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.

Commentary Sexual Health

Fewer Young People Are Getting Formal Sex Education, But Can a New Federal Bill Change That?

Martha Kempner

Though the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act has little chance of passing Congress, its inclusive and evidence-based approach is a much-needed antidote to years of publicly funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which may have contributed to troubling declines in youth knowledge about sexual and reproductive health.

Recent research from the Guttmacher Institute finds there have been significant changes in sexuality education during the last decade—and not for the better.

Fewer young people are receiving “formal sex education,” meaning classes that take place in schools, youth centers, churches, or community settings. And parents are not necessarily picking up the slack. This does not surprise sexuality education advocates, who say shrinking resources and restrictive public policies have pushed comprehensive programs—ones that address sexual health and contraception, among other topics—out of the classroom, while continued funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs has allowed uninformative ones to remain.

But just a week before this research was released in April, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA). If passed, REHYA would allocate federal funding for accurate, unbiased sexuality education programs that meet strict content requirements. More importantly, it would lay out a vision of what sexuality education could and should be.

Can this act ensure that more young people get high-quality sexuality education?

In the short term: No. Based on the track record of our current Congress, it has little chance of passing. But in the long run, absolutely.

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Less Sexuality Education Today

The Guttmacher Institute’s new study compared data from two rounds of a national survey in the years 2006-2010 and 2011-2013. It found that even the least controversial topics in sex education—sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV and AIDS—are taught less today than a few years ago. The proportion of young women taught about STDs declined from 94 percent to 90 percent between the two time periods, and young women taught about HIV and AIDS declined from 89 percent to 86 percent during the same period.

While it may seem like a lot of young people are still learning about these potential consequences of unprotected sex, few are learning how to prevent them. In the 2011-2013 survey, only 50 percent of teen girls and 58 percent of teen boys had received formal instruction about how to use a condom before they turned 18. And the percentage of teens who reported receiving formal education about birth control in general decreased from 70 percent to 60 percent among girls and from 61 percent to 55 percent among boys.

One of the only things that did increase was the percentage of teen girls (from 22 percent to 28 percent) and boys (from 29 to 35 percent) who said they got instruction on “how to say no to sex”—but no corresponding instruction on birth control.

Unfortunately, many parents do not appear to be stepping in to fill the gap left by formal education. The study found that while there’s been a decline in formal education, there has been little change in the number of kids who say they’ve spoken to their parents about birth control.

Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, told Rewire that this can lead to a dangerous situation: “In the face of declining formal education and little discussion from their parents, young people are left to fend for themselves, often turning to their friends or the internet-either of which can be fraught with trouble.”

The study makes it very clear that we are leaving young people unprepared to make responsible decisions about sex. When they do receive education, it isn’t always timely: It found that in 2011-2013, 43 percent of teen females and 57 percent of teen males did not receive information about birth control before they had sex for the first time.

It could be tempting to argue that the situation is not actually dire because teen pregnancy rates are at a historic low, potentially suggesting that young people can make do without formal sex education or even parental advice. Such an argument would be a mistake. Teen pregnancy rates are dropping for a variety of reasons, but mostly because because teens are using contraception more frequently and more effectively. And while that is great news, it is insufficient.

Our goals in providing sex education have to go farther than getting young people to their 18th or 21st birthday without a pregnancy. We should be working to ensure that young people grow up to be sexually healthy adults who have safe and satisfying relationships for their whole lives.

But for anyone who needs an alarming statistic to prove that comprehensive sex education is still necessary, here’s one: Adolescents make up just one quarter of the population, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate they account for more than half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that occur each year in this country.

The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act

The best news about the REHYA is that it takes a very broad approach to sexuality education, provides a noble vision of what young people should learn, and seems to understand that changes should take place not just in K-12 education but through professional development opportunities as well.

