Teen Pregnancy: Mixed Messages and the Responsibility Question

Jodi Jacobson

We keep telling teens to be responsible.  But to whom are the politicians, corporate do-gooders and celeb-vocates concerned about teen pregnancy responsible and for what?

Yesterday, my colleague Emily Douglas attended the Candie’s Foundation event on teen pregnancy featuring Bristol Palin, a handful of "celeb-vocates" and some experts, including Sarah Brown, CEO of the Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Her excellent post on that event can be found here.

Today, Gail Collins writing in the New York Times, takes on the mulitple levels of hypocrisy evident during the event, including that of a corporate actor trying to clean up its own image by "doing good" when it appears unprepared for what it is actually doing or the ambiguity of the signals it is sending.  She writes: 

A couple of years ago, under fire from critics who accused him of
dressing high schoolers like tarts, he [Neil Cole] established the Candie’s
Foundation, which fights teen pregnancy. And there he was on Wednesday
introducing the foundation’s new teen ambassador, Bristol Palin.

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Palin, she continues:

is not in any way to be confused with the new Candie’s brand spokesperson, Britney Spears. Bristol is the one endorsing abstinence; Britney is the one promoting “hot bottoms.”

Mixed message, anyone?  It’s a routine.  In seeking to up their sales, corporate giants from the fashion, media, and clothing industries constantly sell sex to adolescents as a means of selling products.  But then they turn around and say, "yikes, we didn’t mean that!" when the consequences of their marketing strategies feed into and amplify in adverse ways the natural curiousity and desires of teenagers to experiment with sex and sexuality.  To put the icing on the hypocrisy cake, they then hold forums in which they talk about abstinence and the burdens of early parenthood and no one talks about safe sex.  This recently happened as well in the movie, 17 Again, as reviewed by Amanda Marcotte.

In her piece, Collins goes on to underscore the hypocritical actions of the Palin family in its ongoing efforts to put their kids on the frontlines of shaping a "wholesome" image that continually seems to backfire.  Collins writes:

Surely, when it comes to combating teen pregnancy, the Palin
family has done enough damage already. What worse message could you
send to teenage girls than the one they delivered at the Republican convention: If your handsome but somewhat thuglike boyfriend gets you
with child, he will clean up nicely, propose marriage, and show up at
an important family event wearing a suit and holding your hand. At
which point you will get a standing ovation.

Now a single mom on the outs with the father of her baby, Bristol wants a new kind of happy ending.

“I just want to go out there and promote abstinence and say this is the safest choice,” she said on “Good Morning America.”

Because Bristol’s own philosophy seems, at minimum, tentative, it’s
hard to tell whether she believes that cheerleading for abstinence
should be coupled with education about birth control methods. She and
Levi used condoms, except when they didn’t. 



Her mom has said
in the past that she opposes “explicit” sex education, which kind of
sounds like … sex education. And while encouraging kids to wait is
obviously fine, the evidence is pretty clear that abstinence education
is worse than useless. Texas, where virtually all the schools teach
abstinence and abstinence alone, is a teen pregnancy disaster zone.
“It’s had one of the highest rates for as long as I can remember,” said
David Wiley, a professor of health education at Texas State University.

So this got me wondering about the responsibility question.  A lot of discussion around teen sex and pregnancy–or around sex plain and simple–focuses incessantly on personal responsibility.  The most common line I can think of is: "If you are going to have sex, accept pregnancy as the consequence," which from what I understand was the underlying message of the Candie’s event yesterday because Emily has reported here that no one really talked at all about prevention. And it seems no one really got real about sex either.

But why do we expect adolescents to be any more responsible than we are as adults, as political leaders, as heads of major corporations, or as celeb-vocates when we can’t own up to our own responsiblity to get real, speak plainly, and as I have heard incessantly at recent meetings, hear from and engage with teens where they are instead of talking at them?

How responsible is it for leaders, corporations and politicians to
constantly tell teens not to have sex, not to risk disease, not to get
pregnant, or to be responsible if they do, if we are unwilling to talk
frankly with them and hear from them about healthy relationships, consensual sex, about birth control, safer sex, partner negotiation, maturity and other necessary attributes not only of sexual responsibilty but of health and well being? 

Let’s face it. Even as a candidate, Sarah Palin gave mixed messages.  She’s a gun-totin’ ab-only supportin’ Alaska governor who also was a beauty queen, and who used her sex appeal unfailingly throughout the campaign, even winking at the camera to score points. 

Candie’s, now invested in teen pregnancy prevention, sells sex online in what can only frankly be called soft-core porn.  Go to the website and you will see a barely clad Britney Spears writhing across the stage and in the air on her Circus Tour, juxtaposed by images of lingerie, shoes, shorts and tops all intended to maximize "looking sexy."

This is only a small microcosm, of course, of what kids are subjected to every day.  I think most teens could make better distinctions about sex and personal responsibility even when subject to this stuff if we were frank about sex rather than lighting a fire in one section of a forest full of dry tinder, and then using dixie cups with wholes in the bottom to try and put it out.

It is pretty clear that from birth, we are sexual beings.  Learning how to respect our bodies, use them wisely, engage only in consensual activities and only when we are emotionally mature enough is not something that can be learned starting at age 15.  It is a lifelong enterprise.  But we are so awash in sexual imagery and the use of sex for marketing products and politicians but so bogged down in our own moral straitjackets about talking straight about sex, even to older teens, that we abdicate our own responsiblity to prepare children and teens–as individuals and collectively–to live safe, consensual and healthy sexual lives. 

Who is responsible to whom and for what?  Politicians want to garner votes, corporations want to sell products, and celeb-vocates want to raise their profiles and to be noted for their charity work….none of them wants to risk talking straight to teens about sex, birth control, disease prevention, gender stereotypes or mutual respect for fear of some "backlash."

Yet for the most part, while they are talking about teen responsibility 5 percent of the time (if that), many of the same corporations and celeb-vocates are selling sex the other 95 percent of the time, directly or indirectly. 

Before we get all over teens, let’s start with some adult responsibilty first.


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