You know what’s awesome? New York City has managed to push teen pregnancy rates down by 27% over the last decade, reflecting a national trend. More teens across the country are using contraceptives, including dual methods, and while there have been some state-level increases, overall, the country is trending down in the teen pregnancy direction.
Which most of us think is a good thing; unplanned pregnancies are a good thing to avoid, particularly in people who are struggling with a lot of life changes at the time.
However, New York City doesn’t want to rest on its laurels. Which is commendable, it really is, because, hey, public health is all about long-term outreach, prevention, and education. Which means that if you want to keep that rate low, and keep pushing it down, you need to maintain a sustained effort to ensure that teens have access to resources to learn more about their options and prevent pregnancy.
The way in which the city has chosen to go about it, however, leaves much to be desired. They’ve chosen a shaming campaign -- and look, you guys, I know how much you hate it when we start throwing the word “shaming” around, but it’s the only word I can really use to talk about this campaign -- intended to frighten teens rather than educate them. With a series of fearmongering subway ads, the city’s campaign allegedly talks about the real costs of teen pregnancy, but there’s some deeper, grosser stuff going on below the surface.
First of all, this is a campaign designed to make people feel bad. These ads specifically set up teenage pregnancy as wrong and something to feel guilty about, using the faces of children as manipulative tools; the idea is that people will look at them and feel guilty. Including, say, teenage parents who see the ads. You know, the ones who chose pregnancy? And who are reminded on a daily basis that they are everything that is wrong with society?
There’s nothing educational on these posters. People are invited to text a number to get information about the “costs of teen pregnancy,” but that’s focusing on the wrong end of the stick. Rather than telling people teen pregnancy is expensive (and it is, don’t get me wrong), why not focus on how to prevent it.
A WHIFF OF RACISM
And let’s talk about the racial narratives of the campaign, which are really key.
We have a child who looks like she’s Latina, with the caption “Honestly, Mom...chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” The framing of the ad plays on the idea that men of color will ditch women when they get pregnant instead of “sticking around.”
There’s a Black child, saying “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year.” Well, gee, folks, let’s talk about the huge income gap between Black and white folks, especially the gap between Black women and white people (women and men). Or, for that matter, the gap in net worth among Black women. This is about intergenerational poverty, and teen pregnancy is only a part of that picture.
Meanwhile, here’s a white child saying “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” Because high school (and college) are important for white children -- that’s the message being sent with this ad. Notable that for children of color, it’s all about money and whether your baby daddy will stay with you, while for white children, it’s about education and whether you’ll have a chance at getting out of generational poverty through one of the most effective methods available: a diploma and a degree.
Another likely white child references child support, pulling us back to the money theme in the only ad that directly speaks to prospective fathers rather than mothers. And it frames teen pregnancy as something that will cost you a lot of money...but not necessarily time. Interesting that dad will be “paying to support” a child for the next 20 years, but not necessarily participating in the active raising of said child, at least according to this campaign. And, again, interesting that this is aimed at a presumably white father.
Obviously these ads are intended to be provocative and eye-catching, but the pairing of each statement with each child was not random. These were carefully chosen, and the people who chose them were aware of the racial and gendered overtones.
WE NEED ACTUAL HELP FOR TEEN PARENTS, NOT THIS
The problem with teen pregnancy is not that teens are having babies. The problem is that teens who have babies receive very limited social support, not just in the form of people not being jerks to them, but in the form of living in a society that accepts that pregnancy happens and provides measures for it. There’s no reason teen parents shouldn’t finish high school and go to college if they want, except that the system is stacked against them. Likewise, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to work, but, again, few jobs are flexible enough to accommodate teen parents.
So the problem isn’t that teen pregnancy “causes poverty,” but that attitudes about teen pregnancy, combined with intergenerational poverty, combined with lack of access to resources for low-income teens, cause poverty. And I don’t see anything in these advertisements that addresses these issues; this, again, is a campaign that’s supposedly trying to get kids out of poverty, which is a huge and critical thing in the United States right now! I am all for eliminating poverty for everyone, but especially children!
But shaming people actually isn’t the way to do it.