First published on the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association blog on 27/12/13 as “Teen Pregnancy: Stop The Stigma”.
Teen mothers. They’re sluts. Benefits scroungers. They’re not good mothers. They’re all working class. And they’ll never, ever amount to anything. “Society expects the worst outcomes for pregnant teens & young parents, so it gets the worst – and young people suffer,” says Lucy V Hay, script editor, author and former teenage mother. “But by the same token, if we expect the BEST we empower pregnant teens and young parents and help them to help themselves.”
We’re all complicit in perpetuating this classist, misogynistic, slut shaming and (in the USA) racist stigma. Our politicians ‘combat teen pregnancy’ and openly try to destroy this family form- an annihilation which would be called genocide if it was perpetrated against any other minority group. Imagine what the public’s reaction would be if politicians were combatting post-teen pregnancy and reducing the numbers of nuclear families or even the numbers of same-sex families. Would we still keep our silence?
There are two components of the stigma: age-related discrimination (perhaps understandably we want our kids to have great social and sex lives before settling down. We worry that kids will affect this. Hint: nationalised childcare would fix this and allow low-income lone parents to work full time and allow low income couples to have both parents working.) The gender related component is like the sexting moral panics- slut shaming and horror over the bad things that can taint our pure virgin daughters. Pure misogyny disguised as concern.
The patriarchy glorifies motherhood- but not teen (or single) motherhood. The Candies Foundation’s campaign encourages stigmatisation of young parents and tries to enforce abstinence but not abortion. And feminists, you’re not exempt. Yes, patriarchy causes the gender-related component. But- you know when you advocate for sex ed/PSHE, contraception and abortion? Well, it’d be great if you didn’t stigmatise teen pregnancy to further your agenda. Not every teen pregnancy is unplanned and they’re not all lone parents or ignorant of contraception. The hashtag #FeminismIsForTeenMomsToo is really important reading for anyone who identifies as a feminist.
But are the tabloids and the government right? Well, no- because it’s never moral or right to discriminate against anybody, especially adolescents and children, who are the most vulnerable people in society. And no, the anti- young pregnancy arguments aren’t factually correct either. Ann Phoenix’s 1991 qualitative study of young unmarried mothers found that waiting a few more years to start a family would not have improved the mothers’ material well-being in any significant way. Contemporary studies show that teenagers are managing their sex lives responsibly and using contraception at much higher rates than in the past. Solinger cites recent findings that teenage pregnancy declined 17% in the 1990s and in the US it is at its lowest rate since 1973. U.S. teen pregnancy rates decreased 38% between 1990 and 2004 (Ventura, Abma, Mosher, & Henshaw, 2008), and teen birth rates declined by 34% between 1991 and 2005. In 2005, the US teenage pregnancy rate reached its lowest point in 30 years. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2001a), teenage pregnancy rates steadily declined from 1990 to 1997. The declines occurred across racial-ethnic groups. Teenage birth rates declined from 1993 to 2000, and in 2000 the rate for young teens reached the lowest point since 1976 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001b). Mcintosh claims that 16-19 year olds constitute just 3 percent of lone mothers in the UK. Teenage pregnancy has fallen during the last few decades; data from the General Household Surveys shows that in 1980 67% of nonmarital births were to women aged under 25 but this had declined to 50% by 1995. The decade with the highest teen pregnancy was the 1950s and in 1957 the average bride in America was a teenager. Kiernan, Land and Lewis report that data from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NSSAL) 1991 shows that 18% of women born in the 1930s reported having sex at age 18 or younger. In the 1950s teenage pregnancy was far more common than it is now, but was not seen as a social problem if the parents married before the baby was born. Even teenage marriage was rife and even accepted. So we can see that teenage pregnancy was more prevalent in previous generations; it is a traditional way of life that is in decline and teenage pregnancy today is a remnant of that tradition. And let’s not forget that teen pregnancy was the norm throughout history all the way back to the Stone Age.
And despite the teen pregancy discourse being confused with the lone mother discourse, most teen mothers aren’t single. Coley & Chase-Lansdale’s (1998) review of the literature suggests that 50% of all teenage fathers in America live with their children for some time. UK birth registration statistics for 1995 show that a majority of teenage births (67%) are jointly registered to both the father and the mother and that 59% of these jointly registered births were registered to the same address (Brook 2002). This means that most teenage parents are in committed relationships, especially taking into account the fact that under 16s are not allowed by law to live by themselves and so are very unlikely to register births to the same address.
