Oprah and Teen Pregnancy

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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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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30 Responses to Oprah and Teen Pregnancy

  1. mythago says:

    And then there’s the cute phrasing of “getting pregnant”–as though it were something Oprah did to herself. Nobody asks about the man who had sex with a 14-year-old girl and then walked away from her.

  2. frankie says:

    A part of this problem is the way that some parents react to their daughters’ (and sons’) sex-lives. At adolescence, honesty about sex is never going to be without its awkwardness, but as Jill said, telling teenagers to “just say no” isn’t effective contraception and isn’t healthy (and sometimes just morphs into “just saying no” when parents ask about their daughter’s sexual activity?). Nor is it good, to go telling smart, honest, young women not to go to planned parenthood centres in the hope that they will therefore not get a hold of reliable contraception or reliable information and will decide therefore not to have sex. Oh yes, I’ve seen a mother do this…

  3. Jill says:

    That seems so strange to me. My mother isn’t a huge fan of what she calls “loose sex” (ha), but she still told me from the time I was in middle school that, while it wasn’t a good idea for me to have sex because I was too young, if I decided that I wanted to, I should either ask my doctor for birth control pills or go to Planned Parenthood. She emphasized that she would take me, or, that if I didn’t want her to know, I could go alone and legally my doctors could never tell her.

    Once I was in college and had a long-term boyfriend, I started seeing her gynecologist in Seattle, which meant that my prescriptions were filled there. So my mom mailed me my birth control pills every month. When I graduated college, was unemployed, kicked off my dad’s insurance and wasn’t yet in law school (meaning I had no student insurance), my mom was the one who researched affordable contraceptive options, and booked me an appointment at Planned Parenthood in Seattle. They have a great program where, if you’re uninsured and living below a certain income, you can get an exam and a year’s worth of birth control free. It’s a pretty great deal.

    I suppose I was pretty lucky (for my mom and for PP). I do know that as soon as I have a decent income, I’m writing a big fat check to Planned Parenthood so that some other woman can get the same level of reproductive healthcare that I did.

  4. Tanya says:

    As much as Oprah’s narcisism annoys me, I can not help but feel sorry for her and all the struggles she went throuh to get to where she is. I just wish she would stop reinforcing the idea that a womans’ primary mission in life is to be skinny eye candy.

  5. Sunrunner says:

    You know, the availabilty of birth control has absolutely nothing to do with Oprah’s situation.

    Like Oprah, I grew up being routinely sexually abused by a close family member (my father). And like Oprah, by the time I was a teenager, I was “sexually promiscuous”. And like Oprah, I became pregnant and out of shame “hid” my pregnancy until “it showed.” Unlike Oprah, I gave birth to a healthy baby who I then raised, alone, having been kicked to the curb by my family.

    Back to birth control: when I was a teenager in the 70s, birth control was available and free at a local planned parenthood. I went to a school which taught sex education. I knew about the various forms of birth control, about female anatomy and about abortion, which I did not consider immoral. A lot of girls that I knew were openly on the pill. Abortion was also available on demand, but I did not get one, due to the shame which consumed me when I eventually became pregnant.

    Shame has got to be one of the most debilitating and paralyzing emotions there is; perhaps worse than fear in its effects on the person who is burdened by it. And when one is riddled with shame, one cannot ask for anything, cannot do anything on one’s behalf; which is why so many girls who have been sexually abused become “promiscuous” — ie, they are not able to say no. Which is what happened to me: I wanted to be loved (I was desperate for it) and thought that I had to lie down like a door mat in order to get it.

    In my case the incest stopped after I “told” when I was 13. At which point I was basically told to shut up so as not to “shame” the family. I did try on a number of occaisions to reach out to non-family adults to no avail. I was the bearer of the shame and the evidence of the crime no one wanted to deal with…and it is all too easy to discount a girl who “looks” like a slut. Or a Lolita…

    All this to say is that Oprah knows exactly what she is talking about and it would do people well to really listen and not try to second guess her experiences. It is insane to expect a child who has been so deeply tramatized and betrayed to act rationally.

