Levi Johnston: Victim in the Spotlight?

Sarah Seltzer

As amusing as the Sarah Palin family circus may seem to gleeful liberals, there is something sad about it too. How many lives have been ruined by the kind of high-minded, impractical approach to sex that Sarah Palin's party pushed?

As amusing and ironic as the Sarah Palin family circus may
seem to gleeful liberals, there is something sad about it too. How many
lives have been ruined by the kind of high-minded, impractical approach to sex that
Sarah Palin’s party pushed on the country, an approach that failed her own
family? 

The Internet is buzzing over Levi Johnston’s appearance on
Tyra yesterday to "break his silence," and providing us all with a
reminder that patriarchal policies like abstinence-only education hurt young
men, too. Bill Maher jokingly tried to hawk "Free Levi" paraphernalia
on his show during the original Bristol-Levi news cycle. It was silly, but it
has rung increasingly true. Both Bristol and Levi were victims. Neither Bristol
nor Levi had much in the way of agency: they were paraded on the floor
of the Republican National Convention like the crown prince and princess of
promiscuous teenagers taking their lumps. 

Now both of their renegade media appearances seem like an
attempt to wrest back some control over their own lives. 
Levi’s woeful, confused face throughout the entire Tyra show, combined
with Bristol’s media appearances, in which she’s said she wished this had all
happened ten years down the road and that "abstinence isn’t realistic" have revealed
that their relationship was hardly the paragon of keeping-the-baby "family
values" that the Palin campaign pretended.  First of all, the two of them didn’t make one
momentary mistake. They were having sex on the regular, a fact of which Sarah Palin
may have been aware: "I’m pretty sure she probably knew," Levi told
Banks.  They were also using protection
"most of the time" in Levi’s words, after being pressed repeatedly by
Banks. 

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Now that the baby is born and the rosy glow of their teenage
love affair has faded, there’s a rift between the families and everyone looks
miserable and accusatory. According to Levi’s family, it partially stems from a
frost between Bristol and Levi’s sister Mercede. Mercede, it would seem, still
hangs around with Levi’s exes, a fact which Bristol does not appreciate. This
has made it harder for Levi to spend time with his son. In fact, the Johnstons,
feeling shut out of baby Tripp’s life, might sue for joint custody! Add in
Levi’s regret over his engagement-ring tattoo and you can cue up the obligatory
Jerry Springer joke. 

Except this isn’t even a Springer-worthy tale. Instead, is a
fairly typical small-time drama that’s simply been exploited several times over
and made worse – first by a culture that didn’t arm the teens with the information
they needed, then by the Republican party, then by a maelstrom of TV and news
attention. 

Bristol, a politician’s daughter, seems to have a burgeoning
pose and knowledge of the impact of her words. But Levi seems most interested
in making sure people don’t spread rumors about his family and he gets to see
his child more often. Politics seem to hold little sway over his life. Levi
described to Banks how intensely overwhelmed he was during his appearance at
the Republican National Convention and seemed puzzled when Banks asked him
about Sarah Palin’s championing of abstinence-only policies. He didn’t seem to
know much of what she was talking about. 
For Levi, the lofty rhetoric of politicians urging purity and abstinence
and old-school values clearly means far less than the day-to-day realities of
his life, which at the moment consist of his sister and ex-girlfriend sparring
with each other, his relationship with his son in the crossfires. 

It shouldn’t be shocking that teenagers – parents or not – are
acting cliquey and telling tales about each other. It shouldn’t be
shocking that they are having sex either. It’s all fairly natural behavior for
the age, whether the 18 year olds are freshmen at an Ivy League campus or
living in a small town in Alaska. 

It’s natural for teenagers to get tattoos that they’ll
erase, swear to love their partners forever and then break up with them, and do
things before they’re ready. That’s why the more information we give them, the
better, why things like emergency contraception, counseling, and comprehensive
education are so vital. 

But Palin’s party and Palin’s rhetoric whitewash this
reality.  It’s not natural that teenagers should be held up – forced – to appear to be
something they’re not, models of sexual self-control without sexual
information, example of marriage as a face-saving necessity rather than a
choice made out of love. But that’s what happened to these two. 

Sarah Palin has been complaining bitterly in public
statements about Johnston’s appearance on Tyra being exploitative. But she
exploited both him and her own daughter first. And we shouldn’t put the blame
squarely on Palin’s feet, either: her husband, her family, and the entire
Republican party joyfully assented to using these teenagers as poster-children
for a failed movement and joyfully assented to using them despite their clear
ignorance and inexperience. They’ve created a monster in this story, and now
they will have to live with the destruction it wreaks, doubtless leaving a
trail of havoc through more daytime talk shows and possibly even a courtroom
drama. It’s funny, but it’s also terribly sad.

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