Category Archives: Young motherhood stigma

Teen Mothers Speak: Stigma, Misogyny-And The Failure Of Feminism

 

First published on Cliterati on 7/4/14.

Teen parents- especially teenage mothers- are stigmatised.

Pregnant girls are viewed as either poor immoral victims who need fixing, or manipulating devious sluts who need punishing,” says Prym Face, Telegraph blogger, researcher, former young mother and founder of Promoting Respect for Young Mothers. “Support for teen mums is sometimes couched in a context of changing and teaching them, rather than listening to what they want. The notion of being a ‘teenager’ does not sit well with our ideals of ‘motherhood’, so the term becomes a social construction. We don’t use ‘teenage’ to describe young carers, or young offenders or any other people professionally, yet teenage mother has continued to be used to label young mothers, reinforcing stereotypes and stigma. The reality is that young mums have to work hard to create their own paths and scripts, often with very little support. And then when their life isn’t the car crash it was meant to be they are told they are the exception to the rule!”

We all know this. When was the last time your gaze lingered over that fourteen year old pushing her pram? Were you surprised to discover a successful twentysomething whom you know actually has a child? I do these things. I do them even though I know that as a feminist I’m not meant to. I do them even though I know that the surprise and othering comes from the stigma. Just because I don’t feel disgusted by teen mothers doesn’t mean that my reactions, though internal, prop up society’s disgust. The BBC recently reported on the stigma- as if we needed them to tell us it exists. As a feminist what interests me is the wider issues of how feminism can be inclusive of and help fight for the rights of adolescent and young mothers, the reasons behind the stigma, and how the lived experience of stigma impacts on some of the most powerless people in our society.

Lucy V Hay is a script editor, author of two books and was previously a teacher. But the mere fact of having once been a young mum means people judge her educational status and career goals. “ If they see me with my son (himself a teenager now), they will assume I am badly educated, on benefits, a scrounger,” she says. “[T]oo often the subtext is, ‘I would have thought you were too posh/too clever to get knocked up as a teenager’. But it can happen to anyone who has sex — at any age!!…Sometimes people are openly admiring and say it’s great I have still achieved and I appreciate the sentiment, but again it’s that subtext: often they see me as achieving *despite* my son, when the reality is, I have achieved despite society’s lack of support and even blatant sabotage.”

[M]edical professionals have been some of the worst for me, even becoming blatantly hostile to me on occasion. Teachers are usually fine, though a couple have treated me like an idiot or as if I’m hysterical or whatever; I soon put them straight – I’m a trained teacher myself, for God’s sake! Of other parents, women have been the worst to be honest; Dads usually barely notice my age, but the Mums at the school gates have in the past been openly aggressive to me […] It’s the age-old chestnut of women doing patriarchy’s job for it by policing other women I reckon. I learned a long time ago to NEVER look at any other woman at the school gates or in the street long when with my kids, for fear of confrontation. It’s smile, avert eyes quickly — and only strike up friendships if *the other woman* initiates it.”

But it’s not just marginalisation and social rejection that we use to punish young women for conceiving or for choosing not to have abortions. We actually withold vital medical care from them, too. “I had severe mental health issues as a young person and I was not taken seriously by medical professionals at all. The help offered to postnatal mothers was not offered to me, despite my repeated attempts to get help. It never needed to get as far as it did, yet I was patronised constantly, told ‘Oh we all get down after having a baby, dear’ and given a pat on the head and prescribed some antidepressants and sent on my way[…]Yet when I had a baby at the “right” age…everyone was much more interested in me. Funny, that. It’s like we reward women for being “good” and withdraw everything when they’re ‘not’.”

I’ve always considered the stigma against teenage pregnancy and young motherhood to be related to, or a form of, slut shaming and misogyny more generally. But I’m not a young mother so what would I know? When I asked Lucy, though, she does share this view: “I have no doubt the stigma against young mothers is an intense dislike of teenage sexuality, especially young women’s – so yes, it’s connected to misogyny. Young women who have sex young, who have babies or abortions are considered “tainted” or “spoiled goods” and that’s just disgusting. Also, the double standard is ludicrous: contrast the negativity of names like ‘slut’, ‘bike’ etc with ‘stud’ and ‘Jack the lad’!”

