Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Teen Pregnancy, Sex Ed, and the American Media

On the way into work i got stuck in traffic like i frequently do. The radio station i usually listen to was discussing the "increased rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S. and how the media is to blame." A woman called in and emphatically discussed something along the lines of "girls nowadays are sluts who get preggers because Juno romanticized sex and teen pregnancy." Wow. That's a bold statement to make at 7 in the morning... I hoped the DJs would dispute her but instead they agreed. They declared that pop-culture like Juno, the Gloucester High pregnancy pact (how is this pop-culture? don't ask me,) and Jamie Lynn Spears are to blame for teenage pregnancy.

Really? Because I thought the U.S.'s affinity for abstinence-only sex education is to blame.

Oh wait, it is.

In fact, "abstinence-only efforts appear to have little positive impact, more comprehensive sex education programs [have] positive outcomes including teenagers delaying the initiation of sex, reducing the frequency of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners and increasing condom or contraceptive use."

So much research is coming out showing us that abstinence-only education is completely ineffective, a total waste of money, and carried on exclusively by the Bush administration. Still, here are some of the abstinence-only lessons that take place in classrooms around the country everyday:

"A peppermint patty is unwrapped and passed around the class. Once returned, the teacher asks if a student would like to eat it. The teacher is instructed to ask, 'Why is this patty no longer appealing?' The answer they give is 'No one wants food that has been passed around. Neither would you want your future husband or wife to have been passed around."

"Men sexually are like microwaves and women sexually are like crockpots… a woman is stimulated more by touch and romantic words. She is far more attracted by a man’s personality while a man is stimulated by sight. A man is usually less discriminating about those to whom he is physically attracted.”
Wow... way to generalize, take part in heteronormative language, and not give men any credit or freedom of thought...

“Girls need to be aware they may be able to tell when a kiss is leading to something else. The girl may need to put the brakes on first in order to help the boy.”

“A guy who wants to respect girls is distracted by sexy clothes and remembers her for one thing. Is it fair that guys are turned on by their senses and women by their hearts?”
Holy crap... I really don't even know what to say about this one...

“One thing that sex education and the media fail to communicate is the power of sex. Spies, who are trained not to give away government secrets, even lose their sensibilities and give in to the power of sex, often because of what a woman is wearing.”
haha... nice... what about ninjas though? ;)

“Each time a sexually active person gives that most personal part of himself or herself away, that person can lose a sense of personal value and worth. It all comes down to self-respect.”
What is with the self-respect/self-esteem bit!? Ugh! I absolutely agree that a developed sense of self-esteem is incredibly important to adolescents and teens, especially girls, but threatening that they will have low self-esteem if they engage in sexual behavior is not the way to increase self-worth.

But I digress... the radio show i was listening to got into a discussion of ABC Family's new tween series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, which i'll admit i watched last week and yesterday... They said this show, too, will contribute to an increase of teen pregnancy because the main character, Amy, becomes pregnant after the first time she has sex (at band camp nonetheless...) Truth is I absolutely love Degrassi: The Next Generation and hoped that The Secret Life would be an American counterpart to the progressive, smart, and educational Canadian show. It isn't. In fact, it's not like Degrassi at all. After looking into The Secret Life a bit more i learned that it is written by Brenda Hampton from who i have learned to expect nothing other than faith based "family values" bullshit. Brenda is most famously known for writing 7th Heaven. After 11 seasons of that god awful show (no pun intended) hasn't Hampton shoved enough conservative propaganda down America's throats?!

I was disappointed after i realized The Secret Life would be nothing like Degrassi because with the lack of comprehensive sex education in the U.S. i was really looking forward to a show unafraid to tackle serious issues like Degrassi did. Degrassi too examined teen pregnancy - from two sides actually. Manny's pregnancy ended with an abortion. Liberty also got pregnant in the series and gave the baby up for adoption. They also had episodes in two different seasons on eating disorders, one where Emma suffers from anorexia so badly that she is hospitalized and another where Toby attempts to "make weight" for wresting by using laxatives. Degrassi tackled rape, cutting, stalking, plastic surgery, coming out, mental health, relationship violence, ableism, drug use, guns at school, and so many other relevant and important issues. Good for Canada, i'm really glad there's a show like Degrassi out there to hopefully balance out the crap like The Secret Life of an American Teenager.

