Why We Can’t Just Fix Teen Pregnancy By Saying “Use Condoms” (Pt 3)
I had already posted an excerpt of my research on teen pregnancy, but there are a couple more bits of it I want to share. I promise, this won’t be a regular thing, but I think there are certain things I can and should be sharing, now that I have them. It’s not long, but I think it highlights a couple of important things, especially the ways in which poverty and gender intersect to fundamentally distort women’s options with regards to sexual and reproductive health and decision-making. The following is pulled from Whose Fault is it Anyway? The Framing of Teen Pregnancy in Public Discourse and Popular Media (2012):
Proponents of the “wrong society” discourse on teenage pregnancy would point out another flaw in the current interventions: these interventions presume that individuals are in fact able to meaniningfully implement safer sex techniques once they are made aware of them, and in doing so fail to recognize structural barriers that often interfere with the ability of individuals, especially women, to take part in these interventions. Petchesky (1984) and Nathanson (1991) argue that young women’s sexual behavior and reproductive decision-making processes take place within the context of unequal access to opportunities for sex, contraceptive options, healthcare delivery systems, and abortion. Systemic problems with access to healthcare disproportionately impact low-income groups, the same groups which are most impacted by teenage pregnancy. Moreover, the lack of access or perceived lack of access to reproductive healthcare presents itself as a barrier to the meaningful implementation of the current behavioral interventions targeting teen pregnancy.
This highlights some of the problems inherent in the “wrong girl” pedagogy. At present, the “wrong girl” isn’t just wrong because she is pregnant: she is wrong because she is sexually active and “irresponsible”. Though this message may appeal to policy-makers, even to parents, it seems unlikely to be resonating well with adolescents. The “wrong girl” pedagogy is a misdirection of blame, from a system that deters young women from making responsible choices to the girl who was never given acceptable options to choose from.
This indicates several things: first, it presents a possible partial explanation for the role of poverty as a risk factor for teenage pregnancy, and second, it provides grounds for a case that structural and behavioral interventions need to be complementary. Increased contraceptive usage may well reduce rates of teenage pregnancy, but only if teenage girls in the most vulnerable populations are made aware of their options regarding contraception, feel empowered to utilize these options, and are able to access contraception. The viability of these behavioral interventions is predicated on a foundation that structural interventions are needed to achieve.
Here’s the crux of the matter: when we discuss sex education and responsible sexual behavior, we do so with the assumption that if we tell people things like “use condoms” or “use birth control”, they are actually able to do so. In many cases, however, they aren’t, and the policies that our legislators are presently promoting in many ways inhibit the ability of individuals to actually make the “responsible” choices that we demand of them.
Planned Parenthood is the perfect example of this issue: politicians state publicly that women need to make more “responsible” decisions (and in my next post on this subject, we’ll get into why the way we handle discussing sexual behavior dooms “just say no” to failure), but then move to defund one of the organizations best situated to facilitate said responsible behavior. Planned Parenthood has hundred of clinics across the United States, which are placed so that low-income individuals can access them and utilize a sliding pay scale to ensure that low-income individuals are able to get the services they need. While politicians are so busy being up in arms about things like abortion, they fail to recognize that clinics like Planned Parenthood provide vital services like breast cancer screenings and STI tests, as well as access to tools like condoms and birth control, in order to prevent the unwanted pregnancies that lead to the abortions these politicians are so desperate to eliminate. On top of that, Planned Parenthood clinics are run in a way that is non-judgemental, which is important for women who live in conservative or religious communities, and would be uncomfortable going to other healthcare providers in search of things like contraceptives.
The reality of the situation is this: if we want people to make good choices on an individual level, we have to give them the resources necessary to make those choices. We need to promote clinics and other programs that provide services to low-income communities, healthcare providers that are welcoming and willing to engage with women where they are in life. If our politicians want to see fewer abortions and healthier communities, it’s time to stop vilifying organizations that help women and sticking taboos on the subject of sexual and reproductive health, and start making policies that make sense.