot of people step up and give that few bucks. To donate, just click over right here, or here, and pitch in whatever you can. A recurring monthly donation is most ideal, because then we can have consistent funding we can reliably plan on retaining over time. When you donate, you can also be sure tell others you know that you have, why you have, and urge them to do the same. Don’t make supporting us or sex education a dirty little secret, something we know is unfortunately common: be bolder.
You can create fundraisers for us on your own steam — like house parties, auctions, percentages of something you sell for your living, matches from employers who match funds, bake or craft sales, indie concerts or cabarets or reaching out directly to people you know or suspect have the means to make substantial donations. Most of us are poor people: we don’t know many wealthy people, but you might. If you need information or a little help from us to do any of those things, we’re happy to provide that. We appreciate your support and help, and will always do what we can to help you make it happen.
We’ve had many people come to us over the years saying they have great ideas about how to raise funds for Scarleteen, so please, if you’ve one of those genius ideas, test your theory. We can’t do this all by ourselves: we need help.
If we must strike — and even in talking about the possibility of needing to strike — our hope is that doing so will benefit us but also start to create a real sea change in the support of all quality sex education and all of us who provide its labor; a change in how people talk about what they want in sex ed, and a change in awareness about what getting what is wanted actually requires, including support not just in word, but in deed. This has all got to change, and not just for us, if we really want better sex education, and for our global sexuality and sexual health to be something better than it is, we’ve just got to have and sustain good sex education.
All of what we do is vitally important to the young people who use and have used these services. They asked us to step up, so we stepped up for them, and want to keep on doing it. To do that, we need you to step up, too. Given how relatively small the help we are asking for is compared to how large our service and reach is and has been, we shouldn’t have to strike, as we should easily be able to get the modest support we need. We know seeing a turnaround in the next two months, even just the next few weeks, is doable…so long as people step up and pitch in, rather than just talking about it, or figuring someone else will so they don’t need to.
When it comes to sex ed, here or elsewhere, we all need to pitch in in the ways that we can. We’ve been doing what we can to do that. We’re asking you to do what you can, too.