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Rob Dobi/The Globe and Mail

Sierra Skye Gemma survived unthinkable childhood abuse. Now the loving mother of a teenaged son, she finds herself on a deeply personal journey to teach him a healthy attitude to sex in the age of online pornography.

I was raised with two extremes when it came to carnal matters: Christian fundamentalism and sexual abuse. As ultradevout Jehovah's Witnesses, my family went to church meetings three times a week; knocked on doors every Saturday, all day Saturday; and even spent two years as missionaries in the Bahamas "where the need was great." And although most JW kids get baptized as teenagers – when they are old enough to answer a whole book of questions with an elder, using Scripture – I had been so trained in rote memorization that I was able to do this by the age of 8. Throughout my biblical education, my mother and father never gave me any specific information about sex, but they made sure I knew to wait until my wedding day to do it; sex before marriage was among the gravest of sins.

That's what they told me during the day. At night, my father, who was an elder of the church and a stay-at-home dad, would secretly enter my bedroom, pin me under his great weight, and molest me. My bed unsafe, closets seemed better places to hide from the monster I knew, and I found ways to fall asleep almost anywhere: a loft, the living-room couch, a storage space. Hiding was breaking the rules, of course, as my father said to me, quoting 1 Corinthians 11:9: "For indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake." The violation of my mind and body began before I was in kindergarten and continued until my early teens. At age 15, I permanently escaped to Hawaii to live with my older sister, who intimately understood my desperation to leave home.

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Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that once I turned 18 and entered my first sex shop, I was immediately drawn to a graphic novel with delicately pencilled illustrations of young women kept as sex slaves – drawings that exerted a great hold on me for years to come. I was a young adult and had yet to unravel the effects of my years of trauma. The display of degradation and lust triggered something in me – something that tapped into the conflicting, harmful messages about sex that I had received from my parents.

*

Four years later, I gave birth to my son on a bright Monday morning. Although I was only 22 at the time, I was, needless to say, determined to do a better job than my parents had when it came to talking about sex and the body. Even when he was an infant, I would sing a little made-up song as I bathed him, naming every part of him as I ran the washcloth over his body, from his ears to his testicles to his toes. Soon after he entered kindergarten, he wanted to know how babies were made. When I gave him the simple answer – that a seed is planted inside a mom, and it grows into a baby – he demanded, "But how? How does the seed get in there?" And then I explained reproduction in detail.

In the ensuing years, my husband and I used simple language to discuss gender and sexual orientation with our boy; in fact, my son once returned the favour when he matter-of-factly told me about a gender-non-conforming child in his Grade 3 class here in Vancouver. As he grew older, and his questions more detailed, I vowed to be straight with him. "Yep, that's totally normal," I'd find myself saying. Or, "Oh, that's a slang word for 'vagina.' " Or, "That would be an adult toy used to increase sexual stimulation." And so on.

I make no apologies for being so frank with my son, and never have. To my mind, most parents rely too heavily on an assumption that they don't really have to talk to their kids about sex – that their children have plenty of access to sexual-health information. In one study, four of five Canadian mothers assumed that sexually active teens could get the information they needed at walk-in clinics, sexual-health clinics, or from a school nurse. Problem is, fewer than half of those adolescents had ever sought such advice. By withholding sex information from kids, parents give up an opportunity to connect with their children and to help them grow into healthy, sexually intelligent people.

*

Boys are far more likely than girls to watch pornography, which is not exactly the kind of sex ed most parents want for their kids. In one survey of more than 5,000 Canadian high-school students across all provinces and territories, 60 per cent of Grade 9 and 10 boys admitted to having visited porn sites within the current academic year. (That same study found that only 22 per cent of kids had ever discussed online porn with their parents.) A University of Alberta study found even more startling figures: that 90 per cent of 13- and 14-year-old boys have watched porn at least once; the majority of those visits were not the result of accidental clicks.

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I'd describe my son as a pretty average Canadian kid, which means he's almost certainly looked at porn. And while I'd describe myself as more open than your average parent, I feel I clam up when it comes to talking about pornography with him. In part, I think my reticence has to do with what might be called, charitably, a lack of coherent principles: I am an anti-censorship, sex-positive liberal; I believe that sex work, including the making of porn, is a valid occupation. On the other hand, I am a feminist with grave concerns about the sexism and misogyny on display in most pornography.

