The Complicated World of “16 and Pregnant”

Sarah Seltzer

"16 and Pregnant" rests on the same philosophy behind the anti-choice movement, and no number of glib announcements about safe sex and prevention can overwrite that underlying message.

This week, the second season MTV’s runaway hit “16 and Pregnant” came to a typically dramatic end, with a young mother who had to be taken in by her boyfriend’s family — after her own mom lost interest in parenting her. A night after the final episode aired, we were treated to a special reunion show hosted by TV’s favorite therapist, Dr. Drew Pinsky. Millions of viewers watched as young mother after young mother broke down, saying things like “I don’t feel like a teenager anymore” and lamenting absent dads, moms, boyfriends, and a life of balancing child-rearing with making school and finances work that was harder than anything they imagined. They urged viewers not to believe that getting pregnant would convince an errant lover to stay around while Dr. Drew reminded us of the social costs of teen parenthood, statistically speaking. On the whole, the message couldn’t be clearer: don’t do it.

And yet, as the show ended, their newborns were paraded out by moms and partners, and the participants waved these infants’ hands at the cameras while the credits rolled, returning the babies to the spotlight. So what is going on here? “It’s addictive, so it must be exploitative,” a friend of mine who watches “16 and Pregnant” — and “Teen Mom,” its spinoff — joked. 

Entertainment or Education?

Combining the kind of shouting, eye rolling and misty-eyed reconciliations typical of Reality TV “wrapup shows” with a ton of pop-psychology about “changing the cycle” and poignant reflections, the Dr. Drew special exemplified the identity conflict at the heart of the show. Yes, there’s a PSA or two about abstinence and contraception with every episode, but there are also ads for “The Hills” and “Jersey Shore.” So what are we watching? A genuine attempt to educate the public, or a chance to offer up contestants for our consumption, dangling before them the carrot of fame?

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I live-blogged the very first episode of “16 and Pregnant” for Rewire two years ago. Each week since, the series has focused on a different teen mother-to-be before, during and after the birth of her newborn. The show effectively demonstrates the brutal reality faced by these youngsters, with their money troubles, family troubles, health problems, relationship problems and the biggest problem of all: a lack of time to get it all done. “16 and Pregnant” has gotten props from advocacy groups for showcasing a serious side to the hip network’s reality fare. It’s meant to be a cautionary tale, say the folks at one of my favorite punching bags, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, whose philosophy for programming is that seeing teen parents struggle on TV equals automatic birth control.

The widely popular series gets weekly attention from entertainment blogs which have nothing to do with social issues, and has also spawned lively debate in the feminist community. Most of the this centers around the following questions:

  • Can a TV show actually prevent pregnancy?
  • Does it take advantage of its particularly young stars’ vulnerable position in life?
  • Does it actually glorify its young stars’ difficult condition by giving them instant celebrity and stardom?
  • Why does a show obsessed with the terrors of teen parenthood never depict the reality of abortion, given that many teenage pregnancies actually end at the clinic ?

All of these questions are hard to answer — just scan the comments thread at any of the above posts and you will see a thousand differing responses from feminist-minded viewers. But after catching up on the show with a marathon session (which quite frankly left me empty inside) I pondered the show’s effect on non-feminist-minded viewers. I wondered whether the educational message the show purports to embrace actually reinforced misogynist stereotypes for most of its audience, giving them the satisfaction of watching young, sexually active, often financially or culturally disadvantaged young women suffer, and suffer some more. That is the nature of reality TV, after all. Does the tradition of mocking and judging the “characters” on this genre of program go so deep that viewers will simply pat themselves on the back for not being like these women, then turn off the TV?

Reinforcing Norms

MTV reality shows are particularly notorious for a kind of distancing, ironic relationship between viewer and stars. “16 and Pregnant,” still features dysfunctional families, melodramatic relationships, fights, breakdowns and voice-overs which create riveting entertainment. The “reality” of the shows is manipulated to create a cast of victims, heroes, villains and a slew of confrontations and drama.

A reinforcement of racial, gender and class norms is hugely important to the reality show aesthetic as well. While there is some diversity in the backgrounds of the teen parents on “16 and Pregnant,” many of them clearly come from situations where they struggle to make ends meet (after all, if a teen mom could hire a nanny, it wouldn’t provide the drama the show needs to keep running). The onus is always on the teen fathers to “support” the family as well. Yes, some of the young moms are put-together and have loving, accepting families, but then they have some other setback. There’s a voyeuristic “see how the other half lives” aspect to the show which feels like the inversion of MTV’s other show with “16” in the title, “My Super Sweet Sixteen.” In the latter, viewers gawk at ultra-rich adolescents, often female, as they exercise their financial power to the point of absurdity. In this situation, we watch young women without privilege as life’s tribulations continually get them down. 

Message Gets Lost

In the midst of this twisted emotional dynamic between the viewers and the participants on such shows the educational message gets totally lost. These young women aren’t really there to teach us a lesson, but to entrance us with their stories. Condom usage was emphasized a bunch by Dr. Drew in the “reunion” show, but given recent studies that show how often unplanned pregnancies come from a failure to properly and effectively use contraceptives, it felt like far from enough. The fact is, we all know that scaring teens rarely deters them from common behaviors. As Amanda noted in a recent podcast, frightening kids about the horrors of teen pregnancy isn’t the only way to go:

…Instead of scare tactics, how about more positive ads? Maybe show women holding up their contraception method of choice and saying things like, “This pack of pills kept me from getting pregnant from age 16 to when I went off it at 30. Which means I got to finish school, get that dream job, and have a baby when I wanted with the love of my life.” Or, “If it wasn’t for these condoms, I don’t think I’d be traveling the world in my gig as a marine biologist.” Or whatever. Demystify the contraception, clarify that it works, and show the benefits of using it.

But a positive message wouldn’t bring people to the channel. After watching one young woman after another break down in public tears, usually due to the neglect of a father or a boyfriend or her own mistakes, I began to consider whether the show’s popularity comes from the way it allows us to watch people perform traditional gender roles, and it satisfies a problematic need to see sexually-active girls from underprivileged backgrounds punished and essentially broken. Judging from the comments online castigating the young mothers on the show, that may be the case. It’s the philosophy behind the anti-choice movement, and no number of glib announcements about safe sex and prevention can overwrite that underlying message.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”