In February’s O Magazine, Oprah talks about her pregnancy at 14 — and its enduring shame. From a pretty obnoxious article in ET Online:
“I would tell no one until I felt safe enough to share my dark past,” Oprah says in the February issue of O magazine, which is on stands now. “The years I was sexually abused, from age 10 to 14, my resulting promiscuity as a teenager, and finally, at 14, my becoming pregnant.”
Oprah says she was so ashamed that she hid the pregnancy until her growing belly and swollen ankles revealed the truth. Oprah gave birth to the baby, but it sadly died in the hospital weeks after it was born.
Decades later, Oprah continues to feel ashamed:
“A member of my family, who has since passed away, had gone to Florida, headquarters for the National Enquirer, sat in a room, told them the story of my hidden shame — and left their offices $19,000 richer,” she reveals.
After the news hit the tabloids, Oprah admits that she had to drag herself out of bed for work because no matter what, the show ruled.
“I felt beaten and scared,” she says. “I imagined that every person on the street was going to point their finger at me and scream, ‘Pregnant at 14, you wicked girl…’”
What’s wicked is how our society treats pregnant girls.
We need to give teenage girls both the tools to prevent pregnancy, and the reasons to avoid it in the first place. Too many teenagers know first-hand that they lack opportunities, options, and mobility. For too many teenagers, pregnancy is the logical response to their situation: It gets them medical care, attention, social prestige. For many teenagers, there’s no other expectation. And for those who are expected to be “better,” shame is a cornerstone of the anti-pregnancy campaign.
None of this is working. Teenagers need options — not just for their sexual and reproductive health, but for their lives. They need to have social mobility, opportunities, and choices. And when they make choices that some people may think were poor — like having sex, or getting pregnant, or having a child — we need to provide support, not make examples of them. Pregnant teenage girls have been shamed long enough. This doesn’t prevent teen pregnancy or scare kids out of sex, but it does make young women more likely to terminate pregnancies out of fear of ostracism. It does make a woman like Oprah, who is as successful as successful gets and a hero to millions, feel “wicked” throughout her entire life for what was pure victimization. A woman who was willing to open up about her painful, personal history of childhood abuse to an audience of millions hid the fact that she had been pregnant at 14 from even her best friend and her long-term partner.
Is there any virtue in a cultural message which tells girls that getting pregnant is the absolute worst, dirtiest, most shameful thing you can do? Does it help the girls themselves? Their children?
Yes, we should obviously try and lower the teen pregnancy rate — but not because teen pregnancy is shameful, or because women should always been married before they have children.* We should try and lower the teen pregnancy rate because (a) many teens who get pregnant didn’t want to get pregnant; and (b) most of the teens who did want to get pregnant, or didn’t care either way, felt the way they did because they didn’t see very many other options for their futures. Not to mention that teen pregnancy is tied to poverty, that teens often face serious pregnancy-related health issues, and teen mothers have a much harder time doing things like completing school, or even getting a job. Teenagers typically have fewer resources than adult women, and so they and their children may not have adequate health care. The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world — because, I would argue, we’re (a) one of the least socially mobile countries in the developed world, despite American mythology, and (b) we have an incredibly confused view of sex, wherein we see representations of it everywhere and 95% of us do it before marriage, but yet we teach our children that it’s dirty and that they should “just say no,” as opposed to equipping them with the skills they need to negotiate their desires and keep themselves emotionally and physically healthy.
Shame hasn’t worked, but it’s done a whole lot of harm to the girls, women and children who have been stigmatized by it. For all the time spent hand-wringing over “babies having babies,” we’re not so great at actually taking steps to prevent teen pregnancy — and all unintended pregnancy — in the first place. Comprehensive sexual health education. Gender equality. Economic and reproductive justice. A functional public school system. An improved social welfare system. Universal healthcare, including affordable and accessible contraception. A good, hard look at poverty, privilege, and the institutions and systems which perpetuate both.
Then, maybe, we’ll be getting somewhere.
*When we talk about “teen pregnancy,” we do mean “unmarried teen pregnancy,” right? Which is kind of a different story, as no one really seemed to have a problem when, in 1957, the teen birth rate hit an all-time high. Which demonstrates that it’s not really about wanting to make the lives of teenage girls any better; it’s about only wanting them to reproduce in a proper patriarchal context.
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