Why We Need Bristol (and Levi)

Cristina Page

In her own roundabout way, Bristol Palin is voicing the core message of comprehensive sex ed: there’s no better protection against pregnancy and disease than abstinence, but teens those that are having sex need to use to protection.

This week, appearing in a Town Hall-styled press event, Bristol
Palin debuted as a teen “ambassador” for the Candie’s Foundation, the
philanthropic arm of the Candie’s shoe brand that raises awareness of
the teen pregnancy crisis. It was an unsteady first step, which pleased
those cynical about former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s
politically expedient version of her daughter’s pregnancy: Remember?
Bristol and boyfriend Levi are in love and will marry soon after the
election. Bristol and Levi are now broken up and seem to be doing much
of their communicating, they even seem to subtly be negotiating
custody/visitation arrangements for their son Tripp, on prime time TV.
Now that no one any longer has to pretend that the pre-election
fictions are true, there is a valuable lesson to learn. And, oddly, the
quiet girl thrust into the public spotlight as a result of a most
private of mishap might just help teach it. That is if Levi is invited

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On the morning of the Town Hall appearance, Bristol also
appeared on ABC and NBC, broadcasting maddeningly mixed messages about
teen pregnancy prevention on the nation’s most widely watched news
shows. She seemed to emphasize the abstinence-only approach to
pregnancy prevention on Good Morning America (“It’s important for me to get involved just to advocate and promote
abstinence and send my message out…abstinence is a hard choice but it’s
the safest choice and the best choice”) only to appear on the Today
show minutes later to admit that abstinence can be unrealistic for some
teens and they should use contraception (“If you’re going to have sex I
think you should have safe sex.”)

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I recognize I’m trained to listen for nuances in the sex ed debate.
I’m also twice Bristol’s age. And so it’s easy for me to slip into the
Simon Cowell role. No, she’s not polished. Hers is a kind of
witness-cross-examined-style speech—short statements which leave you
wondering what she isn’t saying. I’m not even sure Bristol realizes
that she’s been contradicting herself.

So at first listen, her message sounds way off-key. On a second
closer listen though, I started to hear something else. It sounded more
like a new, albeit unrehearsed and out-of-the-studio, style. In truth,
if her televised appearances this week are cobbled together, there is
definitely a message worth listening to.  Even comprehensive sex ed
proponents should be fine with what she’s actually saying. People who
favor comprehensive sex ed have reflexively shunned her. She has seemed
at times brainwashed by the group which still believes abstinence is
the only form of contraception a teenager needs to know. But in her
roundabout way, Bristol is in fact voicing the core message of
comprehensive sex ed which is: there’s no better protection against
pregnancy and disease than abstinence, teens should postpone becoming
sexually active, but those that are having sex need to use to

But prevention is not Bristol’s area of expertise. (That’s for
sure.) Bristol is much more interested in warning teens about premature
parenthood than putting herself forth as an expert on teen pregnancy
prevention. That, I think, is part of the reason why she sounds
confused when discussing what teens should or should not be doing.
Being a teen mom is her new expertise. This is where she becomes clear:
she wants to use her experience to help other teens avoid the same
fate. She explains, “If I can prevent even one girl from getting
pregnant, I will feel a sense of accomplishment.”

It’s on this point where Bristol and the Candie’s Foundation (which
supports both abstinence and safe sex approaches) have a truly shared
perspective, one that gets overlooked by the traditional teen pregnancy
prevention messengers. Bristol’s and Candies’ shared message to teens
is: you don’t want to become a teen parent.

The traditional pregnancy prevention messages have often missed
this. They have assumed teens don’t need convincing on that issue. They
assumed teens just need to know how not to get pregnant. But statistics
provided by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned
Pregnancy indicate that about one in five pregnant teens was trying to
conceive. For this demographic, messages about abstinence and/or
contraception are useless.

And so Bristol may be reaching an emerging demographic. Candies may
have found a powerful messenger in her. And let’s give her credit, hers
is possibly the most difficult of messages to impart. She loves her
baby, Tripp is a blessing in her life, though if she could have done it
over she would definitely have waited to become a parent—it would have
been better for her and her son. There are difficult emotional
acrobatics here, seeming contradictions that, to her credit, she
manages to present in a way that feels honest and understandable.

But there is one thing very important missing from the Candies
campaign. Lucky for them, the opportunity to fix that is standing right
before their eyes. What their campaign needs is Levi Johnston. And Levi
has something to say. Few have noticed that Levi has been trying to get
in on this important conversation. It may seem like he is just trying
to spoil Bristol’s day now that he is persona non grata in the Palin
household. Whenever Bristol is backed into pushing abstinence, Levi
pops up with a wry smile and a disclaimer: “It’s unrealistic.” Levi has
been taking to the airwaves himself. In fact, on the morning of the
Town Hall he got himself on the Early Show, in an unofficial capacity,
to discuss their unplanned pregnancy. He quite diplomatically praised
Bristol for encouraging teens to abstain but, based on his first-hand
experience, he encouraged consistent condom use.

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What this national conversation desperately needs is for teen boys,
like Levi, to be involved. How can we expect them to take responsible
steps to prevent teen pregnancy if we act as if they play no part? Levi
brings with him a great chance to make boys the stakeholders they
inevitably are. He also offers a unique perspective on the difficulties
of being a teen father, one that will resonate with boys in a way
Bristol’s point of view will not. It’s also worth noting that Levi is
as sought-out by the media as Bristol. He has the same humble, and
winning, way of delivering a simple message. He can balance out
Bristol’s warnings about Saturday nights changing diapers with a
pragmatic strategy for avoiding that fate. And, let’s not forget, he
needs a job. He’s also handsome enough (New York Magazine calls Levi, a
hockey player, “sex on skates”) to get girls to pay attention to his
pro-protection message.

These two are never gonna be slick, media trained, celebri-teens
with talking points and agents (Bristol’s entourage in New York was her
aunt, baby and Dad.) No doubt, Candies is taking a risk with Bristol
and would extend that risk even further by giving Levi an equal voice
in the discussion. But with great risk comes the possibility for great
gains too. The United States is suffering from a teen pregnancy
scourge—we have the highest teen birth rate of any other developed
country, and by a long shot. Teen parents are less likely to complete
the education necessary to qualify for a well-paying job — in fact,
parenthood is the leading cause of school drop out among teen girls.
College then becomes the remotest of possibilities. Less than two
percent of mothers who have children before age 18 complete college by
the age of 30.

Too often heartbreaking sacrifices are also foisted on the children
of teen parents. These children are more likely to be born prematurely
at low birthweight compared to children of older mothers, which raises
the probability of infant death and disease, mental retardation, and
mental illness. Children of teens are 50 percent more likely to repeat
a grade and are less likely to complete high school. The children of
teens also suffer higher rates of abuse and neglect (two times higher).

Teen parents and their children are not the only ones paying
dearly. Premature parenting in the United States costs taxpayers
(federal, state, and local) approximately $9.1 billion each year. Most
of the costs are associated with services to address the negative
consequences detailed above.

Bristol and Levi are bravely offering their intensely personal
misstep up for others to learn from. They may be at odds with each
other (another statistical likelihood they realized) but they are
united in their message about the not-so-glamorous life of teen

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