Media and governmental discrimination has had very serious consequences in the USA, where the PRWORA prohibits states from spending Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds on minor, unmarried, custodial parents who do not live in an adult supervised setting, thereby forcing teenage parents to live with their own parents which may lead to family tensions, overcrowding and lower quality of life for all concerned. The PRWORA legislation states that ‘‘the negative consequences of an out-of-wedlock birth on the mother, the child, the family, and society are well documented,’’ and that ‘‘prevention of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and reduction in out-of-wedlock birth are very important Government interests’’ (see H.R.3734, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996). It also allows states to deny additional benefits to mothers of any age who have a second child while they’re receiving benefits, to reinforce the disapproval of nonmarital births. (No, really.) Luckily we’ve avoided such harmful discrimination in the UK, but the proposed Marriage Tax Allowance does use money to privelege married parents over nonmarried ones in the same way as PRWORA and just like PRWORA it is transparent, overt social engineering and will increase stigma of cohabiting, lone and teen parents.
As for the Teen Pregnancy Ruins Your Life myth- it’s nonsensical, at least in the UK. If you’re under 16 it is the law that you have to go to school so even if a young parent wants to stay home with their child, they can’t. No university will ban you from matriculation because you are a mother or father. Student loans companies take whether students have dependents into account when calculating the loans and grants they’re entitled to. Universities have Childcare funds for student parents and university creches. It’s the norm for mature students to be parents. If older students are often parents why are younger students assumed to be unable to cope? Many students work while studying. We take it for granted that young actors manage to star in movies while continuing their University education, but act like it’s impossible to fulfil the age-old, natural role of parent while studying. We evolved to be parents and have done it for millennia; acting (and studying) are not things we evolved to do. Telling teens that their futures will be limited if they start families creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
An issue that doesn’t get mentioned is what if a boy or girl actually plans to try for a baby? Respecting sovereign choice doesn’t just stop at not forcing an abortion on a teen. It also means respecting and valuing the decisions of teens and preteens to plan to start families. If a teen understands the descision, what gives us the right to stop them? 12 year olds can by law consent to medical treatment without parental knowledge and even if the parents are against it, including abortion and contraception, as long as they understand the decision. This is why doctors don’t have to notify parents that their kids have had abortions. A 12 year old having a baby he or she has wanted and planned for is a good thing, and certainly better than a thirtysomething who doen’t want children or is a bad parent. The media have created the myth of schoolgirls getting pregnant to get council flats and benefits. The media made young parenthood into an issue, and politicians talk about the issue mainly in terms of these parents’ relative youth, as if it’s somehow, for some bizarre reason, actually wrong for a younger citizen to want children but perfectly fine for an older citizen to want children. Age discrimination much?
What are we saying when we stigmatise young families? That we want all young people who get pregnant to have abortions? That teens have no right to try for babies? Are we saying that starting a family early means you won’t earn as much money (which doesn’t have to be true unless the mother believes the myth that she can’t go to uni, as we just saw)? So basically we’re saying that material goods are of the utmost value in human life and that money matters more than having children?
Teen pregnancy is an illogical concept. It is completely arbitrary, relying as it does on the “teen” suffix; hence it only works in English. The phrase also excludes preteen pregnancy and lumps together the very different experiences of 13 year old and 19 year old mothers. Yet, 20 year olds are magically okay because “twenty” isn’t called “tenteen”. In most regions of the world especially states with a lower average age of first birth the term is meaningless; the Scandinavian countries don’t stigmatise young parenthood and in Estonia teen pregnancy was encouraged in the Noughties because the birth rate was low. The label “teen pregnancy”does not fit with reality because young twentrysomethings who have kids and preteens who have kids are also stigmatised, so the label should actually be ‘preteenteenandearlytwenties pregnancy’. The label is focused only on the female parent which is sexist. It might actually be more helpful to distinguish pregnancies on the basis of consent to the pregnancy (whether choice to continue or terminate was available to the mother and whether the mother became pregnant through rape). Or we could distinguish pregnancies based on intention of adoption, keeping or abortion, or any other random distinction. Age is such a silly thing to discriminate on, especially since mature mothers are also criticised. I’d vote for dropping age and instead having discrimination based on the sexual position the child was concieved in, because it’d make political discourse on the family much more interesting.
But how could we stigmatise teens having families if we didn’t stigmatise teen sex? We need to ask ourselves: “Have we, as parents, as role models, as older siblings, now made it unacceptable for our adolescents to have a great sex life?” Because, tragically, I think we have. It used to be acceptable. In fact, people used to get married as teens. Even Pope Francis – going one step further than teen dads – told a same-age girl he wanted to marry her at the age of 12. In keeping with the Catholic teen sex theme, the Virgin Mary was an unwed teen mother. Evidence that teenage sex is beneficial to adolescent development has been documented (Levine 2002; Perito 2008) and evidence that it is not harmful is overwhelming; a few recent publications include: Gross, 2009; Omar, Greydanus, Tsitsika, Patel, & Merrick, 2010; Rosenthal, 2006; Rosenthal, 2006; Steinberg, 2005; Monahan and Lee, 2008; Meier 2007.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose to stop hurting young people, adolescents and their babies and children. We can stop any time we want.