Analysis

New York’s Teen Pregnancy Campaign Quietly Gets Made Over, Still Misses the Mark

Lauren Rankin

When the Bloomberg administration unveiled its teen pregnancy prevention campaign last March, it was met with immediate backlash. Now the city has updated the campaign website, but the site doesn’t abandon all of the problematic language featured in the previous campaign.

When the Bloomberg administration unveiled its teen pregnancy prevention campaign last March, it was met with immediate backlash. Critics decried the campaign for its “shame and blame tactics,” and reproductive justice activists like the New York City Coalition for Reproductive Justice called for New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) to cancel the campaign and issue a public apology. A year later, neither have happened.

The campaign comprised of six print advertisements featuring distressed-looking infants with thought bubbles to represent their inner dialogue. Rhetoric like “Honestly Mom … chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” and “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen” made it clear that the campaign wasn’t about empowering teens with access to preventive measures, but rather about shaming teen mothers and blaming them for broader social ills like poverty and poor education.

But as City Hall has transitioned to the de Blasio administration, some subtle but notable shifts have begun to take place regarding the NYC HRA’s teen pregnancy prevention campaign. Most visibly, the original campaign website is now gone. When you try to visit the page, you’re told, “This Page is Not Available.” In fact, you can’t find the original campaign ads on the NYC HRA website anywhere.

In its place, the agency now features a website called Teen Link, which is described as “a place for straight talk on issues that affect New York City teens.” Teen Link is a welcome departure from the previous NYC HRA teen pregnancy prevention site, which was clunky and contained next to no accessible information about sexual and reproductive health care. The Teen Link site is simple and understated, and it makes it far easier to access information about preventing unwanted teen pregnancy.

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Teen Link has an entire page dedicated to the Family Planning Benefit Program (FBPB), a free state health insurance program for New Yorkers who need access to family planning services. This is a huge improvement over the previous campaign, which included no mention of the FPBP or accessible information about contraceptive care. Teen Link also links to the New York City Department of Health’s Teen Health page, which provides information on birth control, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and more. A particularly promising sign is that the page lists reproductive health-care clinics in the five boroughs, including abortion clinics.

The site also has a page about teen dating violence, which includes information for teens and parents on domestic violence, the varying types of domestic violence, and warning signs of an abusive relationship, among other information.

It’s unclear if the NYC HRA has entirely abandoned its previous teen pregnancy prevention campaign. The agency has not returned multiple calls for comment about the changes, nor have agency representatives spoken to other media outlets about the changes or what they mean.

For an agency whose previous campaign relied heavily on shaming and emotionally manipulative rhetoric but featured little in the way of information that could actually prevent unplanned teen pregnancies, these shifts are an encouraging sign. Prominently featuring information on the full spectrum of reproductive and sexual health care, including abortion care, shows that the NYC HRA is invested in prevention through information and empowerment.

Yet while Teen Link is a step in the right direction, it unfortunately doesn’t abandon all of the problematic language featured in the previous teen pregnancy campaign. The website has a page on “teen pregnancy facts,” which positions itself as straightforward and objective, but contains some of the same gendered language and shame-based frameworks that plagued the previous campaign. Notably, teen girls/teen mothers are mentioned 11 times on the page, while teen guys/teen fathers are only mentioned four times; the gender-neutral term “teens” appears three times. The messages sent on this webpage are overwhelmingly about or directed at teen girls or teen mothers, far more than being gender-neutral. This frames teen pregnancy as the fault of teen girls first and foremost—a reductive and sexist framework.

What’s more, the language used in the seemingly straightforward facts about teen pregnancy reinforce the gendered nature of teen pregnancy prevention. For instance, the page includes a common talking point in teen pregnancy prevention campaigns, including the NYC HRA’s previous one: “sons of teen mothers are twice as likely to end up in prison.” Notice the language: “teen mothers.” Teen fathers are conspicuously absent from this statement, and therefore exonerated from responsibility. Teen mothers are framed as at fault for their sons’ failure, for their imprisonment. There’s no mention of the school-to-prison pipeline for young men of color or the myriad ways in which our justice system punishes poor men and young men of color. The statement makes clear: It’s the teen mothers’ fault.