On a deeper level, I know that my unease has to do with my own rocky porn past, and its connection to the abuse I experienced. Truth is, although it took years of psychoanalysis to end my unwanted dependence on the illustrations of female exploitation in that pornographic comic book – spankings, chokings, whippings, and women being raped while strapped to beds or tied up in dungeons – even today I still find myself craving hard-core porn. Stuff that my husband refuses to watch. The kind of porn I don't ever want my son to look at.

So does this make me a hypocrite? I suppose it does. But what parent isn't from time to time? I catch myself cursing, but that doesn't stop me from barking "Okay, enough!" when my son lets a few too many swear words slip. I stress values of honesty and truthfulness, even though there are times I can neither confirm nor deny who ate the last chocolate-chip cookie. And yes, I might occasionally enjoy an adult movie with a glass of wine – okay, let's be an honest, most of a bottle – but that doesn't mean it's fine for my 14-year-old to go on a booze-and-porn binge just because, every so often, that sounds like my idea of a perfect Saturday night.

I am the mom, and my son is the child. And if that makes me a hypocrite, so be it. I've seen Cindy Gallop's now-famous 2009 TED Talk in which she explains how, as a mature woman who enjoys sex with younger men, she's become responsible for the "re-education, rehabilitation, and reorientation" of her younger lovers, men who have come to believe, to quote Ms. Gallop, that "what you see in hard-core pornography is the way that you have sex." My friend Peter, now 32, recently brought this home to me when he told the story of how, at the age of 12, he had his first exposure to porn. He still remembers the name of the video – Japanese Feces Fest – and how confused he was after seeing it, even though he was pretty sure that defecating on your partner wasn't generally considered an acceptable part of sex. I don't want my son to assume the conventions of porn (from machismo to money shots) are necessarily appropriate in a real bedroom, or to one day surprise an unsuspecting girlfriend with an unusual fetish he picked up from a movie, at least not without discussing it with her first.

Two decades after Peter's first brush with pornography, the combination of iPads, teenage tech know-how, and sites like Pornhub have vastly heightened the risk that such a surprise could happen. The largest porn-sharing website in the world, Pornhub is surely Canada's greatest contribution to video-enabled (some might say video-dependent) masturbation. Created and launched in Montreal in 2007, Pornhub provides – along with all kinds of vanilla films – instant, free access to endless depictions of extreme sex, all available to anybody who knows how to Google and pretend he's of legal age.

Vancouver psychologist Deborah Bell has worked with kids for over 15 years, and notes another alarming trend: Some young men are getting "so used to masturbating to pornography – that link becomes so closely tied – that they have a very difficult time having a normal sexual relationship." Even when they want to start having sex with a real person, in other words, they can't get or maintain an erection without making porn a part of the sex. Not so long ago, having difficulty getting it up was pretty much the last thing doctors would expect from a teenager. Not so, it seems, in the age of the Internet.

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And the wires connecting the brain to the penis aren't the only ones getting crossed – so are those that connect the head to the heart. Wallace Wong, a psychologist in the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development's Adolescent Sexual Health Program, counsels boys who have committed sexual offences. He has seen lots of what he calls "behavioural conditioning" issues among adolescents who are exposed to hard-core videos before they understand the intricacies of intimacy.

"What is love? What is lust? What is sex?" Dr. Wong asks. "They're not old enough or mature enough to distinguish the differences, so they will lump all of those things together, based on the relationship that is being presented in pornography." He points, as an example, to videos (commonplace in the world of porn) in which "the female says 'No, no, no,' and then the boy does something, and she suddenly says, 'Yes, yes, yes.' Kids will think that is how it is."

*

For years, I turned to that graphic novel compulsively, often several times a day. At an age when I was still sexually confused, still trying to understand the power of my sexuality, and still reeling from the fallout of a difficult childhood, its dark stories provided me with a strange comfort I could never quite comprehend. Although interest in and fascination with sexual images, even kinky ones, is a natural one, and not necessarily the result of having a past that includes abuse, I developed an unhealthy dependence upon that comic book's wordless world of sexual domination and degradation. I found myself daydreaming about the images, masturbating to them, sometimes several times a day – in my office at work, in the toilet stalls of restaurants, even in the car while driving.

