One of the great things about WisCon, the conference Marianne and I just returned from, is not just the programming, but the conversations that happen throughout the hotel we effectively take over for the duration of the conference. If there’s a common area, it will be filled with people talking about all sorts of amazing things, and it’s possible to move seamlessly between a huge variety of topics, some of which are very intense, with people you’ve just met. Or people you get to see every WisCon.
Which means that every meal is filled with fantastic conversation, as are any other hangouts, like cocktail hour in the Governor’s Club (the elitist part of the hotel). I found myself sitting down with Mikki Kendall, her partner, and an assortment of other Chicago residents, when the Chicago Department of Public Health’s latest teen pregnancy ad campaign came up, and I was fascinated.
Chicago, like many cities across the United States, is trying to push the envelope with teen pregnancy campaigns to get people thinking about the issue. It wants to spark a conversation to bring down its teen birth rate, estimated at 1.5 times the national average, even though they’re already experiencing a decline in teen births.
So this campaign features a number of striking images of young men who appear to be pregnant. The idea is to point out that it takes two to tango, and to expand the scope of the conversation; teen pregnancy includes not just women but men (and people of other genders, who don’t show up in the campaign at all). Having a discussion about responsibility that shifts the burden solely from young women seems like a good thing, but there are also some important and valid criticisms of the campaign.
At RH Reality Check, Elizabeth Schroeder points out that the word “sex” doesn’t actually appear in any of the ads, and the sensational nature of the campaign waters down the core messages. More critically, there are some serious Gender Problems with showing images of pregnant men, which she briefly touched upon.
The assumption many people may have when looking at a picture of a pregnant man is that the original photograph was manipulated to make him look pregnant. I see a trans man carrying a pregnancy; something that isn’t as unusual as many people think it is. And so do some other viewers, who have expressed concerns about whether the campaign is sensitive to trans issues.
Apparently, the CDPH did think about this and actually consulted “professionals working specifically on transgender issues” to get an all-clear, but Schroder didn’t go into detail on what that meant. Did she mean actual trans people, particularly trans men? Did those “professionals” solicit opinions from outside advocacy organizations and activists? Amazingly, “consulting” and getting a thumbs-up doesn’t absolve you of responsibility.
And some members of the trans community are not happy about the ads, finding them offensive; here’s a series of images in which pregnant male bodies are objectified, but more than that, they’re viewed as ludicrous. They’re being shown for the shock factor, as in “Look at this bizarre thing that can’t happen,” when in fact those images depict the real-world experiences of some men.
Which means that trans men living and passing through Chicago are now being bombarded with a series of ads effectively making fun of their bodies. This campaign, intended to spark a discussion, ultimately positions some bodies and identities as freakish, which shuts down conversation and cultivates fear and confusion about trans experiences.
Kate Dries at Jezebel, moreover, notes that public awareness campaigns alone rarely work. Which is why it’s good to hear that the CDPH isn’t stopping with sensationalized pictures of pregnant men: this campaign is being paired hand-in-hand with public health initiatives to expand sexual education, increase access to sexual health services, and empower teens to make informed choices about their bodies. Because otherwise, you just end up with shamed and confused teens.
I’m particularly interested in The Sex-Ed Loop, which features actual teens writing about their experiences. This kind of direct work in which teens get to interact freely with each other is fantastic, recognizing that teens are human beings with thoughts, opinions, and communication skills. And it encourages more frank and open conversations between teens without the patronizing pressure of some adult-mediated and created sexual education programs.
Furthermore, Illinois Democrats are pushing for more comprehensive sexual education in the state, right down to kindergarten.
Which means that in this sense, the CDPH is doing something right. It’s pairing a splashy campaign with the infrastructure to back it. The bigger question is whether it’s possible to devise a splashy campaign that isn’t offensive, that manages to get people thinking about issues without alienating at the same time.
As a series of well-meaning but awful teen pregnancy campaigns has demonstrated, numerous cities have already failed at this. What would a comprehensive, inclusive, radical teen pregnancy awareness, education, and discussion campaign actually look like?
And once again we find ourselves facing an important question: does anything go in the name of a cause? I don't think so, especially if provocative campaigns aren't backed by anything substantial. In this case, the campaign is, but what kinds of messages is it sending at the same time it tries to provoke conversation?