Teen Link also reinforces heterosexual marriage as a solution to teen pregnancy. The site states that “eight out of ten fathers don’t marry the mother of their child,” and goes on to call them “absent fathers.” To be an absent father doesn’t simply mean that you didn’t marry the mother of your child; it means that you aren’t involved in your child’s life. This fact is leftover from the NYC HRA’s previous campaign, which used the statistic alongside the shaming rhetoric in an ad that read, “Honestly Mom … chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” Simply put, this “fact” is meant to scold teen girls out of getting pregnant to force their boyfriends to stay with them. It is both paternalistic and reductive, relying on outdated assumptions that a heterosexual nuclear family is the normative family unit.

Both of these “facts” come verbatim from the Stay Teen campaign, which is linked at the bottom of the Teen Link webpage on teen pregnancy facts; the Stay Teen campaign partners with MTV during popular reality programs like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, and is a sister campaign of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. While Stay Teen isn’t nearly as egregious in its shaming and blaming as the NYC HRA’s previous teen pregnancy prevention campaign, it too is riddled with gendered biases and shaming rhetoric. Its tag line is “I love my life; I’m not gonna mess it up with a pregnancy.”

The NYC HRA has begun to move away from its previous campaign, shifting from overtly shaming rhetoric to increased access to information to family planning services. No doubt, this is a significant move; it represents the city’s commitment to increasing access to sexual and reproductive health care for all, including New York City teenagers. Unfortunately, some of the same shaming and unfairly gendered rhetoric remains. Until the NYC HRA completely abandons that, any teen pregnancy prevention effort from the agency still rests on shaky ground.

Commentary Family

Celebrating Young Motherhood During Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month

Gloria Malone

For many teenage mothers, May can be a challenging month to navigate.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

May is a busy month for advocates, between Mother’s Day and month-long campaigns around mental health and teenage pregnancy prevention. But for many teenage mothers, this month can be a challenging one to navigate. Not only do mainstream Mother’s Day images feature a very particular type of family and demographic, teenage pregnancy prevention ads usually depict teenage motherhood as the worst possible outcome for sexually active young people.

At this time of year, we advocates for teen mothers often wonder whom Mother’s Day is for.

I became pregnant and gave birth to my daughter when I was 15 years old, and ever since then I have been wondering in what narrative my situation was supposed to fall: the public health “problem” of teenage pregnancy or the possible celebration of motherhood.

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In reality, I’ve seen my motherhood acknowledged in less than flattering campaigns around teenage pregnancy. It’s hard for me to appreciate Mother’s Day when in the same month, and really throughout the year, people like me are targeted by elected officials, nonprofit organizations, foundations, those close to us, and public service announcements that say teens’ choice to parent is the cause of several societal issues.

We saw the juxtaposition of these two narratives last May, when Hallmark released a heartfelt commercial thanking mom “for her sacrifices” while the Candie’s Foundation continued the use of their ads in which teens are told they should “be changing the world … not changing diapers.” It’s as if parents—biological and chosen, teen and non-teen—are not changing the world every day even when they are changing diapers.

Given that teen mothers already experience educational pushout for being pregnant or a parent, our family members and friends judge us for our “poor life choices,” and we have the highest rates of postpartum depression than any other group of mothers, it would be nice to be able to fully enjoy the one day a year the nation comes together to express gratitude for mothers.

What if teenage parents received the same love and support other mothers get through ads and advocacy campaigns? What if teenage parents were told they are capable of making a difference in the world, and are doing so by providing the support their child needs, even with the odds stacked up against them?

To be sure, preventing unintended pregnancies is a worthy cause. The issues arise with the methods used and the month chosen to share these conflicting messages about motherhood. Teenage pregnancy prevention ads feature teens in ways that depict them as “DIRTY,” or our children in various states of distress.

Thankfully many former teenage and young mothers at Strong Families spoke out about their dislike of narrow and less than benevolent teenage pregnancy prevention ads around Mother’s Day, and Strong Families launched the Mama’s Day campaign in 2011.

Mama’s Day is a month-long celebration of mothers who are often overlooked and never represented in mainstream Mother’s Day narratives. Mama’s Day promotes the notion that “Mamahood is not one size fits all. All mamas deserve to be seen and honored in cards that reflect all the ways our families look.” One of the first Mama’s Day videos depicted teen and young mamas as mothers; people who embrace their motherhood not as a strike against them but as a marker of their strength and selflessness.