I finally sought help four years after I first came under its spell. I did so not simply because of what even I could identify as my compulsive behaviour, but for a range of issues – including anxiety, depression, and panic attacks – that were surfacing along with other harmful sexual habits: from engaging in unprotected sex with people I barely knew, to slipping into a dissociative state during an otherwise pleasurable sexual encounter with a loving partner. I came to realize it was necessary to confront the very real traumas of my past, which had been slowly bubbling to the surface of my consciousness.

And so, once a week for three years, I underwent counselling with a therapist who specialized in sexual abuse. I talked through my childhood experiences, developed new ways of thinking, and mastered techniques to quiet my anxieties, subdue my panic attacks, and learn healthy sexual responses. I discovered that neither porn nor BDSM fantasies were problems in and of themselves; the issue was my harmful reliance on them. I had first come to porn from a place of misinformation and mistreatment, and I had never learned about satisfying romantic relationships or how to enjoy consensual, loving sex. Porn, then, had served to compound the problems of my past, instead of doing what it is also capable of doing: supplementing an otherwise positive sex life.

With the help of my husband, who did healthy touch exercises with me, I slowly came to achieve orgasm without looking at disturbing second-hand images. Within this new context of a reciprocal sexual relationship, I disentangled my past abuse from my present porn use. I still occasionally enjoyed the escape that porn could bring, but I learned to enjoy sex with a real person. I learned to be present in the moment, rather than wrapped up in dark daydreams and darker memories.

While I realize that my problems with it no doubt stemmed from the abuse I experienced, and that the allure of pornography may not be the same for a child from a loving home, I don't want to take risks with my kid. Porn is powerful stuff. And these days, its incredible accessibility online – where the dark and the weird are practically the norm – leaves me wishing I could build a protective wall around him.

But of course, it's not that easy. Most kids, my son included, have Web know-how that far surpasses their parents'. The Media Awareness Network, which has performed several studies on Canadian kids' use of technology, identifies age 13 as the time when most of them begin to develop "sophisticated" Internet skills – exactly the same time, it turns out, that they begin to crave more independence from their parents. Over 75 per cent of the kids surveyed had the skills to delete their Internet history, and 30 per cent admitted to doing so. And most kids know all about parental-control software, and how to get around it. In any case, I can't put parental controls on every computer my son will come into contact with over the next four years.

Don't get me wrong: I do think such software has its uses when kids are very young, especially during the tween years, when it can protect them from accidentally seeing something that they weren't even looking for. But once teens are old enough to understand how to work around those parental "controls," I firmly believe they only serve to make adult content taboo. Then, the porn surfing just goes underground, where it is more likely to induce shame, guilt, and self-loathing – all the stuff I've worked so hard to separate from my own attitudes about sex (and porn). And that, in turn, deprives my son of the real-life skills he'll need to critically evaluate porn and make healthy decisions about how to use it.

Besides, I'm not convinced that porn is intrinsically harmful. What matters is why and when and how you use it. As Dr. Wong notes, although all the boys he has worked with have come into contact with pornography at least once, "not all develop some kind of pathology or are acting out sexually. Some use it, saying, 'Okay, this is my own private stuff for stimulation. I only use it when it is needed.' " Adds Dr. Wong: "For many of them, pornography doesn't create a problem." That's the place, realistically – even philosophically – I'd like to get with my son: a place where the near-inevitability of his porn use is accepted, but where its darker powers are restrained, and its upsides may even be celebrated.

*

And yet, still, I worry about how the hell we're going to get there.

Part of what makes me worry is the fact that Internet porn almost exclusively involves videos, rather than still shots, of people having sex. I'm not exactly sure if it's legitimate parental paranoia or the firsthand knowledge I have gleaned (as an adult) of the lure of porn films, but I would be more comfortable if my sweet, teenaged son looked at good old-fashioned nudie pics, the kind my husband used to look at in magazines when he was a teenager.

And so, in my ongoing tragicomic wandering through the thickets of parenting, I get this wild idea: What if I got my son to start reading Playboy? Convinced I've found some kind of halfway solution to keeping him away from skin flicks, I nonetheless decide to double-check my logic. (After all, it's not so long ago that parents hid Playboys from their kids.)