Tracy Engelbrecht, founder of the South African social support organisation Young Mom Support, still gets asked questions 21 years after she became pregnant. Questions like “I get that you love him, but I’m sure you wish he wasn’t born, hey? I’m sure you wouldn’t want your daughter to be a teen mom, would you?” People also tell her “You’re not like ‘those other’ teen moms. You’re the exception” and “It’s good that you’ve made the best of a bad situation,” “I’m sure you think you’re happy, but you could have been so much more,” and of course “At your age, you should be *insert-debauched-activity-here*”. Through her work with young mothers, as well as her own experience of young motherhood, she understands just how damaging the stigma can be. “A mother who feels encouraged and valued in her parenting will always do a better job than one who feels judged and vilified by her community. Every parent needs support, no matter their age. If we insist on treating teen parenting as a punishment for sexual activity, we will continue deal with:


a) children raised by parents who hate themselves

b) the consequences of unsafe, illegal abortions instead of safe, legal terminations in a medical setting

c) babies abandoned and dumped at birth because the mother is too afraid to reach out for help. (this is a HUGE problem in SA and happens every day).”

As an intersectional feminist, I feel that the mainstream feminist campaigns have done little to address the stigma against young mothers or even understand their lived experiences and issues. Reproductive rights and reproductive justice seem to revolve around the availibility of abortion and contraception. In the UK where women over the age of 12 can have free abortions and contraception without parental consent, it appears (to me, at this time) that the reproductive right to have a baby while you’re a teen is more threatened than other reproductive rights. The stigma against young mothers is ludicrous. Everyone thinks teen births are skyrocketing when actually the conception rate for under-18s is at its lowest level in 40 years. Teen motherhood has been falling since the 1970s. In the 1950s teenage pregnancy was far more common than it is now, but was not seen as a social problem as long as the parents married before the birth, and teen marriage was tolerated.

So what can we, the childless young people and the older parents, do to stop the stigma against adolescent and young mums (and dads)?

Well first up, it would be great if young women could walk around with their kids without hostility and even open aggression directed at them!” Lucy says. “Just smile for God’s sake, it costs nothing – and stop staring. It’s just a baby, not the Antichrist. Secondly, consider WHY you find teen mothers so distasteful: if it’s because you don’t like your taxes paying their benefits, ask yourself why that’s such a big deal to you when your taxes also pay for really nasty shit like bombs. If it’s because you think that teen mother won’t do anything with her life now, again, consider this: a) how do you know she won’t and not ‘pay back’ those benefits by contributing to society? and b) why isn’t raising a child ‘contributing to society’ anyway? The birth rate is going down, remember. Most of us grow up to be useful members of society.”

You can find Lucy V Hay on Vizify, on Facebook, at Bang2Write.com or follow her on Twitter.

Prym Face is the founder of the Prym Face website, blogs for the Telegraph and is on Twitter.

Young Mom Support can be found here, or follow Tracy Engelbrecht on Twitter.

 

Why We Should All Shut Up About So-Called “Teen Pregnancy”

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.

The Candies Foundation prophet: preaching abstinence, selling sex

Candies Foundation founder Neil Cole sets himself up as the saviour of teenage girls, shaming teen mothers and promoting abstinence. But does this modern-day American prophet practice what he preaches?

Neil Cole’s Candies Foundation is named after his clothing line – a line aimed at very young teenage girls. Its website even lets visitors use their webcam to take a photo of themselves with the Candies model and tantalizingly offers a ‘behind the scenes’ peek at the modelling shoot – things which wouldn’t be of interest to older teen girls. The site sells clothes for girls as young as 7 years old. And THIS is how Candies markets its products to young teenage and preteen girls:

Promoting purity or selling sex?

Promoting purity or selling sex?

Yep. Playboy model Jenny McCarthy naked and displaying her underwear. And here’s another ad, featuring a pose that’s more 50 Shades than purity pledge.

Fifty Shades of Cole

Fifty Shades of Cole

 

Jenny McCarthy speaks against teen pregnancy for the Candies Foundation – while dropping her underwear to model for them in a pose that has scat or watersports undertones. In the 1980s Neil Cole used presidential hopeful Gary Hart’s mistress to market his jeans. And she’d only recently been outed as Hart’s mistress.

