Real Talk: Real-Life Teen Moms Sound Off On Study Claiming “Teen Mom” Reduced Teen Pregnancies

There never seems to be a moment where young parenthood isn’t in the spotlight. But it’s gotten a recent boost this week after the The New York Times reported on a recent study purporting that shows like MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” have helped in the reduction of teen pregnancies. The study suggested as many as 20,000 teen pregnancies were prevented in 2010 because of young adults watching those shows.

Many outlets have been reporting on this study, but very few are including the thoughts or opinions from those they’re talking about. So, after the jump, here’s a roundtable discussion conducted over email with Gloria Malone and Natasha Vianna, who are both tireless advocates for teen moms and their families.

  • Gloria Malone is a freelance writer, public speaker and the creator of Gloria’s publication credits and media appearances include The New York Times, “The O’Reilly Factor” and NPR. Follow her on Twitter: @GloriaMalone
  • Natasha Vianna is a Boston-based activist and a fearless young mother. Chat with Natasha on Twitter: @NatashaVianna

Avital Norman Nathman: Let’s start by getting your thoughts and reactions to the study and the Times article about it. 

Gloria Malone: First off, correlation is not causation. The ‘study’ is basically saying that parading the destitute life teen moms live is the way to reduce teenage pregnancy which is incorrect and lazy.

Natasha Vianna: After reading the New York Times article, I was most disappointed in The National Campaign for taking this study and spinning into an opportunity to perpetuate the idea that exploiting teen moms during their vulnerable times is an accurate method of sexual education. With such “amazing” research being done and so much emphasis on how vital the show “16 & Pregnant” was in connection to the drop in teen pregnancy rate, I’m curious to know how leaders — who jump at the opportunity to take credit — have stepped up and shown their appreciation for the teen moms on the show without tokenizing them.

One thing I’ve noticed whenever I talk about these types of shows, is that most people blow them off as “harmless entertainment.” Why is that so inaccurate?

Gloria: Because my life, my family, and the existence of my peers is not “harmless entertainment.” These shows appropriate teenage pregnancy to continue to narrative that teen moms are a mess, don’t have it together, and will never have the chance of a healthy, happy life. They perpetuate the negative teen mom narrative.

Natasha: Harmless entertainment shouldn’t be at the expense of an entire population’s respect. Harmless entertainment shouldn’t perpetuate stereotypes. Harmless entertainment shouldn’t encourage viewers to see an entire community in one way. Harmless entertainment shouldn’t encourage our culture to further isolate young mothers. If the show was “harmless entertainment” and if the show didn’t have real-life impacts in the ways teen moms are treated in real life, I wouldn’t have people — of all ages and backgrounds — comparing me to the girls on the show. When people still say “You’re not like those teen moms,” then there is something fundamentally wrong with how we, teen moms, are being portrayed in the media. When the first thing people connect me to is a reality show that exploits young women during their most vulnerable times, then this is not harmless.

We are stereotyped and stigmatized in the media and viewers are encouraged to despise us for our choices and decisions. Teens aren’t the only viewers, you know. Those gatekeepers — the people who hold our key to success — begin to pity us too. Pity isn’t empowering. Pity isn’t hopeful. Pity encourages privileged people and organizations to make it their mission to vilify us. So this “harmless entertainment” is, in fact, dangerous.

Why is it, whenever we talk about teen pregnancy/young parenthood — whether it’s these shows or this study or countless articles — the onus always gets put on the young woman?

Gloria: Men are allowed to have sex, get women pregnant, and do whatever they want because “boys will be boys and thats how men are.” Instead of holding the males just as accountable for unprotected sex, unintended pregnancies, and walking away from families, the blame is placed on women for “not being smart enough.” Another major problem is there ARE teenage fathers that ARE present in their families lives, who are loving, hard working, and are “responsible.” But these stories aren’t told and shared because the narrative of doomed teenage single motherhood is “necessary,” because some study possibly found a link between shame and reduction.

Natasha: The hatred, realistically, is towards young women. If it wasn’t, there would be shows called “Teen Parents” or “16 & Expecting.” But the dialogue stays focused on young women, their reproductive choices, and the shame we must feel (and forever live with) for the choices we made with our bodies.

You have both been quite vocal and active in calling out organizations for their shaming and non-helpful teen pregnancy prevention campaigns (i.e. Candies and PSAs that went up in New York City). How can we talk about reproductive choices/teen sex without either glorifying or demonizing teen parents?

Natasha: Our culture promotes this idea that young people do not have the power and ability to make the best decisions for themselves. We label them and disregard their intelligence and desire to know more. But what if we shifted the way we perceived them? What if we respect young people, acknowledge their agency and empower them? What if we provide them with accurate information and the tools they need to make the best decisions?

Gloria: Society loves to blame women and teens for societal problems that are caused by misogynistic and judgmental millionaires who have little to no grasp on reality (see elected officials). Pregnant female teens get this tenfold while shows like “Teen Mom” perpetuate this as the norm and necessary for judgment.

We are chastised for exploring and God forbid enjoying our sexuality (walking around pregnant), we are called “young and dumb,” “immature,” and poor decision makers all while the elders in society absolve themselves from an responsibility to younger generations.

Work with us. Listen.

And honestly to me, I don’t believe this trope that says X “glamorizes” teenage pregnancy or parenting as a teen. That line was created and continues to be told as a way to stop all conversations around said topic. As I said earlier this year, I’m no longer giving disclosures that make you feel comfortable before I talk about anything remotely associated with my life, my family, and that of my peers. For too long organizations, shows, and older people in society have talked about, over, and for us.

Listen when we talk because we’ve BEEN talking.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs for The Mamafesto. Her book The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality is out now. Follow her on Twitter.