As Advocates for Youth explains, if passed, REHYA would be the first federal legislation to ever recognize young people’s right to sexual health information. It would allocate funding for education that includes a wide range of topics, including communication and decision-making skills; safe and healthy relationships; and preventing unintended pregnancy, HIV, other STIs, dating violence, sexual assault, bullying, and harassment.

In addition, it would require all funded programs to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and to meet the needs of young people who are sexually active as well as those who are not. The grants could also be used for adolescents and young adults in institutes of higher education. Finally, the bill recognizes the importance of teacher training and provides resources to prepare sex education instructors.

If we look at the federal government’s role as leading by example, then REHYA is a great start. It sets forth a plan, starts a conversation, and moves us away from decades of focusing on disproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In fact, one of the fun parts of this new bill is that it diverts funding from the Title V program, which received $75 million dollars in Fiscal Year 2016. That funding has supported programs that stick to a strict eight-point definition of “abstinence education” (often called the “A-H definition”) that, among other things, tells young people that sex outside of marriage is against societal norms and likely to have harmful physical and psychological effects.

The federal government does not make rules on what can and cannot be taught in classrooms outside of those programs it funds. Broad decisions about topics are made by each state, while more granular decisions—such as what curriculum to use or videos to show—are made by local school districts. But the growth of the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach and the industry that spread it, researchers say, was partially due to federal funding and the government’s “stamp of approval.”

Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute and a co-author of its study, told Rewire: “My sense is that [government endorsement] really spurred the proliferation of a whole industry and gave legitimacy—and still does—to this very narrow approach.”

The money—$1.5 billion total between 1996 and 2010—was, of course, at the heart of a lot of that growth. School districts, community-based organizations, and faith-based institutions created programs using federal and state money. And a network of abstinence-only-until-marriage organizations grew up to provide the curricula and materials these programs needed. But the reach was broader than that: A number of states changed the rules governing sex education to insist that schools stress abstinence. Some even quoted all or part of the A-H definition in their state laws.

REHYA would provide less money to comprehensive education than the abstinence-only-until-marriage funding streams did to their respective programs, but most advocates agree that it is important nonetheless. As Jesseca Boyer, vice president at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), told Rewire, “It establishes a vision of what the government could do in terms of supporting sex education.”

Boonstra noted that by providing the model for good programs and some money that would help organizations develop materials for those programs, REHYA could have a broader reach than just the programs it would directly fund.

The advocates Rewire spoke with agree on something else, as well: REHYA has very little chance of passing in this Congress. But they’re not deterred. Even if it doesn’t become law this year, or next, it is moving the pendulum back toward the comprehensive approach to sex education that our young people need.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify Jesseca Boyer’s position at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

Analysis Violence

‘Sing Our Rivers Red’ March Casts New Light on Intergenerational Crisis

Mary Annette Pember

On February 23, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a $100 million, three-year strategy to begin inquiries into the roots of violence against Indigenous women. Grassroots groups are asking why the United States has not responded to this crisis by allocating more resources to investigate violent acts on its soil.

This is the first installment of a series published in partnership with Indian Country Today about the missing and murdered Native women in the United States and Canada. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

Valentine’s Day in Fargo, North Dakota, was cold this year: It was snowing and the wind blew sharply. A small group of about 12 to 14 Native American women and supporters, however, silently walked along a path under the Veterans Memorial Bridge and made their way up snow-covered stairs to the top of the bridge, where the cars pass by. Despite the biting cold, they stood quietly in prayer before sprinkling handfuls of tobacco into the icy waters of the Red River.

To the casual observer it was a humble ritual, held in a remote place. But many tribes believe that offering tobacco to the earth or water carries prayers to the Creator.

Valentine’s Day has become the official day for Native women to recognize and memorialize the missing and murdered women and girls whom they believe government leaders in the United States and Canada too often ignore. They began holding an annual march in 1992, after an Indigenous woman was found murdered and dismembered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood.