Is Neil Cole pushing the old patriarchal message “be sexy but don’t have sex” as this blog alleges? Or does this 55 year old man’s obsessive interest in underage girls having sex have a more unhealthy, darker side to it? I’m not suggesting that Neil Cole is an ephebophile. What I am suggesting is that Neil Cole’s choice of sexually charged marketing strategies might indicate that he has an above average interest in sex.

And, sometimes people want to talk about sex – a kind of social-sexual interaction. That’s normal. Some talk about it with their friends or even family members such as sisters or cousins. Others find their outlet by creating art, writing fiction or documenting their sex lives anonymously online. But for those without liberal-minded friends and without the time, skills or artistic inclination to take advantage of opportunities provided by the internet, they’re deprived of an outlet for expressing themselves. So, some people – like Neil Cole- may find socially acceptable ways to talk about sex – like teenage pregnancy.

Or we could go with the cynic’s hypothesis – that Candie’s inappropriately sexualised advertising attracted criticism so Neil Cole started his purity crusade to counteract the bad press.

Neil’s suitability for the office of Controller of Young Women is in question: he’s committed fraud since he set up the Candies Foundation. In 2003 he was fined $75,000 after he and several top Candies staff committed fraud; they neither denied or admitted the various allegations. Given this man’s own behaviour, I hardly think he’s in a position to moralise over the rest of us. And fraudsters are not exactly the sort of people that teens should be looking up to.

Neil isn’t your ordinary guy, either. On his 50th birthday he rented out a swanky art gallery for a party which was attended by celebrities, including Beyonce and Jay-Z. His father became a millionaire selling the Candies shoe and his even more successful brother Kenneth married the Mayor of New York’s daughter. Neil himself married a beauty queen then divorced her 15 years later before marrying again. So Neil Cole clearly is an influential figure with lots of connections to some of the biggest names in Western society.

The Candies Foundation campaign is chock-full of mixed messages. From teen moms preaching abstinence to Playboy models shaming mothers to a company selling sex to preteens while repressing the sexuality of legal adults, it’s got it all.

USA Today rejected one of the Candies ads because it was offensive – and in today’s climate of moral panic over teen pregnancy, it must have been very offensive to be rejected. The single line I’m able to read calls teen pregnancy “an epidemic”.

To me Neil Cole seems the very embodiment of the patriarchy: a rich, powerful, straight white man controlling the sexual behaviour of young non-affluent women. As has been going on for centuries.

Candies Foundation and #noteenpreg – sexism, moralising & shaming young mothers

The Candies Foundation uses hashtag #noteenpreg to discourage teen pregnancy for “teen pregnancy prevention month”. (Yes, you did read that right: they want to control teens’ reproductive choices and eradicate an entire family form.) I’ve previously blogged about how the concept of ‘teenage pregnancy’ is a social construction dependent upon acceptance of older pregnancy as the norm, and how it entails number-fetishization (because in English numbers below 20 end in the suffix “teen” which is an arbitrary and language-specific way to define parenthood). So I’m not going to write about that here. What I will say though is that the Candies Foundation is stigmatising and ‘othering’ young families by trying to eradicate them. There is also too much focus on the female parent and almost none on the male parent, which is misogyny.

#noteenpreg

On the Candies Foundation website they boast about the fact that #noteenpreg trended on May 1st, though actually a cursory glance at the hashtag reveals that it trended because people – especially teen parents and their relatives- were ‘sabotaging’ #noteenpreg. Columnist Prym Face who writes about teenage parents had tweeted that we should stop the shaming of teen mothers by tweeting facts into #noteenpreg. I remember seeing it trend as we all tweeted into it. This episode made me curious about who was behind #noteenpreg and I decided to find out. This blog post is the result.

The Moralising

The Candie’s Foundation hired top US Republican politician and abstinence ‘education’ supporter Sarah Palin’s daughter, Bristol Palin, as their ambassador. Bristol herself is a teen mother. Bristol Palin preaches abstinence on television shows, a Candies commercial and by visiting schools as part of her role as a Candies Foundation ambassador. So the Candies Foundation is promoting abstinence to impressionable young minds. This leaves no doubt about the fact that Candies is trying to repress female sexuality. It’s not pregnancy that bothers them, it’s sex. If they really wanted to prevent teen motherhood the Candies Foundation should promote abortion as much as they promote abstinence, but they don’t. No prizes for guessing why.