And so I turn to Daniel Kline for advice; he's one of the rare men who works with teens in Vancouver as a sexual-health educator (the majority are women). When we first sit down over tea at a local café, he gives me hope that Operation Playboy isn't a half-bad idea. "Sex has a bit of art in it," he notes, and photographs foster sexual curiosity and creativity by leaving blanks that need to be filled in with imaginative details. Films, by contrast, present a script; even fairly innocent erotic movies can short-circuit the sexual imagination. The danger for young teenaged boys, who don't have knowledge or experience to fall back on, is that they can begin to follow those scripts without thinking them through. Sex, Mr. Kline argues, is about exploring your own sensual creativity. Porn films are not.

Suddenly Operation Playboy begins to sound like a truly legitimate idea. And just as suddenly, Mr. Kline lays out for me that it's not as easy as simply leaving girlie magazines on the vanity in the bathroom. For starters, he notes – and I know he's right – Playboy is "one of the most misogynist sources out there." The pictures in it may be more innocent than the graphic genital-to-genital action of porn videos, and the range of sexual proclivities the magazine explores, at least visually, is relatively tame. But you don't get reality in the glossy pictures of a porn mag; you get impossible bodies – often filled with plastic, rarely corrupted by hair, never touched by cellulite – lying passive, docile, and compliant to the desires of the male viewer.

An even bigger concern, Mr. Kline says, is the legality of providing illicit materials to a minor.

This notion rattles me to the core of my motherhood. And so I reach out again: this time to Jan Sippel, the abuse-prevention co-ordinator of the Vancouver School Board. Ms. Sippel stops Operation Playboy in its tracks: If a teacher ever found out that any adult had given pornographic materials to a minor, she tells me, the school would be obligated to act immediately. A social worker would be called in; there would almost certainly be a child-protection report. And, depending on the circumstances, there might or might not be further action.

Bottom line: I can't curate porn for my kid, even if I think it's for his own good.

*

Not only do most kids not turn to their parents with questions about sexuality; they also get precious little guidance at the one place charged with educating them about almost everything else: the school system. This is especially the case when it comes to teaching children about healthy relationships and sexual pleasure. Schools provide only the meat and potatoes of sexual health; they always skip the dessert. But of course, it's the dessert that makes sex so exciting and fun – and so fascinating to those on the cusp of adulthood.

Ms. Sippel, who also co-ordinated the development of the Vancouver board's sexual-health education program for elementary schools, is the first to admit that schools are "way behind in giving kids sex-positive information." And that, she says, is unfortunate, because when kids really understand sex and healthy relationships, "we're also giving them filters through which to understand pornography."

Porn, in other words, is just one aspect of a bigger problem with the way our society teaches (or doesn't teach) kids about sex.

In the opinion of Vancouver-based nurse and sexuality adviser Kristina (Cookie) Bain, I'm not the only one who's carrying around baggage about sex and porn. According to Ms. Bain, the generation of parents whose kids are now in their teen years is "harbouring guilt, shame, insecurity, and sex-negative thinking that is inhibiting what gets talked about in schools." The mechanics of reproduction, fine. Birth control, fine. Sexual pleasure? Not on the curriculum. And when pleasure gets ignored, you can guarantee that pornography won't be in the lesson plan.

Take the B.C. Health Education curriculum for grades 5 through 9: The topic of adult pornographic websites appears only once – in Grade 5, when teachers are instructed to have kids think about various risky or exploitative scenarios, including someone sharing Internet porn with them. You know what isn't mentioned? The words "orgasm," "masturbation," "pleasure," or even the word "clitoris," because, hey, what does the clitoris have to do with reproduction? In later grades, teachers are encouraged to deconstruct "sexualized media messages" – risqué ads, sitcoms, and the like. But porn itself is not talked about.

