I Was a Teen Mom and The NYC Teen Pregnancy Ads Miss the Point

Advertisements aimed at teenage parents and splattered across New York City last week by the Human Resources Administration and Mayor Bloomberg’s office are supposedly meant to educate about the realities of teenage parenthood. The ads feature toddlers saying things like “I hope you have a job because I’m expensive.” My personal favorite is the sobbing toddler whose poster reads: “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” Somehow, these ads are going to pop into a teens head before having sex to discourage them from having intercourse?

While some may argue that these ads are a fresh, new approach to what is claimed to be an epidemic of teenage pregnancy, I do not see these ads as fresh, new, innovative, or effective.

Instead, these ads are borrowing a page right out of the abstinence-only handbooks that use shame and blame as the basis of their “sex education.” They also take the insults that were directed at me as a pregnant teen and put them all over the city. They do nothing to address the real problems.

These ads place all of the blame and responsibility on female teens. However, teenage pregnancy is not just a female teen problem, it is a social problem.

In a city full of sex, sex clubs, and hyper-sexualized marketing tactics, New York City, the city that touts itself as very progressive is still not teaching comprehensive sex ed, although it is mandated.

While these ads seek to diminish teenage parents, I feel that the people who should feel ashamed and diminished are the older generations who hold the financial and political reins in the city.

In 5th grade, I got a “this is your vagina” lesson from my math teacher. In middle school I was told to repeat this phrase: sex is mint for marriage; I then received a congratulatory graduation mint. In high school I was shown photos of genitalia and infants covered in blisters, sores, and puss.

Not once did one of my “sex education teachers” say there is a difference between sex and relationships, or that there are options available to stop you from getting pregnant and contracting an STI, or that if you do choose to have sex, make sure you are in a relationship and do not feel pressured to have sex.

So when I became pregnant at 15 as a result of unprotected sex I did not understand why older generations were shocked and angry with me.

It is the older generation’s responsibility to teach our youth life lessons, including sex and relationships, and since they are not doing an effective job teenagers feel the need to go out and find the answers on their own. Sadly, they also find sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy, and abusive relationships along the way.

I take full responsibility for having sex. But it is past due time that elders take responsibility for their lack of responsibility and accountability to our youth.

Older generations were and are still choosing not to acknowledge the fact that my generation is different from theirs. That the rules and social moral codes that applied to them do not apply today; that unlike them we do not and will not take “because I said so” as an answer; and that statistics and scare tactics are not a substitute for real education. Scare tactics did not keep me from getting pregnant and they will not stop teens from having sex, stop engaging in unsafe sex, or from confusing sex with relationships.

Believe me when I tell you that no teen mom will say being a pregnant teen or a teenage parent is easy or glamorous, and none would recommend getting pregnant to even their worst enemy. Being a teen mom is hard work, it’s emotional, and it’s tiring, but that’s life!

Going from being a pregnant sophomore in high school to a senior in college looking for a Master’s program has felt damn near impossible. Not because of me or my “lack of determination” or my unwed status. No, it’s been damn near impossible because of societal systems that make it difficult for any mother to go to work and school, much less a struggling mom.

I am more than willing to work with anyone who wants to better understand the social, emotional, and educational factors that can lead to teenage pregnancy. What I refuse to do is to keep getting blamed for society’s problems. I refuse to be the scapegoat of elected officials who, rather than doing their job, point fingers at youth for problems that our elders are causing by refusing to acknowledge those problems in the first place. I refuse to allow people who have never met a resilient teen mom in their life to define who I am as a mother, a human, and a member of society just because I had my daughter at age 15.

As much as adults and elected officials are upset and tired of seeing pregnant teens, so are we. However, unlike older generations we are actively advocating for real comprehensive sex ed, both explicitly and implicitly by becoming pregnant at such a young age and being the only population in the United States in which rates of STIs continue to rise.

So while the mayor’s office and HRA state that they are trying to help teens, in reality what they are ignoring the fact that it is they who are failing to meet the needs of New York City youth at me and my daughter’s expense.

NYC4RJ and several activist have launched a new counter campaign, #NOshameNOstigma. You can learn more about that campaign here.

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  • http://twitter.com/#!/dameocrat Dameocrat

    They aren’t trying to help teens. Those ads are designed to blame teens for poverty. They are trying to shift the blame for our economic crisis to them. They are meant to read by the public so they assume all poor people had babies as teens.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lilithemagdalene Lilithe Magdalene

    Spot on. Thank you for speaking up and offering your very important perspective.

  • Corey Turner

    I cannot for the life of me understand how those ads are going to be helpful to anyone. Will a teenage girl (because that is who they are directed to) thinking about having sex think “If I get pregnant, my child is less likely to graduate high school? Hmmm…better keep those raging hormones in check.” Um..no. You are better off telling the girl that HER chances of finishing high school are reduced.

    The only thing that this is doing is shaming the teen mother who decided to keep the child, rather than aborting or adoption.