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For Native communities, the border between the United States and Canada is nonexistent; many tribal communities, including Blackfeet, Ojibwe, and Mohawk, straddle the border and have members in both the United States and Canada. They are asking why only Canadian officials have begun exploring violence against Native women.

Canadian Indigenous women’s groups began calling attention to the high rates of missing and murdered women and girls in the 1990s, when Indigenous women and girls started going missing along the now-dubbed Highway of Tears, a 450-mile length of the Yellowhead Highway 16 in British Columbia. Between 1989 and 2006, nine women were found murdered or went missing along the highway, which passes through and near about a dozen small First Nations communities.

Many Indigenous people believe that the number is actually much higher: Indigenous people often resort to hitchhiking along the remote highway that has little public transportation.

The infamous Pickton case, in which Robert William Pickton of British Columbia was convicted of six murders, though he has been accused of killing some 49 women by many in the community, brought international attention to the high rates of violence against Indigenous women in Canada. Many of Pickton’s victims were Indigenous women who frequented Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood known for drugs and sex work. Although the murders began in the 1990s, Pickton was not arrested until 2002.

The Pickton case, as well as the Highway of Tears murders, were pivotal in inspiring Indigenous women’s grassroots groups to organize in calling attention to what they maintain has been a longstanding trend by Canadian law enforcement to overlook violence against Indigenous women.

In 2006, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) began painstakingly creating a government-funded database of missing and murdered Indigenous women. A 2010 report from the Sisters in Spirit initiative made clear that there was a direct connection between Canada’s violent colonial past and targeted violence against Indigenous women. It also suggested that nearly 600 Indigenous women had gone missing or were murdered in the preceding 30 years.

Although Indigenous women make up 4 percent of Canada’s female population, they comprise 16 percent of the women murdered in the country. They are also three times more likely to report experiencing violence than other groups, according to a 2014 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview.

According to the RCMP report, there were approximately 1,200 Indigenous women who were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012.

Organizations such as Amnesty International Canada, however, dispute these numbers and speculate that they may in fact be much higher.

Indigenous women’s organizations such as the NWAC confronted the Canadian government with the data. For years, lawmakers resisted calls for a national inquiry into the situation. In December 2015, however, shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election, the government announced that it would proceed with a formal inquiry.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced that the inquiry would begin with consultations with families of missing and murdered women, tribes, and grassroots Indigenous organizations. On February 23, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a $100 million, three-year strategy to begin inquiries into the roots of violence against Indigenous women.

Native American women note that there are many similarities between the United States and Canada when it comes to the ways in which Indigenous women have experienced violence.

Take Rita Burnette, for example. In 2002, the 14-year-old was killed by her then-21-year-old cousin, Kevin Brown Jr. Brown pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, “stating he beat Rita Burnette with his fists until she was unconscious and then left her in a wooded area near Naytahwaush” in Minnesota, according to local reports. Burnette’s murder, which was similar to the many Indigenous girls murdered in Canada, was one of the stories included in a display coordinated by the “Sing Our Rivers Red” project in February.

Native women in the United States have the highest rates of sexual assault in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. This is two-and-a-half times the national rate for other women.

And yet, the United States has not responded to this crisis by allocating more resources to investigate the roots of these violent incidents.

“If the U.S. had the same political and economic will as Canada to explore not only our rate of sexual assault but also our numbers of missing and murdered women, I think they might find them to be quite similar,” Lisa Brunner told Rewire. Brunner, White Earth Ojibwe, runs the Spirit First Nations Coalition that provides outreach and education about sexual violence to teenagers on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She was one of the coordinators of the Valentine’s Day march in Fargo.

Brunner vividly recalled a conversation with a teen girl on the reservation in which the teen noted that she had already discussed with her mother what they would do when she is raped. “We decided not to report it because nothing will happen and it would only make it worse,” according to Brunner.

“She didn’t say ‘if,’ she said ‘when.’ I will remember that as long as I live,” Brunner said.