    One more thing: sexual abuse of children is not about sex. Period.

  6. Karol says:

    What’s wicked is how our society treats pregnant girls.

    Jill, no one ACTUALLY pointed at Oprah, y’know? So, how does our society “treat” pregnant girls?

  7. Sunrunner says:

    So, how does our society “treat” pregnant girls?

    At “best” they are rendered invisible until they are “saved” by the god-police. At worst they are actively banished from their community and family. They are judged to be stupid, as only a very stupid girl would allow herself to get pregnant.

    Etc.

    Etc.

    Etc/

  8. Sunrunner says:

    btw–for some reason, an earlier comment of mine is in the moderation queue.

  9. frankie says:

    Jill – It’s a strange approach, yes… But as you point out, thanks to people who work with and support family planning centers, informed teenagers can avoid being seriously and permanently disadvantaged by this sort of misplaced parental protectiveness. My cousin, of whom I spoke (and who was incidentally of the age of consent at the time – which made my aunt’s reaction even more incomprehensible to me) eventually did get the information and birth control that she was looking for despite a lack of support from her parents. A functioning public health system with a basic concern for women’s health is a great help, and something which we are lucky enough to have in New Zealand.

  10. frankie says:

    just feel obliged to say – I apologise for any association I unwittingly made between sexual abuse and the contraception problem that I described. It was fairly off-topic.

  11. Sage says:

    I’m delurking to tell you I love this site, and I’m tagging you. I do hope you’ll join in.

  12. zuzu says:

    Just tripped the spambot, Sunrunner.

    I think it’s very interesting that Oprah could confess that she was sexually abused but not that she’d gotten pregnant (and not even to her Best Friend™ Gayle King, who lived around the corner from me in Glastonbury, CT, and whose annoyance level you really have to be from the Hartford area to appreciate).

    Seems like it comes down to agency — the sexual abuse was something that happened to her, through no fault of her own (and I remember seeing her speak at UConn in 1988 or so, and her talking about this). But the pregnancy happened when she had become “promiscuous,” albeit as a result of the sexual abuse, and therefore, it was something she had gone out and done, so it was something to be ashamed of, even now. Even after all the raw nerves she’s had on her program.

  13. Shame is a big issue when you’re young and having sex. Anyone remember how it was such a big ordeal just to buy condoms for the first time? Like sex-even safe sex- is such a dirty lucrative thing to do. Ugh. A lot of girls feel totally akward going to Planned Parenthood for the first time too.. and it doesn’t help when there are people out front picketing or spraypaint all over the windows saying things like “fuck abortion” and “abort these nuts” (which was what I was greeted with a few months ago upon going to PP. )

  14. Trashdog says:

    Still being a teenager myself, my boyfriend and I get coments and stares at drugstores when we buy condoms. Last year, a clerk gave my boyfriend, 19 at the time, a lecture about how he was too young to have sex. Thank god most colleges have a generally positive attitude regarding sex and contraception.

  15. micheyd says:

    it doesn’t help when there are people out front picketing or spraypaint all over the windows saying things like “fuck abortion” and “abort these nuts”

    Is it bad that both those “slogans” (so to speak) made me laugh? I mean, talk about not understanding irony….

  16. For too many teenagers, pregnancy is the logical response to their situation: It gets them medical care, attention, social prestige

    Thank you for this sentence: it helps me to more fully understand what was happening among a sizeable number of the young women at my high school, who deliberately got pregnant.

    In a newspaper article on the phenomenon, one of the girls said she’d gotten pregant on purpose because “I want somebody who will love me unconditionally.” That made me so sad I cried.

  17. Jill says:

    Jill, no one ACTUALLY pointed at Oprah, y’know? So, how does our society “treat” pregnant girls?

    Do you think they wouldn’t have pointed to her when, at 14, she was a pregnant girl?

    That’s how shame works — years later, even after the shameful situation has passed, you still feel marked. As for how our society treats pregnant girls, read the other links I posted.