(in the above Degrassi banner alone the scenes are a same sex couple kissing, Manny finding out she's pregnant, Ellie cutting herself, and a drug overdose...whoa! Bet you'll start watching the show now too!)

The other interesting thing i learned while looking up fun Degrassi facts was that although the show was picked up by The-N, certain episodes and scenes were cut and not allowed to air in America. The network aired Liberty's pregnancy (she's the one that kept the baby and gave it up for adoption) but refused to air the episode where Manny has an abortion. The episode was finally shown two and a half years later in a "Degrassi Marathon" in the middle of the night... yea...

In the very first episode of The Secret Life of an American Teenager, Amy, the quiet, shy, inexperienced, band girl, has sex for her first time, gets pregnant, and explores her "options" with her two best girl friends: "Her friends tell her she has options, but abortion is apparently not one of them; that choice is dismissed right away in horrified tones. The despairing Amy does not even know the baby’s father well enough to tell him, and he probably wouldn’t care; he’s a cad in the high school band who sleeps with as many girls as he can because, viewers quickly learn, he has low self-esteem."

To me all this is just so cliche. Obviously, you can get pregnant the first time you have sex... but this scenario as a plot is just getting a bit old. It would be nice to see a character get knocked up because the condom breaks or because she's on antibiotics and doesn't realize that they decrease the efficiency of her birth control pill. I mean really, aren't writers supposed to be a bit more creative? Unless this show is purely written to scare teens out of having sex. Oh wait, it is...

Want a summary of the show? Ok, here it is, pay close attention:
Sex is bad. Sex will make you pregnant. Sex will cause low low low self-esteem.

Scarring children away from having sex by teaching them that the first time they have it they will become pregnant, immediately have low self-esteem, and will become terrible people is inadequate sex education.

The only exciting thing about this show: the school "bad boy stud" is in the marching band! word :)

A post I really wanted to link but didn't know how to tie it in here: "Too Young, Too Pregnant"


sally said...

Wait, when was Manny pregnant? I need to get back on my Degrassi grind.

FYI, I shall be linking on my blog-hopping post later today. Love your post. =)

Anonymous said...

So I agree with your assessment, but you do somewhat contradict yourself by speaking about how inadequate sex education (abstinence only) is the main problem and not pop culture, yet then delve into pop culture for the rest of your entry. Just thought I'd point that out.

Anyway, abstinence only is consistently one of the most flawed ideologies pervading today's schools, and I wish it would go the hell away. The fact that funding for it is increasing boggles my mind. Well, not really. I imagine the mindsets are, "Oh, it's not working? Put more money into it!" (see: The War On Drugs) So yes, that is the major reason. Those programs basically tell you sex is wrong and to ignore all those "dirty" natural urges. For a culture steeped in sex, this is about as mindblowing as you can get. We simultaneously have one of the most sexually aggressive and repressive cultures I have ever seen.

Which brings me to pop culture. You have to remember that children are easily influenced by pop culture. Shit, how do you think the Rachel haircut became so popular? Pregnancy does get glamorized sometimes (and sex is always glamorized). Kids can't really wrap their heads around the fact that a baby is a commitment that leaves time for very little else and costs a butt-ton of money. I haven't seen Juno, but I hated Knocked Up with a passion, and I think it's ridiculous that Jamie Lynn Spears' pregnancy got so much media coverage. I think the following picture really sums it up: .

What it comes down to is a combination of our health education system and pop culture. Pop culture tells us to fuck, using sex appeal and glossing over reality, and the government fucks with our fucking by feeding us poorly thought out ideologies. Like it or not, kids are going to have sex. We owe it to them to properly inform them of everything that comes with it, and not jam flighty moralistic bullshit into their impressionable heads that has no practical application.

Incidentally, I've browsed your blog before, but never had time to really comment on it. I'll probably write some more responses to some of your back entries.

Radical Reminders said...

oh my goodness, Sally! Another Degrassi enthusiast?! Yeay! So, let me tell you: Craig got Manny pregnant! And when she told him she was pregnant he got really excited to start a family, he bought all these "how to be a daddy" books and Emma tried to talk Manny out of having the abortion because Emma was also an "oops baby" but Spike kept her... So Manny went to Spike for advice, took the pregnancy test, and they decided together that she should get an abortion! I fucking LOVE Degrassi! hahaha... i don't the channel that it runs on anymore though so i haven't seen the last few seasons but i read today that EMMA got pregnant now too!!!!!!! AH!!!!!! (hahahaha)

Radical Reminders said...

