I’ve been in utter shock since hearing of this new ad campaign in New York City aimed at preventing teen pregnancy. While I support and strongly encourage efforts to help teenagers to avoid becoming pregnant – including comprehensive and medically accurate sex education, access to contraceptives and abortion, and a culture that allows teens to talk about sex openly and honestly rather than shaming them – this ad campaign will do harm by perpetuating stereotypes and further discouraging and stigmatizing teen parents. Consider the following four points:
- The ads play on stereotypes and shame teen parents. People will see the sad faces of the babies in the ads and assume that children of teen mothers are not happy or well-cared-for. The messages about reduced graduation rates and a life in poverty paint teen mothers as incompetent and unworthy of motherhood. It is a message that mothers who live in poverty – especially young mothers of color – receive all too often. The ads perpetuate this message by featuring mostly children of color Rather than recognizing the difficulty of being a teen parent or emphasizing the importance of delaying pregnancy until after educational and career goals are met, these ads only call negative attention to them.
- The ads ignore the complex reasons why teen girls get pregnant – and have children. To effectively prevent teenage pregnancy, teens need comprehensive and medically accurate sex education and a safe space in which to discuss their sexuality. They need condom negotiation techniques and access to contraceptives, including birth control. When they become pregnant, they need access to information about all of their choices, and the financial, emotional, and medical support to make the choice that is best for them. Furthermore, many teens face intimate partner violence and sexual assault, which can result in pregnancy. As we noted in our report on pregnant and parenting students, young women who are homeless, in foster case, from low-income households, or who experience sexual abuse are more likely to become pregnant as teenagers. This ad campaign does nothing to address the lived realities of these teenagers and offers no strategies, just scare tactics.
- Teen mothers already face harassment due to their pregnancy. Pregnant teens often face sexual harassment in their schools. They are called “sluts” or “whores” by their classmates and are shunned by their friends and even teachers. This type of harassment can be illegal under Title IX [PDF] – but far too many young women experience it to the detriment of their ability to access a safe and just school learning environment. These ads will certainly not be the first time they have felt shamed due to their pregnancy, but they should not have to face this type of stigmatization while riding the subway too.
- The ads ignore that there are policy solutions to help young families succeed. It is true that family support programs have been under constant attack lately – and we can’t ignore that these programs are vital in supporting teen parents and their children. This is also a civil rights issue: Title IX prohibits discrimination against pregnant students with respect to educational opportunities; for example, schools must excuse absences and allow students to make up missed work due to childbirth or pregnancy-related conditions. And with strong support and encouragement, teen parents can and do succeed – and so do their children. In their rush to judge, these ads ignore this possibility.
New York City’s focus on shame and scare tactics rather than on positive solutions and resources may keep some teens from getting pregnant, but will leave some hanging and hurt others along the way. We recognize the importance of efforts to reduce teen pregnancy, and hope that New York and other cities will focus efforts towards implementing culturally competent, comprehensive sex education, creating open dialogue with teens around sexuality, and expanding access to contraceptives, medical care, and information about reproductive health and choice. We also hope young parents will get the support they need to complete their education and pursue careers where they can achieve financial security.