Cristina DeJesus was 16 when she first saw a plus sign on her pregnancy test stick. Like most new mothers-to-be, she rushed to the hospital anytime she experienced unusual vaginal bleeding. Once in a nurse’s care, however, her experiences changed drastically. Instead of concern and support, DeJesus was told that she’d be better off if she had a miscarriage.
The shame DeJesus faced for being a pregnant, baby-faced teen, while harrowing, is far from unique in the U.S., the country with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the developed world.
In fact, the predominant message sent to young mothers and pregnant teens in the media, by politicians and from teachers at schools is that they are promiscuous, tarnished goods who are bringing “problem children” into the world.
It’s this kind of rationale that is forcing students “suspected” of being pregnant to take pregnancy tests,barring teen mothers from displaying their pregnant bellies in school yearbooks and allowing a New York City Human Resource Administration campaign that suggests teen moms are somehow “to blame” with slogans like “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen,” and “Honestly, Mom … chances are he won’t stay with you. What will happen to me?”
These stigmatizing anti-teen pregnancy messages, so often tinged with racism, classism and sexism, end up placing a greater burden on a group of people who need the most support. That’s why#NoTeenShame, a movement led by seven young mothers, aims to improve strategic messaging campaigns and shift conversations around young parenting to a non-stigmatizing and non-shaming approach, while also highlighting the importance of comprehensive sex education.
While the controversial Candie’s Foundation’s star-studded anti-teen pregnancy campaign claims that young women are “supposed to be changing the world … not changing diapers,” the #NoTeenShame women, along with the many teen moms who battle the unnecessary stigma and discrimination that come with young parenthood, say they are changing the world because they are changing diapers, not in spite of them.
Here are just a few of the lies we need to stop telling about teen pregnancy and young motherhood in the U.S.
1. Teen pregnancy and birthrates are increasing.
Nearly 6% of teenage women in the U.S. aged 15 to 19 years old become pregnant each year. While this may seem high to some, in fact it’s a record low. Citing the most recent statistics on teenage pregnancy available, a 2014 Guttmacher Institute report shows that in 2010, close to 615,000 teen pregnancies occurred, marking a 51% decline since 1990.
This decline in teenage pregnancy crosses racial and ethnic groups, with both black and white teen pregnancy rates declining by 56% and Latina teens experiencing a 51% decrease of their own.
This significant drop in teenage pregnancy, however, hasn’t halted the mainstream media from inaccurately claiming that teen birth rates are on the rise, especially in communities of color. In May, for example, Bill O’Reilly responded to Beyoncé’s appearance on the cover of TIME‘s “Most Influential” list by suggesting the singer’s presentation and lyrics are contributing to the growing rate of teen pregnancy in the African-American community.
2. Teen pregnancy and childbearing is an “urban” problem.
Despite the stereotype that teen pregnancy is primarily an “urban problem,” statistics show that the teen birth rate is nearly one-third higher in the United States’ rural areas, not metropolitan city centers.
In fact, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’s 2013 study, teens in rural counties face the highest rate of pregnancy and the slowest decline in teenage pregnancy. Between 1990 and 2010, for instance, teen pregnancies in urban areas declined by 49%, while rural counties saw a decline of just 32%.
Furthermore, while the Guttmacher Institute reports that today’s U.S. teens are predominantly less sexually active and using more contraception, the opposite is true for teens in rural areas, who are having more sex while often not using birth control. Though the study doesn’t explain this phenomenon, researchers speculate that a lack of opportunities and access to contraception in rural areas contribute to a high pregnancy rate.
3. Young love is never “real” love.
Teen romance is often devalued as nothing more than “puppy love,” with some adults even questioningteenagers’ abilities to know what love is.
When Natasha Vianna, a young mom and #NoTeenShame advocate, would talk to her parents about her love for her then-boyfriend and the father of her child, her parents would reduce her feelings to hormones or rebellion. Eight years later, at 26, Vianna still talks about her high school boyfriend as one of the most caring people in her life at the time, someone who was genuinely there for her.
DeJesus, who was 16 when she got pregnant, also knew that the love in her teenage relationship was genuine. “Yes, I was young,” DeJesus, who at 24 remains with her children’s father, told PolicyMic. “But you know when you love somebody and when that person loves you too. [Age] doesn’t matter.”
Dr. Nancy Kalish, a psychology professor who studies lost loves and lost love reunions, agrees: “First love, young love, is indeed real love.”
While Vianna and DeJesus speak from experience, Kalish is able to support the validity of teen love through scholarship — more specifically, a recent study of 1,600 people, where 25% of participants said they would reunite with their first love if given the opportunity.
4. Young women don’t know what they want.
It’s a mistake to assume that pregnancy is always something that teenagers want to avoid, or that all teen pregnancies are unplanned. In fact, a 1998 report by the Guttmacher Institute looking at teenagers’ pregnancy intentions and decisions in California reported that 32% of teens had intended to become pregnant, while 25% had not cared and 43% had not intended to become pregnant.
DeJesus would fit into the 25%.
“It wasn’t planned,” DeJesus told PolicyMic. “But we weren’t using birth control, so we knew there was a possibility that I would become pregnant.”
