Can We Shame Our Way Out of Teen Pregnancy and Parenting?

Emily Douglas

A glittery panel discussion about teen pregnancy prevention shames teens who parent, treats girls as sexual gate-keepers and ignores dating violence and sexual coercion.

"Vow: Not Now."  "13,000 teens pledge not to get pregnant."  Sound familiar?  These promises aren’t tag lines from an abstinence-only program.  They’re messages coming from the Candie’s Foundation, a supposedly pro-comprehensive sexuality education foundation dedicated to educating teenagers about the consequences of teen pregnancy.

Candie’s hosted a glittery panel discussion on teen pregnancy prevention today at the Times Center, featuring Bristol Palin, National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy CEO Sarah Brown, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Garza, actress Hayden Panettiere, and Seventeen magazine editor in chief Ann Shocket.  Candie’s had bussed in classrooms of seventh- and ninth-graders, who got frighteningly little in the way of solid prevention information and instead spent an hour hearing the panelists tell them how little they think and plan ahead. Over and over, the audience was told, teens think of a baby as "an accessory on their hip" (that was Bristol) or "someone to love them unconditionally" (Sarah Brown).  Palin and Garza, a teen parent and a former teen parent, emphasized how much work teen parenting is — a "24 hour a day job…you don’t have friends, you can’t go out," said Palin — but by the end of the event, after dozens of heavily-freighted allusions to "the moment" when teens get "swept up" and have sex, exactly no solutions, beyond abstaining, were on the table.

During perhaps the panel’s most bizarre moment, Panettiere forced a girl in the audience to tell her "what she feels most sexy, most comfortable in" and then, for our information, let us know that she herself feels more comfortable and confident the more clothes she puts on.  Is this "What Not to Wear," or teen pregnancy prevention?  More to the point, is this moral policing or teen pregnancy prevention?  The event evinced a prurient preoccupation with picking apart girls’ attire — Candie’s adopted teen pregnancy prevention as its mission after the shoe and clothing corporation "got heat," as Neil Cole put it, for its sexy ads — but no time for addressing what boys can do to make sure they are taking responsibility for safer sex and not pressuring their partners.  A t-shirt slogan in the event’s schwag bag even promises girls, "You can be sexy without having sex." Don’t worry: you can be both a virgin and a whore!

Sarah Brown and Ann Shocket injected some reality.  "Having a baby as a teen is really, really tough on the mother…and the teen father," said Brown. "Babies do best with adult parents."  Shocket shared interesting results from a Seventeen magazine reader survey that found that teen girls get pregnant when "sex just happens" without a plan for protection, when birth control isn’t used correctly, or when girls were afraid to insist on condom use. But that useful information went nowhere.  Contraception wasn’t once mentioned as part of a "plan," and while Panattierre did acknowledge that someone who’s pressuring his or her partner to have sex "has a problem," earlier in the hour Cole explained, none too politely, that the Foundation focuses on reaching girls because teenage boys are "dogs" who don’t "own up" to the issue.  Okay.  So we all acknowledge that girls can feel intense pressure to
have sex from boys — I think that’s called coercion — but the only
handy tip we have for dealing with it is telling girls to put on more
clothes.  Not one teen could have headed back to school with a plan for "the moment" — or a heightened sense of how gender stereotypes feed sexually unhealthy outcomes.

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Working to prevent teen pregnancy is an admirable goal, but not at the expense of shaming teens who parent or who are pregnant, heaping sole responsibility for sexual gate-keeping onto girls, and turning a blind eye to troubling reports of dating violence, sexual coercion and birth control sabotage reported among youth. If I wanted that, I’d talk to an abstinence clown.

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