In fact, many teenage mothers wish that they would just be viewed as mothers and not solely as a representative of their age group or current circumstance. I asked Caitlin Shay, a mother of two who had her first child at 17, what she wished society would understand about teen parenting, for a piece I did for the health nonprofit Seleni.org. She said, “I wish society would look at us as mothers.”

May is already emotional enough for teenage mothers who might be dealing a myriad of issues, including state-sponsored kidnapping of their children. The least we as a society could do is replace stigmatizing ads with more educational, inspiring ones.

Commentary Media

Where’s the ’16, Parenting, and OK’ Reality Show?

Gloria Malone

The media’s bad job of reporting on teenage pregnancy and parenting has real-life consequences and effects on teenage families, including depression and generational poverty. By removing these stereotypes, and changing to more positive story lines and outcomes, people in the media can make it easier on teens to create thriving families.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

While they might never admit it, I firmly believe the negative ways in which the media—television, film, print journalism—portrays teenage pregnancy and parenting influenced how the adults in my life treated me after I told them I was pregnant.

When I became pregnant at 15, the adults in my life believed my life was over. In addition to explicitly stating this to me, they began to treat me differently and even stopped helping me look into colleges because they believed I would not finish high school.

These stereotypes about teen parents also affected my self-image and already low self-esteem. Thankfully, over time I was able to overcome my self-doubt and my family members got over their issues and started supporting me. But not every teen has the same experience. The way the media represents teenage pregnancy and parenting has real-life consequences and effects on teen families, including depression and poverty because of lack of support from society. By moving away from these stereotypes, and featuring more positive story lines and outcomes, people in the media can make it easier on teens to create thriving families.

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From films to public service campaigns, the representation of teenage parents is often inaccurate, sexist, classist, and racially biased. In order to change this, we must first examine the ways in which people in the media are doing a bad job and then look at how they can do better.

The media often focuses on female teens and their “inability to say no and keep their ‘legs closed.'” Public service campaigns like the one from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy have featured the words “cheap,” “dirty,” and “used” across photos of young women to emphasis the narrative that pregnant and parenting teens are associated with these characteristics. Along the same lines, the New York City Human Resource Administration’s pregnancy prevention ads featured a young Black child asking her mother, “[C]hances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” “Are you ready to raise a child by yourself?” the ad asks, putting all of the blame and responsibility on the mom. These narratives absolve teen boys of any responsibility for the sexual activity that resulted in pregnancy.

“Inferring that a young mother is promiscuous, that a young father just won’t be there for his child, and that they will forever ‘live off the system’ is harmful,” explained Marylouise Kuti, a former teen mother and young parents’ advocate who is part of #NoTeenShame, a national advocacy campaign—of which I am a part—that helps to counter the negative narratives of teenage pregnancy and parenting in society.

When teen pregnancy and parenting is presented as a “female problem,” the financial obligations and responsibilities are placed solely on the woman. If the pregnant and/or parenting teen is a Black or Latina female, these stereotypical narratives are compounded with racialized biases: long-term poverty, single motherhood, and low education achievement. While white pregnant teens are often awarded celebrity status (i.e., they seem to more often become the “stars” of MTV’s teen parenting shows), pregnant Black and Latina teens frequently see themselves and representations of their families in hurtful public service announcements.

Furthermore, as youth advocate Natasha Vianna told Rewire, “One of the biggest problems with the way teen parents are portrayed in the media has to do with where the media chooses to start the story. Teen pregnancy and parenthood has almost always been framed as the beginning of the end of a young person’s life, so we don’t get to hear much about what their lives were like before pregnancy—especially if their lives were much harder than [they are] now.”

In choosing to begin the narrative at the time of pregnancy, and ending it at the time of the child’s birth, shows like 16 and Pregnant do not show viewers what the life of a teen who is pregnant actually is. We see the shame and stigma the teen experiences, the birth of the child, and in some cases adoption, before the show ends, as if that’s all there is to teen pregnancy and parenting. The lives of the parents beyond the pregnancy are ignored unless they are sensationalized for programs like MTV’s Teen Mom series. But even these shows are unrealistic, for several reasons, including the mostly all white cast of cisgender, heterosexual, and predominately middle-class young women. All of these women are also getting paid thousands of dollars to be profiled and have their lives edited for public consumption. From season to season the living conditions of the mothers improve because of the MTV salary the women are receiving. The shows also seem to highlight the most stereotypical, hurtful teenage family stereotypes: the problematic “baby daddy” drama, the “party girl,” and the irresponsible and disrespectful teenage mom.