Alex, thanks for your comment and i'm glad to have you as a reader :)

This post, however, was about the media and tv shows' depiction of teen pregnancy. It was not solely about abstinence-only vs comprehensive sex ed (i've written other posts about that however, please feel free to check those out) :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I focused on your digression a bit too much, huh. But, I think we still fundamentally agree on the main points.

Radical Reminders said...

yes, i think we do :)

Anonymous said...

"Men sexually are like microwaves and women sexually are like crockpots… a woman is stimulated more by touch and romantic words. She is far more attracted by a man’s personality while a man is stimulated by sight. A man is usually less discriminating about those to whom he is physically attracted.”

A woman is like a crockpot because she responds to words?? WTF? I think that is the worst analogy I have ever seen in my entire life.

DJ Dual Core said...

"because Juno romanticized sex and teen pregnancy."

...but it didn't. They have sex once (there is no suggestion that it was particularly good, which is realistic) and Juno does NOT enjoy being pregnant.

The only thing that film really romanticizes is friendship.

Radical Reminders said...

DJ, i couldn't agree with you more! I tried to call into the station to disagree with her myself but I didn't get through :/

Unknown said...

Yay to Degrassi, a Canadian show! And the low low low're right, I've never been the same since I've had sex. It's been so low low low low low. But it's up now, because I'm married and baking chicken as we speak. :-)

shrink on the couch said...

"refused to air the episode where Manny has an abortion"

oh brother. too depressing to even discuss. what is WRONG with this country? when are we going to shake this sexually regressed / repressed culture? the culture that alternates, two channels down, with sexist, hyper sexual content?

and, I'm glad it isn't just me who didn't get the crockpot analogy. words? touch?

GOOFY. like everything else about abstinence only policy.

DJ Dual Core said...

"“A guy who wants to respect girls is distracted by sexy clothes and remembers her for one thing. Is it fair that guys are turned on by their senses and women by their hearts?”

Holy crap... I really don't even know what to say about this one... "

This comes up over and over in many different forms. It is based on these ideas:
1) Men are slaves to our biology and can't be held responsible for what we think or do.
2) Women have the responsibility of accommodating, compensating for and controlling men by modifying their own behavior.

It is the same ideas that lead to the creation of the burka.

We had this sex ed speaker at my high school (probably about '87). After going on about condoms for a while she said "the only way to stay completely safe from STDs is to abstain but I know none of you are going to do that."

I don't know why she said that or if she believed it, even, but it made me really mad. I just kept thinking "don't tell me what I will or won't do!"

Those assumptions are bad for everybody. Being told to modify your behavior as part of giving somebody else a pass on their own responsibility...that's just outrageous.

I know this is getting long, but most of my kids go to a youth group at their mother's church. They did a really bad abstinence program last winter. Thankfully my kids were willing to talk to me about it. Anyway, they did the "women should dress modestly because of how men are" thing and I tried to explain to my daughter that yes, dressing modestly this often a good idea, but not because you are responsible for keeping lustful thoughts from guy's minds. You should dress so that a) you are comfortable and b) so that you are comfortable with how you are perceived.

sally said...


I'm sorry, I really did enjoy this post intellectually, but it's hard to not get sidetracked by all of this Degrassi news.

Radical Reminders said...

DJ, you seem like an excellent dad :) i know many men that could learn a lot from you. I especially love your explanation about modest dress: "You should dress so that a) you are comfortable and b) so that you are comfortable with how you are perceived." that is a perfect way to frame it. awesome :)

frau visionaria benz, I KNOW, RIGHT?! i'm not 100% sure, it's just something i read while searching for info - i haven't seen this season because i don't get the channel but can't wait to catch up once it comes out on dvd!!!!!!!! :)

Smirking Cat said...

So the answer to teen pregnancy is to teach teens that boys have no control over their sexual urges and should not be expected to have any control, and that sex for a girl likens her to a used Peppermint Patty, condemns her to low self esteem, and has no basis on visual or physical attraction?

Okayyyyy....great education there.

The Crockpot analogy is still cracking me up!

shrink on the couch said...

I agree that the whole dressing modestly arguement shouldn't be framed in "boys can't control their urges." That message is wrong on so many levels.