While fewer than half of the teen women in the Guttmacher Institute study had not intended to become pregnant, theirs is the predominant story we see in mainstream media. From films and scripted TV shows like Juno and The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which both depict consenting teenagers who have unplanned pregnancies after engaging in unprotected sex, to Precious, which portrays a teen mother who was impregnated after her father raped her, popular media seem to only be concerned with sharing teen pregnancy stories that perpetuate the idea that young parenthood is never planned.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these representations — unplanned teen pregnancies do happen — but Vianna does think the propagation of the same teenage pregnancy portrayals furthers the idea that teens don’t know what they want and thus must be reminded to reject any notion of teen pregnancy.
“Teen pregnancy and teen parenthood is a feminist issue,” Vianna told PolicyMic. “We are repeatedly telling young women to say ‘no.’ If you keep telling them to say ‘no,’ do they have the power to say ‘yes?’ Who determines?”
5. Teen moms don’t enjoy motherhood.
ust about every episode of the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant has a scene where the new mom is “reminded” that her pregnancy or baby has “robbed” her of her social life and ends with her talking into a web cam, expressing her regret for not waiting to have a child.
Putting aside the fact that these types of reality shows are often staged, these depictions ignore facts in the name of dramatic entertainment. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen moms are more likely than older moms to have postpartum depression.
With messages of loss and regret often regurgitated in the media, anti-teen pregnancy campaigns and even unconsciously among friends and family of a teen parent, it’s not difficult to decipher why young moms experience depression.
“How can I enjoy a punishment?” Vianna, who experienced postpartum depression the first year of motherhood, told PolicyMic. “It’s not meant to be enjoyed.”
But Vianna believes that if teen mothers weren’t bombarded with messages that shame them, their entry into motherhood would look much different.
“If young mothers had the support and resources to think about what makes teen motherhood so hard, they’d realize it’s not being a mother; it’s society. Life was hard because the people around me were rooting for me to fail,” Vianna said.
6. Only white teen moms can have a happy ending.
From advertisements to characters on hit shows and in films, the only teen mothers who seem to get their happy ending in the media are young white moms.
Amy Juergens, for example, the main protagonist of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, escapes a loveless relationship with her baby’s father and is able to move across the country to New York to attend Hudson University. In Juno, Ellen Page’s character Juno MacGuff has supportive parents, easily finds an adoptive parent and gets her guy in the end to top it all off. Meanwhile, Quinn Fabray of Glee is getting the “best of both worlds,” as she gives up her baby without incident, successfully pursues her high school love and ends up at an Ivy League school.
In contrast, Precious ends with Claireece Precious Jones’ plans to complete a GED test and the news that she’s HIV-positive. Details about The OC‘s Theresa Diaz’s pregnancy and teen motherhood are incomplete, leaving viewers guessing if she in fact doesn’t know who the father of her baby is, or, the more popular assumption, that Ryan is her child’s father, but she lies to him about it. A similar portrayal of a struggling, single young mom of color with boyfriend troubles is found in Chenille Reynolds in Save the Last Dance.
The contrasts are clear: Juno, Quinn and Amy are all white women and all seem to easily navigate the teen pregnancy experience. Meanwhile, minority mothers like Precious, Theresa and Chenille are left stranded and struggling, with little hope for a future in sight.
7. Teen pregnancy is young women’s fault.
From STIs to unplanned pregnancies, young women already disproportionately suffer the consequences of unprotected sex, and anti-teen pregnancy campaigns and programs only continue to tilt the scale against them.
Though we all know it takes two to tango, a Legal Momentum report titled “Sex, Lies and Stereotypes” shows that anti-teen pregnancy programs, specifically abstinence-only measures, teach young men that women are the gatekeepers of male sexual aggression. This places the onus completely on women to face the unintended consequences of unprotected sex, as reflected in anti-teen pregnancy campaigns, which are overwhelmingly directed exclusively to teen girls.
If the goal is to help prevent unintended teen pregnancies, however, it’s crucial to add teen boys and young men, who have as much control over unintended pregnancies as do young women, into the conversation. Even more important, surveys show that young men want to be armed with the information they need to prevent unintended pregnancies.
8. Teen moms are tarnished goods.
Once a teen woman in the U.S. becomes pregnant, she is often seen as sullied, no longer able to contribute productively to society.
While statistics show that teen moms are less likely to finish high school than other teens, it’s also true that when a pregnant teen or a teen parent has support at home and in school, their chances of finishing school increases. Further, most teenage pregnancies occur at 18 and 19, when parents have already graduated from high school.
But schools, clinics, government offices and greater society are generally not very supportive of teen mothers.
“Everyone is really good at being really terrible to teen moms,” Gloria Malone, a #NoTeenShame activist who got pregnant at 15, told PolicyMic. “Someone once told me that I’m stealing their tax dollars because I couldn’t keep my legs closed.”
The truth is that teen mothers are just like many other new mothers. Parenting is novel and challenging, but they too want their children to lead great lives.
“We are contributing members of society,” Malone, 24, said. “Maya Angelou was a teen mom. The MVP of the NBA is a child of a teen mom. LeBron James was a teen dad. Our president is the son of a teen mom. The idea that we are tarnished goods is simply not true.”