  • Kristan Kincade

    Frankly I am for anything that will focus attention on the fact that having teen pregnancies is a drawback and a burden on society. I’m sorry you missed out on a thorough sex education; didn’t receive enough information on how SEX and LOVE relationships are two different things; that everyone should ALWAYS use birth prevention techniques; and that you pregnant in your teens. But I do not want any more kids having babies in their teens just because you somehow managed to cope with it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Feral.9.Hex Carla Clark

      Kristan, you and I are OBVIOUSLY not reading the same article. She is in NO way saying that just because she managed to cope with it, that she wants more teenagers to have babies. Oi. MOST people miss out on a thorough sex education, BECAUSE ADULTS WON’T TEACH THEM. Which is what Gloria is saying. OI.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shea-Joy/100000400894591 Shea Joy

    Gloria, it is just silly for you to say you got pregnant because no one told you the difference between sex and a relationship. And you never heard of a rubber? Huh. Teen pregnancies are a problem for society. Most girls choose to get pregnant, or are so irresponsible they just let it happen. It’s not accidental. That’s the unpleasant truth. We’re never going to reduce teen pregnancy until girls need to see more possibilities for themselves, and believe they can make it happen. We need positive messages, and real reason for hope.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Feral.9.Hex Carla Clark

      Um, Shea, never heard of the FACT that MOST women who abort were using some form of contraception? That’s probably very true of women who maintain their pregnancies, too. Thanks. And sometimes women have no access to condoms or their partner won’t use one. Way to totally miss the point, AGAIN. Never put any blame on the men, just shame, shame, shame the women! Don’t put any responsibility on parents or society, just shame, shame, shame the woman! Unwanted teen pregnancies are a problem for society in a way that’s different from how other unplanned pregnancies are a ‘problem’ for society, how, again? Whoops.

    • Brian

      Jesuss Christ…we’re talking about teens. You know…13..14…15…16 year olds? How wise do you expect them to be? Smh, opinions like your is what’s wrong with society. Expecting young teens to just be experts on condoms and birth control

  • http://www.facebook.com/shivaun.nestor Shivaun Nestor

    Brava! I am so happy for your testimony and story. I just learned about this campaign today. It is absolutely hideous. I appreciate your analysis and your willingness to place blame where it belongs. In addition, I don’t understand why anyone believes that stigmatization works in public health messaging. The dollars would be far better spent supporting teen moms (and dads), many of whom do an amazing job despite the incredible financial and social hurdles that society puts in their way. @ Shea, while I disagree with your response to the author, I am completely on board with you in wanting to provide hopeful messages and models to girls. @ Kristan, as someone who works in the field of public health, you are mistaken to think that such nasty, negative messages will help anyone. This will become one more in a plethora of negative public health campaigns that backfires. If I were a teenager who was not pregnant, my first thought in looking at these ads would be “that isn’t me!” regardless of whether or not I was sexually active and/or practicing safer sex.

  • Quemtin_Gooder

    What did you think was going to happen when a penis ejaculates in your vagina?

    And why do you just blame the state for both teaching you? Didnt you have parents or any other family members to guide you?

    • http://www.facebook.com/Feral.9.Hex Carla Clark

      Uh, duh, apparently not. But, unlike you who is just blaming the teen, she isn’t just blaming the state. Seriously, folks. Reading comprehension is your FRIEND NOT your enemy.

      As to your first question, are you seriously so uneducated that you think a woman gets pregnant every time she has sex? If that’s true, as a ‘smart’ person you should have also realized that that means there IS a need for comprehensive sex-education. Guess you’re just not as ‘smart’ as you thought you were…? And this has nothing to do with the point of the article, either and actually contradicts what the author SAID. The POINT being that teenagers will have sex, no matter what. What she SAID being that she knew she might get pregnant but went ahead and had sex, ANYWAYS.

      Give your head a shake, Quemtin.

      As a male, it’s disgusting to see you lay all the blame on the woman, like the REST of your misogynistic ilk. It would NOT surprise me if you were Pro-‘Life’. They like to blame women for everything, too, rather than take the responsibility that they claim isn’t being imposed enough on Pro-Choice WOMEN.

  • cmalon01

    i don’t understand what education is needed. a woman has a sex with a man and has a baby. she is making a choice. just like people do drugs, and go to college and get stuck with loans. Because of this fact, the ad is trying desperately to persuade girls not to have sex. no one is blaming anyone. in fact, the man has just as much blame. yes it’s tough, yes the mother has to do a lot and it does make it harder for the kid to go to school. It’s a fact, not a shaming. Just like if you were going to go have unprotected sex you have a certain chance of getting an STD. And also, girls shouldn’t’ be stuck in this fantasy world that the father of their child will stay with them. I think it’s a reality check. Yes your choice made you suffer and now you see an ad, that reminded you of the choice, yes you will get upset. But it’s not too far from reality. The sugar coating of reality needs to end in advertising and these ads do just that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cheri.carpenter.lundstrom Cheri Carpenter-Lundstrom

    As the victim of a teen mother in the 50’s I would award the Nobel prize to the person who comes up with a safe effective vaccine that renders both male and female sterile until they are 25. Give them a chance to get their life together before taking on the responsibility of another human being. You can’t stop them from having sex, they have been having sex for thousands of years. They used to breed earlier because they died earlier. Early parenthood decreases the opportunity for both parties. My mother and father both paid dearly for their transgression as did their offspring. They are both passed on and the one thing I got from them is the knowledge that I was not going to be a teem mommy. My first came at nearly 26 after I was settled into a decent job and married. Still not perfect but a damned sight better off than they were.

  • Andrea Moreno

    I don’t think the ad’s aim is to stop teens from having sex. The ad’s aim is to stop them from getting pregnant. Now, are they preventing that? That’s the question.

  • Brian

    One of the only sane opinions I’ve seen on this nonsense. Thank you