I teach my girls that if they want to be taken seriously, if they want to be listened to instead of ogled, then modest attire is a smarter choice.

Unfortunately, clothes that are too revealing ARE distracting in many settings. And sadly, I think girls ARE at greater risk if they dress in too revealing a manner. So there's a time and place for low slung pants, low necklines and belly buttons showing. I wish I could safely allow them to wear whatever they please, whatever the fashion trend, but I dont' think that's responsible.

Anonymous said...

OMG Degrassi totally rocks. I was so excited when they brought it back. I was a dedicated viewer during my early teen years. I think that it important to have shows like these dealing with shows that teens deal with on a daily basis. Sheltering children from these things just means that they will feel that they have no one to turn to when situations happen that are beyond their ability to handle. It is no leap of the imagination to understand that not teaching them how to prevent pregnancy will lead to more teen pregnancy. I am also interested to learn if std's have gone up as well. I would not be surprised if they had.

Anonymous said...

This is not going to be completely relevent to the topic at hand, but it may answer Renee's question some. I'm not sure how to link to articles in the comments, but the following is obtained from the CDC MMWR: from 1991 to 2001 (the latest data available because it is done in 10 year increments), the number of high school students that have ever had sex steadily declined from 1991 to 2001, 8% for females and 9% for males, additionally those teens that have had 4 or more partners (geez 4 partners in high school!?!?!) decreased. Also blacks, whites and hispanics all decreased in the same categories when breaking the info down by race/ethnicity. Not sure what to attribute this next fact to, but something worked somewhere along the line, blacks (who statistically in healthcare tend to have worse overall rates for most everything for socioeconomic reasons we won't get into now) had the most dramatic drop in first time sexual activity and rates of those who have had 4 or more partners. Condom use during intercourse went up dramatically for males/females, and all three of the prior mentioned race/ethnicity groups. What is worrisome however is that alcohol or drug use before/after intercourse increased in all categories. Now to answer Renee's question. The reportable diseases have actually decreased, and dramatically. Gonorrhea dropped dramatically from 1975 until the mid-1990s, when rates pretty much leveled off. Syphillis had a huge drop off since 1991 and for females the rates continue to decrease, for males the rates have been slowly creeping back up since 2002. Chlamydia rates among females (whom the disease impacts the most) is definitely higher in the 15-24 range, but unfortunately I was not able to find prior years data for comparison with the limited time I have at the moment.

This has been long so a couple things before I close. Prior to college I was educated in Florida, not the best education I will be the first to admit, but at least down there they had the brains to not push abstinence education upon us. Certainly it was encouraged, but all aspects of prevention were discussed. So at least the abstinence education has not been a completely nationwide event. Secondly I totally agree with you G that the situation is so cliche in regard to the first time encounter pregnancy etc. It would be nice to see a different, more realistic scenario played out (since I have a friend that had the antibiotics interaction happen to her, I've had another with the condom breakage), funny though, I've never actually known anyone to get pregnant on their first encounter! Perhaps that's because realistically young teens normally aren't capable of it in their first couple years of menstration (on average from 13-15) because girls typically do not ovulate those first couple of years! So for the sake of smart decision making let's not tell them that, but that's what makes some of those movie/tv plots so annoying to me! As far as the "self-esteem" issue, that would be an interesting study. While the low self-esteem certainly is not universal, there could very well be a correlation to number of partners, age of first intercourse, etc., to how teens grow up and the paths they take in life. While propagating something like that is lousy sex education, I wonder how true it may actually be. Does anyone know of any studies?

Anonymous said...

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Male Rights Network said...

"Reproductive rights" is a weasel phrase. It's a euphemism for on-demand State-funded abortion. No-one has a right to kill human life, women included.

Radical Reminders said...

My partner told me not to put the MRN comments up, that they were just from a troll looking to get a rise out of me, but i wanted to include them to illustrate that there are still many people who think this way.

MRN, "reproductive rights" is a general term for many different things including access to birth control and condoms - if you think that women should be denied birth control for the sake of "human life" you should probably stop jerking off - b/c that's a potential human life as well.

Anonymous said...

awesome take down feministgal...

Anonymous said...

I don't believe you can scare anyone out of having sex. Not when our culture promotes it as it does. A scary message just comes across like a pathetic manipulation of a far-removed generation.