Not every province is as straitlaced as mine. Nova Scotia mentions masturbation in its sexual-health curriculum and acknowledges that "some young adolescents become sexually active … to express feelings of attraction and arousal," not just for the purpose of reproduction. New Brunswick takes it even further. Its curriculum defines masturbation and assures students that it's "normal if you do, normal if you don't." It also encourages teachers to ask students what they think of "viewing sexually explicit media" and whether there should be "more restrictions on sexual images … on the Internet." And it explains how a lack of communication can lead to unplanned pregnancy because "videos give messages that promote sex and the idea that 'it just happens.' "

And last fall, Ontario revamped its curriculum to replace an archaic, pre-iPhone, pre-tablet one introduced in the 1990s. Now, Grade 4 students will be told of the risks of sharing private information and sexually explicit materials; Grade 6s will learn about masturbation; and Grade 10s will explore how media messages affect sexual decision-making. Internet porn is mentioned only once, in Grade 9 – where it's given as an example of "harmful or undesirable information and entertainment." (Protests against the introduction of these realistic curriculum changes have already taken place, and are expected to ramp up in the weeks ahead.)

Although Canadian schools expect every kid to use online sources for class assignments and, so, to exist one click away from pornography, with few exceptions they're leaving students porn illiterate. Mr. Kline, for one, believes this "inability to teach porn literacy" is a bigger problem than pornography itself.

As someone who enjoys porn – but who knows her limits, and the difference between porn-fuelled fantasies and real, live, intimate sex – I couldn't agree more. There's no realistic way of stopping kids from watching skin flicks. We need to collectively teach them how to interpret them. How to understand them. How to be critical of the themes within them.

Ms. Sippel predicts that's not going to happen any time soon. Many parents, especially those in the culturally and religiously diverse populations of most urban centres, would be flatly opposed to any mention of porn in the classroom. "The school board," Ms. Sippel says, "must be sensitive to all kids in the class." There are simply too many parents in denial about what their kids are doing online.

Public officials across Canada may act as though they have all the time in the world to implement guidelines for counselling kids about sex and porn; in fact, time is of the essence. In the very years that adolescents are starting to check out porn, their brains are developing at a lightning pace. Dr. Jay N. Giedd uses MRI technology to conduct longitudinal studies of adolescent brains at the American National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md. Dr. Giedd argues that the changes that occur in the brain as a teen matures, combined with the "enormous plasticity of the teen brain," work together to "make adolescence a time of great risk and great opportunity." His research has found that, as children grow into teenagers, their brains start to form vastly more neural connections than in earlier years. As those connections are made, others are lost in a process called "pruning" that alters the adolescent brain in lasting ways.

Dr. Bryan Kolb, a professor at the University of Lethbridge and a member of the program in Child and Brain Development at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, further underlines the degree to which what teens do moulds their thinking, perhaps for the long term: "Your brain is not just produced by your genes," Dr. Kolb has written. "Behaviour can change the brain … repetition changes the brain." Of all the repetitive behaviours teenagers engage in, masturbation – and these days, doing it to Internet porn – must be pretty close to the top of the list. Although neuroscientists caution about "overinterpretation" of medical studies of the teenage brain, as a mother, it's hard not to wonder what physiological and neurological impact repeated porn use might have on my son.

*

In an era when porn is so easy to find, and in which schools aren't educating kids to navigate its powerful images and ideas, the onus, it seems, has circled back to where I'd long placed it: on me, as a parent, to guide my son. Marnie Goldenberg is a sexual-health educator and the writer behind Sexplainer.com, a blog that teaches parents to help their teens "be sexually intelligent and have healthy, fun, safe sexual lives." Given all my hesitancy and self-doubt about discussing porn, she tells me I've done one thing right for sure: I talked openly to my son about sex and sexuality well before his porn-viewing years. "Now that it's time to introduce some of those areas of concern about sexuality" she tells me, "it'll be easier to do, because you've already been talking about how great sex is."

And so I circle back to the advice of Daniel Kline, whose simple notion – "Sex is about exploring your own sensual creativity" – feels pretty close to my own attitudes. Simply finding the right words to talk to boys about porn, says the sexual-health educator, can be half the battle.

For starters, he proposes telling your kids that porn films are not unlike "a highlights reel from a sports match." Teenagers need to know there are going to be highs and lows to real-life sex; there are going to be times when sex is thrilling and times when it's not. But in pornography, as in that highlights reel, the clips "are all pieced together to make it look so intense. You get really emotionally stimulated by that: 'Wow! Score! Score! Score!' But you don't see all the complex negotiation that happened around that."

