Can We Shame Our Way Out of Teen Pregnancy and Parenting?

"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.

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.

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  • invalid-0

    great blog emily. thx for highlighting all the shaming and blaming messages young people get around teen pregnancy. it’s ridiculous that none of these panel members even considered the possibility that young women may be conscious of the decisions they’re making around pregnancy. b/c if they considered that, then they’d have to think about how so many young women don’t feel like they have access to the middle class path of college and career. if college and a career were never part of the plan and you’ve got a supportive family, then this rhetoric of teen pregnancy as a disastrous event probably doesn’t resonate.

  • cristina-page

    Wow, and at 2:40pm at that. I left the event with you just minutes before. That you were able to sit down and write such a cogent and important piece about that event in such a short time frame is unbelievably impressive. It’s nearly 12 hours later and I am still walking around in a daze because of the event. It was like opposite day come true. From Bristol, their spokesperson, saying literally nothing and unavailable to speak to the press, to the "red carpet" paparazzi moshpit (come on, really?), then the teen father baseball player panelist explaining how teen fatherhood wasn’t so bad, and the press person accusing the Salon reporter of not really being a reporter becuase she didn’t have a camera "like everyone else." The whole event was so bizarre. I forgot to tell you that when I arrived there the cameraman from the show "Extra!" came up to me and said, "Cristina? I’m Todd, nice to meet you. Are you ready?" Apparently he thought I was his on-air reporter whose name just happens to be Cristina too. So, the day could have gotten much crazier than it did. I’m now wearing my "being sexy doesn’t mean you have to have sex" t-shirt and finding that confusing too.Going to bed in hopes tomorrow things will be back to normal.

  • anna-clark

    Really interesting (and creepy!) report on the event. Thanks for it.


    One question: Lots of clothing/shoe companies market sexiness to young girls in its advertising, but Candies seems to be unique in responding with an ad-only campaign. Is there any precedent for this? Have other companies with sexy ads targeting young girls responded with some kind of campaign, or do they just ignore the criticism? And if they ignore it, why didn’t Candies just ignore it too?


    Ok, that’s more than one question …

  • invalid-0

    Great piece, and now I have heartburn! I notice that abortion wasn’t mentioned either — the concept seems to have been, if you get pregnant, you’re having the baby. Of course prevention is the goal, but the fact that abortion is still legal and a valid choice for a pregnant teen apparently wasn’t brought up. And the fact that a maker of “slutty” shoes sponsored this is also really sickening. Talk about mixed messages. I don’t suppose anyone was told where to go to obtain birth control, either?

  • emily-douglas

    Nope, no mention of birth control. Actually, condoms came up, but only insofar as girls are “too scared” to insist on using them. And, completely agreed, the assumption running throughout the event was: if you have sex you’ll get pregnant, if you get pregnant you’ll go to term, if you go to term, you’ll parent. I was going nuts in the audience; I am glad to know you would have been, too, Miranda!

  • anna-clark

    … and by "ad-only campaign," I mean "ab-only campaign." Of course.

  • joe-sonka

    So Beyonce is with the Candies/Abstinence crowd too, right?

  • trybpo

    It reminds me of rape victims being admonished for wearing clothes that are too “sexy” or “tight”. Definitely a two-way street and it seems the point was missed, eh?

  • invalid-0

    I can’t believe teenagers, especially the older ones, are… well, are dumb enough to get themselves pregnant. If I was a teenage girl, the last thing I would want is to be pregnant, so I would do everything possible to not become pregnant. I think education is the best way to prevent teenage pregnancies, trying to label it as something ‘evil’ will only get teenagers to want to ‘rebel’ and do it anyway. Teenagers need to decide on their OWN to be responsible, not be forced by their parents.

  • invalid-0

    Legal abortions and desperate struggle for “survival rate” of babies even by violation of the rights of their mothers – somehow badly combined things, in my opinion.
    The woman should HAVE THE RIGHT to solve, do abortion or not if it has to that social indications!

  • invalid-0

    I think the author makes some great points here. I dont see why young girls seem to always give into the pressures of the media and outside world. It’s so important to not get pregnant at such a young age. Doing so really can destroy your life and cause lots of unwanted stress and problems.

  • invalid-0

    I find it really interesting for and useful for teen pregnancy prevention. Unlike abstinence only programs this could really help teens to think first about possibly changes in their lives and fates.

  • invalid-0

    It has been many, many years since I was a teenager (about 35yrs) and even then it was easy to prevent pregnancy. It is incredible to me that so many people have accidental pregnancies when there are so many options available now.