And Candies Foundation founder Neil Cole publically states on his blog that he and the Candies Foundation believe in abstinence: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/neil-cole/how-the-candies-foundatio_b_203701.html

The Candies Foundation website also states that teen pregnancy should be discouraged because most teen dads don’t marry the mums and teen mothers’ daughters are morely likely to become teen mothers themselves. The second argument is an obvious fallacy because it’s based on the assumption that teen pregnancy is bad so the conclusion that teen pregnancy is bad because it begets more teen pregnancy only makes sense if you believe the premise. But enough phiolosophizing; the point I’m getting at here is that for Candies:

Marriage-good. No marriage=bad. Abstinence=good, promote that shit with celebrities and pay them 266 milion to do it! Abortion=Don’t even mention that!

It’s an attitude that seems familiar. Where have I seen it before…?

This also begs the question: Is the Candies Foundation a teen pregnancy prevention foundation or is it, as numerous media outlets call it, in fact an abstinence foundation? A religiously motivated abstinence foundation masquerading under a cooler, more acceptable title?

The Corruption

Most donations you make to the Candies Foundation don’t go to charities – they go to top-level staff and celebrities, who were paid hundreds of millions (366 times the donations to charities!). Founder Neil Cole is paid millions: http://www.forbes.com/sites/elisadoucette/2011/04/06/bristol-palins-compensation-seven-times-candies-foundation-donations-to-charities/

The Sexism

The Candies Foundation focuses on girls not boys as is clear from their tweets. All their Real Stories are told by mothers, not fathers – despite the fact that some of the mothers telling the stories are married to or in contact with their child’s father. Only 2 out of 10 anti-teen pregnancy posters on the Candies Foundation’s website are aimed at boys.

The Candie’s Foundation was founded by a man, Neil Cole, in 2001.

The Candies Foundation poster children

But just like anti-abortion groups and the anti-sex work industry (or ‘rescue industry’ as it’s known), no rescue-oriented organisation would be complete without its poster children. Given the Candies Foundation’s vast resources and glitzy celeb-fuelled image, I was expecting to be wowed by carefully crafted Cautionary Tales of Woe. But the ‘Real Stories’ section of the website is a little disappointing. All the teen mothers featured got pregnant over the age of 16 (the age of consent in Britain where I live and the age at which you can marry with parental consent). The vast majority got pregnant at age 18 (the age of majority in both the USA and Britain, and in most countries.) So, can they really be called “teen mothers”? I mean yes, their ages do end with the obligatory “teen” but when I think teenage parents I’m thinking of under 16-year-olds. I mean, if you’re old enough to consent or even marry…it’s confusing, isn’t it? The teen mothers who told their stories mostly didn’t think that the media glamorized teen pregnancy (though each interview included leading questions to that effect) and cited social stigma as a main concern – the stigma that Candies is contributing to.

Candies admits on their website that they shape the way teens think about pregnancy by influencing teen culture. So at least they’re honest about teaching our children to shame young families and indoctrinating them to feel shame if they ever do have a child before 00:01am on their 20th birthday. Candies uses the word “statistic” to shame young families and created a poster featuring Bristol Palin with her son Tripp and the words “I never thought I’d be a statistic”. Which makes no sense as older parents are also statistics. Everyone’s a statistic for multiple things – your age group, gender, relationship status, health, race…

The Lies They’re Feeding Teens

One of the Candies posters (also featured on their website) is captioned “You’re supposed to be changing the world, not changing diapers”. This indoctrinates young minds with the lie that they can’t go to university or have a career if they’re a father or mother. This may create self-fulfilling prophecies of teens not going on to higher education because they believe in the lie.

The Secret of their Success

I didn’t report Candies’ shaming tweets and #noteenpreg hashtag to Twitter because I believe everyone has a right to free speech. I also believe that to challenge harmful attitudes and behaviours we must first allow those responsible to speak. But if I had, I doubt Twitter woould have suspended the account. If Candies had tweeted #noteengays or #noteenblacks everyone would have been outraged. But, like other slut shamed minorities (lone mothers, sex workers, ‘sluts’, swingers, poly people) teen mothers are still fair game.