If your teenager has viewed pornography, he also needs to know something most adults know without being told: that the actors are actors, and that the scenes are staged. Male porn stars are almost uniformly good-looking and well-muscled, with a larger-than-average penis and the ability to stay erect even while they perform sex acts they don't necessarily enjoy. The women are unusually pretty and thin (except, of course, for their breasts), often have smaller labia and less cellulite and body hair than the average woman, and are willing to perform sex acts that many women may not relish (and that can come close to defying the laws of physics).

Mr. Kline also suggests explaining how porn actors are often positioned far enough from their partners that the camera can get in between them for closer shots. "But in real sex, sometimes it's nice to get really close and" – Mr. Kline pauses, laughing – "mash up against each other. That's a place where a lot of pleasure can happen." It sounds silly and simplistic, but if what teenagers know about sex comes primarily from porn films, they may not grasp something as basic as the intimacy and pleasure that can come from holding someone close.

Kids also need to know that porn utilizes stylized language that is not always used in real life. Not every woman is going to scream "harder, harder," even during rough sex. Many men enjoy gentle and playful sex. And while men in porn films often simply take what they want, in real life, consent is an essential prerequisite of sex.

Ideally, according to Ms. Goldenberg, parents should talk to children about particular issues before the kids stumble across them on their own. Depending on the maturity of your child and their use of the Internet, you might want to at least start a discussion about pornography as early as age 8 or 9, even if that discussion is just about how adult websites can "pop up" unexpectedly and what kids should and shouldn't do when that happens.

If your children have already entered puberty, and you haven't yet started talking to them about sex, then it is likely going to be more difficult to begin now. But far from impossible. And you owe it to your kids to try.

*

I decide to put some of the experts' advice to the test one afternoon and I call my son into the living room for a conversation about porn. Or at least that's what I try to do. With my computer sitting in my lap, I tell him about this "funny video" I found on YouTube. To his disappointment, it does not feature skateboard fails or LOL cats. Instead, Porn Sex vs. Real Sex: The Differences Explained With Food uses humour to contrast the fantasy world of pornography and the realities of actual sex, from penis size (demonstrated with the help of a cucumber) to female genital appearance (using three identical apricots for porn, and a variety of fruits for the real world). Pretty soon, he starts inching toward the door.

And that's when I remember something Ms. Goldenberg told me: Don't be afraid to break up discussions about porn into manageable pieces; the very fact that you're talking not just about anatomy, but about lust and pleasure, means your teenager will have limits to how much they will talk about all this, especially in one sitting. Look for moments in your day that can spark a deeper discussion with your children: from seeing a pregnant woman on the street to seeing two teens kissing in a park. When it comes to discussions of sex and sexuality, we've got to meet teens on their own terms.

I can't stop porn, but I can talk about it with my son. I don't want him to come at porn sideways, as I did, from a place of misinformation, confusion, and anxiety. What's more, I want him to one day become a considerate and attentive lover, like his father. It's up to me to guide my son through his coming of age in a porn-filled world, so that he can enjoy sex – and even pornography – as a positive force in his life.

Sex-ed resources

  • Sexualityandu.ca is a Canadian online resource for both kids and adults. It has a section for parents about “talking to your child about sexuality,” including what to do if you find your child watching porn.
  • For older teens who want to search for accurate and sex-positive information on their own, sexual-health educators recommend directing them to Scarleteen.com, which offers “sex ed for the real world: inclusive, comprehensive and smart sexuality information and help for teens and 20s.”
  • Dr. Kline recommends the books S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College, by Heather Corinna, the founder and editor of Scarleteen; and The Guide to Getting It On, by Paul Joannides.

Every summer, the Banff Centre – the arts, culture and education incubator – offers a handful of established non-fiction writers the opportunity to spend a month-long residency developing a feature story under the guidance of faculty mentors. The program encourages writers to explore new ideas in journalism and to experiment with creating a piece that might otherwise be difficult to complete.

Sierra Skye Gemma is a writer and journalist living in Vancouver, where she is completing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. In 2013, she was awarded the National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer. Sierra Skye is not affiliated with the porn actress of the same name.

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