Then there’s the fact that the media often overrepresents adoption, especially when it comes to teenage mothers. “The adoption story line is often used as a way to fix the ‘problem,’” sociologist Gretchen Sisson, whose work focuses on teenage pregnancy, parenting, and adoption, told Rewire. “Teen parenthood and abortion are both very stigmatized. So adoption is kind of the way out and a way for the character to redeem themselves. Before abortion was legal, adoption was a way for white women to ‘undue’ the sins of sexuality outside of marriage. Adoption is used as a solution for teen pregnancy and abortion, when really it is neither of these things.”

In her research (which is not yet available online), Sisson found that less than 1 percent of women in the United States place children up for adoption. However, films and shows like Glee, Juno, 16 and Pregnant, and Saved all had story lines that resulted in a pregnant teen giving their child up for adoption.

Marriage is also often viewed and used as a way to “make things right.” In Riding in Cars With Boys, the protagonist, Beverly, states that she does not want to marry the father of her child, but after an emotional scene with her parents, who feel she ruined both her and the father of the child’s life, she reluctantly agrees to the marriage. Characters on MTV’s shows Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2 have also experienced pressure from family members to marry the father of their child, as if that’s their only option.

I can attest to this dynamic playing out in real life: When I became pregnant at 15, many people expected me to marry the father of my child since he “got me pregnant” and “marriage would make it right.”

If one does not give their child up for adoption or marry the father of their child (if the father did not leave them already, as the narrative goes in the media) the identity oft given to parenting teens is one of a desolate existence for both mother and child. Whether it is losing all of ones friends, being disowned by their family, being kicked out of school, or being sent away by family, teenage mothers simply do not have positive narratives of themselves in the media, and the negative effects of this are very real.

Teenage mothers have the highest rate of postpartum depression than mothers 20 and older, they are often forced out of school by illegal policies or because of bullying from staff and students alike, and they or more likely to experience social injustices because of age, race, and social economic background, which present unique barriers to social welfare assistance.

Media has a responsibility to accurately and holistically represent teenage families, especially teenage families of color. There simply is not enough positive representation free of gas-lighting when it comes to teenage families. All teenage fathers are not absent from their family’s lives; teenage parents are more likely than non-parenting teens to obtain their GED; and not all teenage mothers are kicked out by their parents or have as their end goal in life to attend college and get married.

To be sure, teen parents face several hardships since many teenage parents are already living in poverty before they become pregnant and face barriers to finishing their education, finding and obtaining work, and finding stable housing if they are in a situation that does not allow them to stay in their initial place of residence. However, teenage parents also often say their children served as a catalyst for them to do better in life, finish their education, stop mismanaging money, and get serious about discovering who they are as a person and what type of contributing member of society they want to be. Not only are teenage parents capable of love, compassion, and good parenting—the parents of the pregnant and parenting teen are capable of the same through supporting, loving, and encouraging their child to remain determined to reach the goals they had before becoming pregnant and after having their child.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am a better person today because I had my daughter at age 15. When my family began to unlearn the false narratives about what my teenage pregnancy would supposedly do to the family and myself, they began to show love and support.

Why aren’t there examples of that in the media? Where’s the 16, Parenting, and OK show to help teens see the decision doesn’t have to lead to destitution?

While the media has taken on the role of “teaching” about teenage pregnancy, mostly through shame and stigma, media makers need to acknowledge they are influencing how gatekeepers—including school administrators, health-care providers, and other adults in a young person’s life—perceive and treat young pregnant people. That was my experience, and I know through my work that I’m not alone.

We have to start asking ourselves, as former teen mother and #NoTeenShame member Christina Martinez recently mentioned to me, “What if we were to surround young parents with messages of hope, support, and encouragement? How might that alter the confidence in which they approach their role as parent?”

If my family and high school guidance counselor had responded to my decision to carry my pregnancy to term and parent my child in a more positive way from the get-go, with tips on planning for my future and for my daughter’s future, I may have experienced a more healthy and positive pregnancy. And so I ask, how are others preparing teens to live the life they want for themselves and their families? We can and must do so much better.

CORRECTION: A previous version of the article misspelled Marylouise Kuti’s name. We regret the error.