That’s the secret of Candies Foundation’s success. Culling a class or a race or religion would be beyond shocking, but getting rid of an entire family form is acceptable. Pull the PR strings right, and it can be seen as responsible and good to prevent ‘teenage pregnancy’ in a way that preventing older pregnancy never could.

This is just moralising and control of female sexuality

The Candies Foundation isn’t doing something new by leading the fight to destroy an entire family form by brainwashing innocent young teens and dazzling them with celebrities. It’s the misogynistic legacy of controlling womens’ agency, sexuality and behaviour. Just because the Candies Foundation uses an image of care and allies itself with feminist goals of wanting young women to have careers doesn’t make it any better. Think about it: nobody trying to get taken seriously uses the N word anymore, right? They’ll go on about the negative effect of immigration. No one says “kill all the gays”, they have to use words like “traditions” and “values” if they want any support. So it’s no surprise that the Candies Foundation has dropped the Fifties-style “illegitimate mothers” in favour of a caring feminist-esque image.

The Candies Foundation’s email is info@candiesfoundation.org. (This information is publically posted on their website which is why I feel comfortable about making it available here.)

Getting pregnant won’t ruin your life: teenage girls, pregnancy and myths

As Doortje Braeken noted in her telegraph column, “we’re not teaching young women about teenage motherhood because we don’t believe it’s a good idea because we do see that it reduces a woman’s future choices.” She went on to say that personal choice is absolutely sovereign. I fully agree with Doortje Braeken but I want to highlight the issue of believing that pregnancy limits choices.

Because the idea that starting a family at a younger age somehow magically limits a woman’s choices is absurd. 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 attending because you are a mother or father and it’s the norm for older or mature students to be parents. If older students are often parents why are younger students assumed to be unable to cope? And that’s without considering the fact that while kids take up lots of time and attention, many students work while studying so it’s not like being childfree means you have unlimited reserves of time.

As for finances, SAAS (and its English/Welsh equivalent) take whether students have dependents into account when calculating student loans and grants. Universities have Childcare funds for student parents and university creches.

Enough of the theory – what about real life? There’s a woman with a PhD in my town who had her first child aged 17. I know someone who had a baby while in high school and last I heard of her she was in her third year of university. Another young woman had a child while at university and she got her degree. A top politician in the early 1990s had been a lone mother when she was aged 19.

This lie that having a baby will ruin your life is just a subconcious knee-jerk reaction born of fear of teen sexuality. It is designeed to encourage girls to have abortions or decide to postpone pregnancy so they can appear pure young virgins. Because if they were married or older we would expect- and welcome– pregnancy. It’s their age and unmarried status that we discriminate against. As a society we feel uncomfortable seeing evidence of female sexuality especially when those women are young. We’d rather they were abstinent or at least didn’t plan on having babies or aborted the foetuses they were carrying.

Teen boys aren’t targeted with this lie as often as teen girls, possibly because we believe all teen fathers are deadbeat dads – which is far from true. But it’s precisely our shaming of teen parents which discourages young fathers from being involved with their children. The stigma is hypocritical because it stems from conservative religious-based attitudes about women’s sexual behaviour. It’s also quite stupid when you remember that in Britain and most other countries our ancestors married much younger than we do today and so we’re all descended from teen mums.

Something that doesn’t get talked about much is what if a girl or boy 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. A 12 year old having a baby he or she has wanted and planned for is a good thing, and certainly a much better parent than a thirtysomething who doesn’t really want children.

When I was 14 or 15 years old, we were made to watch a VHS (so retro!) about a girl who gets pregnant and has to choose between going to uni and raising her baby. In reality there is no such choice and after the video was over I stuck my hand up and said as much. I said the video was a lie and there was no reason why you couldn’t go to university with a baby. Nobody disagreed and neither did the teacher. I was sickened by the film and I decided right then that I would never let such lies go unchallenged. Shortly after it was hometime and I thought of the film in the bus back home. Despite using MSN and MySpace and planning my own website, I didn’t know blogs existed back in 2004/5. If I had, Slutocracy would be a lot older.

Why we stigmatise teen pregnancy: teen sex and intersectionality

Why is there a stigma, perpetuated by the media, about teenage pregnancy? And why does the expression “teen pregnancy” and other terms like “teenage mother” or “young mum” exist at all? It’s because of age discrimination – the only thing pathological about these families is the age of the female parent. Intersectionality – being female, being a parent, and being young – is what creates the prejudice.

