You may recall that Jamie Lynn Spears, child actress and sister of Britney Spears, shocked her fans in 2007 when she announced that she was pregnant. In February, Jamie Lynn had an essay in Glamour Magazine describing her experiences, and it’s really worth reading. Even though she leads a fairly privileged life, her experience is in many ways similar to many teens’ experiences and speaks to a lot of sad truths about our culture.
Right up front Spears says:
Casey was my first love. Since the day I saw him, I just wanted to marry him and be with him forever and ever. I believe in safety and birth control as prevention. But like many young girls… I was really scared to go to the doctor.
1) Teens aren’t “hormonal monsters” or whatever: most have their first sex with someone they’re in a relationship with. Like the rest of us, they feel love and affection, and want to express that affection romantically.
2) Many know about birth control and believe in it as prevention. But something stops them from seeking it out – fear. Fear of lack of confidentiality and of judgement. Fear of being found out – because being found out as sexually active would be shameful. It’s a direct line from shame about sexuality, to unintended pregnancy.
Later, after learning she was pregnant:
I did feel responsible for the young girls and the mothers who I probably confused and let down. I apologize for that. But I wasn’t trying to glamorize teen pregnancy. I hated when [the tabloids] said that.
She’s not lying about being villainized. Everyone had something to say about the matter. But tell me, how would becoming pregnant let American girls and mothers down? And what does “glamorizing teen pregnancy,” a charge that seems to be repeated whenever a pregnant teen expresses excitement about motherhood, has a baby shower, or is seen smiling at any time, mean? Jamie Lynn had sex with someone she loved and with whom she was in a long-term relationship, and became pregnant accidentally. She decided to become a mother. What was she supposed to do, dress in black and parade the streets crying “Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”? The very notion of “shaming” or ”glamorizing” a person’s pregnancy is absurd and offensive. Unintended pregnancy, while not ideal, happens – in fact, it happens 50 percent of the time, so I’m not sure what folks are on their high horses about.
Later, commenting on her daughter Maddie, she says:
It’d be dumb to sit here and say that Maddie isn’t going to like a boy one day and she isn’t going to have a boyfriend. I’ll just have to handle that the best way that I can. Both her daddy and me will caution her [about having sex], and I would hope that she would not want to do that at all, but I have to make sure that I’m realistic too. I’ve got to figure out a way to communicate to her to make smart choices and make the best decisions she can.
I find this passage is a little bittersweet. “I would hope that she would not want to do that at all:” denial springs eternal. The culture that shaped Jamie Lynn as a teen will shape her as a parent, and like all too many parents in America, she will probably bring shame and denial about sex to the table, when as we know, honesty and acceptance leads to better outcomes. By talking about realism, at least she’s acknowledging that empowering teens to protect themselves from pregnancy and HIV/STIs should be a priority for parents. But that’s really not enough. We can’t keep living with this culture of shame and fear around teen sexuality, we can’t keep framing sex as “this terrible thing that God forbid you do, though if you do it be sure to use condoms.” And then we can’t keep vilifying teen mothers. As a culture we need to start embracing pragmatic attitudes and policies – from comprehensive sex education, to youth friendly clinics and services, to programs which support all teens, including teen parents.