Before the sexual revolution happened in the ’60s and ’70s, life got bleak for pregnant teen girls really fast. You could be cast from your home and sent away to give birth in seclusion, or risk an illegal and dangerous back-alley abortion. In 2010, the pendulum has swung entirely in the opposite direction — but not necessarily in a good way. MTV allegedly pitched “Teen Mom” as a program after Jamie-Lynn Spears (Brit-Brit’s little sis) became pregnant at 16; last year, Bristol Palin made the cover of People magazine and soon she’ll be dancing with the stars, while Maci Bookout and Farah Abraham from “16 & Pregnant” grace the covers of OK! and Us Weekly with their babies as props. So it’s fair to ask if our social attitudes have swung entirely in the opposite direction, too: Does putting girls whose only claim to fame is getting knocked up while they still had a learner’s permit “glamorize” teen pregnancy? Really, I think the joke’s on these girls — but it’s not a funny joke. Bristol, Farah, Maci and the others may be enjoying some “fame” now, but they are still the ones who are diapering babies during their teen years, struggling to finish high school, possibly missing out on getting college educations, and airing their dirty laundry to the whole world, including future employers. (I also have to wonder why pop culture is only shining a light on it when it’s middle- or upper-class white girls who are getting pregnant.)
Arguing whether or not teens interpret this tiny bit of attention as “glamorous” is not as useful as making serious overtures to try to stop teen pregnancy from happening. (And no, Bristol, your five-figure speaking fees to preach abstinence are not serious overtures, you big hypocrite.) I’m only the 9,000th person to say this, but our culture sends teenagers really mixed messages about sex. We put them in “abstinence-only sex ed” classes. We force teen girls to notify their parents or get parental approval before they have an abortion. We freak out when schools suggest handing out condoms in the nurses office. And then we expect them to magically understand what to do and how to do it safely when they’re “old enough” to have sex.
Instead, we should be asking whether or not we’re using the focus on teen pregnancy as a teachable moment. These magazine covers, “Dancing With The Stars” appearances, and “Teen Mom” episodes are actually excellent opportunities to teen teens about how to use contraception, conflict resolution, and healthy relationships. I know that sounds boring, but if your kids/little sisters and brothers aren’t getting that education in school, why not use “Teen Mom” yourself? If I had a tween or a teen, I’d be parking my butt on the couch next to them every single week, gritting my teeth as Ryan and Gary (Maci and Amber Portwood’s ex-boyfriends/fiancés) half-ass their parenting duties, and gently suggesting, “Yeah, 16-year-old boys don’t always have the maturity to be good fathers and someone you date when you’re a sophomore in high school may not be someone you want to co-parent with the rest of your life.” Or say, “It’s important to use birth control every single time, because you never know what could happen.” Or say, “Wow, I feel bad for these girls that it’s so hard for them to get school work done. If they don’t get their GEDs, think of how hard it will be for them to get a job!”
I’d rather see Christina Hendricks on the cover of People than Bristol Palin, too. But if pregnant teen girls get their moment in the media’s graces, the least we can do is use it wisely. The alternative could be much, much worse.