But I think we also have to look further. Because how could we stigmatise teens having families if we didn’t stigmatise teen sex? This month’s Cosmo has “Are you getting enough sex?” on its front cover, but where is the equivalent focus on sex in teen magazines? There isn’t one. The media pathologises sexting as if only teens were doing it, or if only adullts should be allowed to sext.

I think we really need to ask ourselves: “Is it acceptable for a teen too have a great sex life?” Because honestly I don’t think it is. 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. When she refused, he became a priest (and as they say, the rest is history.) In keeping with the Catholic teen sex theme, the Virgin Mary would have been an unwed teen mother.

So, if it currently isn’t acceptable for teens to have sex, what’s our justification for sex blogging, sexting and consuming pornography while we force celibacy on our children? Selfishness? Prudery? Or are we competing with our teenage kids for available partners?

Whatever the answer, it certainly won’t be a noble or sensible reason why we’re doing this. Or why we have taken the wider double standard and slut shaming trend into our repressioon of teen sexuaality so that teenage mothers are stigmatised more than teenage fathers.

Teenage pregnancy isn’t real

Ever since we humans evolved, we have been reproducing. As society developed, diverse tribal customs grew up surrounding sex, reproduction and marriage, enforced by tribal laws. More complex societies enforced an age of consent through laws enforced by the state. We need laws to protect younger people from adult exploitation and enable them to explore their sexuality in a fun, natural way. However, what we don’t need is an arbitrary and uncertain designation of “teenage pregnancy” – which is mostly used by Western countries.

This category is wavering. In the UK, teen pregnancy or being a teenage mother usually refers to being underage (under 16). But in the USA the terms are used even for 19 year olds. In any case, categorising 13-19 year olds as a different class of family is arbitrary. It is arbitrary no matter how you define ‘teenage pregnancy’. You could include preteen pregnancy and have it as 12-19, or exclude those over the age of majority and it would be 12-17. Or exclude those over the age of consent, so only those 15 and under would be included. Whatever definition you use, the categorising is flawed: a 12 year old parent’s experience is very different from a 19 year old’s. In fact, the difference is much greater than the difference between a 19 year old and a 20 year old – yet, the latter would nit count as a “teen mum”. In most regions of the world the term is meaningless, especially in countries which do not stigmatise young families (e.g. the Scandinavian countries and Estonia) and countries with a lower average age of first marriage or first birth.

The concept of ‘teenage pregnancy’ is specific to our culture in which people have families later in life, choosing to prioritise their careers, independence and sex lives before having children.

The concept harms young families. By labelling these girls, boys and their families, stigma and shaming of young parents is promoted. Older families become the norm against which younger families are judged, and younger families are often ‘othered’ at best. At worst, young mothers are demonised as benefit cheating sluts and young fathers as runaway dads; neither are thought to be ambitious, still in education, or employed.

The media and politicians have to take responsibility for promoting ‘teenage pregnancy’ as a concept and also for portraying young families – especially mothers – as problem people to be helped or punished. Their family forms are often targeted for extinction as politicians publically admit to wanting to reduce or combat teenage pregnancy. This further stigmatises these families as a disease within society or vermin to be eradicated. Other family forms are not being eradicated by the government in the same way. It is likely that if the government announced a policy to combat and reduce the nuclear family or the same-sex family there would be extreme and sustained national outrage.

Although social scientists now know that the age of the mother at first birth has no effect on outcomes for either mother or child, the prejudice still survives. Even though ‘teenage pregnancy’ has been steadily falling since the 1970s – something nobody else seemed to realise until Nadine Dorries’ abstinence education bill in January, when the media suddenly and uncharacteristically rushed to print the truth.

Combatting teenage pregnancy denies teens the reproductive freedom and life choices granted to older citizens. Combatting unwanted pregnancy is key, and not all teenage pregnancies are unwanted, especially pregnancies to mid- and late- teens. Young families do not have to be stigmatised. In fact, in Estonia in the 2000s the birth rate was low and so what we would call ‘teenage pregnancy’ was encouraged and glorified. The government and media are choosing to ‘other’ young families, portray them negatively and expose them to stigma.

 

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