  18. Thank you for this sentence: it helps me to more fully understand what was happening among a sizeable number of the young women at my high school, who deliberately got pregnant.

    I had no concept, as a teenager, that anyone my age would deliberately get pregnant – mainly because I went to a high school where college was an expected next step for everyone, and where people had the sort of background that gave them hope. It made the whole “take care of an egg and pretend it’s a baby” exercise a mystery, since it never occurred to me that adults would be actually thinking they had to convince us we didn’t want to get pregnant.

    On the other hand, actively wanting to get pregnant is only one reason for teen pregnancy – I’m sure kids were still sexually abused in my neighborhood, I know that we didn’t cover birth control in our sex ed classes till tenth grade, which may have been too late for some, and there are still matters like not being willing to admit you’re going to have sex, and not wanting to let your parents find out that you’re getting birth control.

  19. ako says:

    So, how does our society “treat” pregnant girls?

    For one thing, a fourteen-year-old pregnant girl is going to get a lot of complete strangers acting like she’s an irresponsible slut, and they have a right to let her know it.

    Now some girls that age get raped and pregnant, by family or by other people. Even some of the girls who got pregnant by their boyfriends got raped; and they might not all understand that a boyfriend doesn’t have a right to force them.

    Some girls are in such awful situations that getting pregnant is the only way they can see of making things better. It may be the only way available of getting any kind of help, or it may be the only way that girl knows.

    Some girls are desperate for love, and will go to extremes to try and get it.

    Some girls are caught between going hungry on the street or prostitution. And there’s a good chance these girls are being pressured at least, or at the worse, bought and sold by other people who are collecting most of the cash and not looking out for the girl’s best interest.

    A number of girls who are voluntarily having sex are likely to either not know how to use contraception correctly (especially things like ‘no oil on a condom’) or have extreme difficulty getting it. And a girl who’s being abused probably won’t have any chance to prevent pregnancy at all.

    But I still see people give dirty looks to teenagers carrying babies, and in high school (late 90’s) a girl I knew was subjected to public humiliation by a Safeway clerk when she took her baby brother in a stroller to the store, and he thought she was a teen mom. A visibly pregnant girl wouldn’t likely get off any easier.

  20. Monika says:

    This is excellent.

    How are girls who are pregnant treated? Well, in some cases they are lied to by ‘pro-life’ doctors who essentially prevent (or make very difficult) the option of abortion.

    They may have to cross a picket line, being yelled at, and called terrible names.

    Both experiences have shaped me, and my dedication to feminism and reproductive rights. I have let go of the anguish I felt, and used my experience to help others, to speak out.

    Proud to be pro-choice.

    Monika

  21. mythago says:

    How does society treat pregnant girls?

    I was just talking to a court clerk about a criminal case they’d finished. A 12-year-old girl was raped from the time she was 8 by a male relative (the girl had been raised in an extended family, mostly by her grandmother). At age 12, she gave birth to a child as the result of this rape. Her family shamed her, tried to get her to give up the baby, and closed ranks around the rapist when the police got involved. Eventually her grandmother came around and took the girl’s side, but the rest of the family still blamed her for “lying”, even when a DNA test proved who the father was.

    “Society” eventually took her seriously because she was a child. Her family sure didn’t.

  22. subgrrl8 says:

    a cousin of my boyfriend’s just gave birth. she was 17 when she got pregnant, and was shamed by the family (Republican, conservative and Christian) to bear it to term and give it up for adoption, even though she was 18 by the time she gave birth. these are people who probably would have sent her to one of those “teenage mom homes” had one been available in my state. (as far as i know, Minnesota does not support these types of institutions. but i could be wrong.)

    i think that is fucked up. just the idea that these people figured making her have the baby and give it up as forced penance for being sexually active boggles my mind and makes me sick. abortion was not an option for her, according to her parents. meanwhile, they ruin her life and potentially the child’s (raised in foster care? always wondering why “mommy gave me up”? shit.) all because they wouldn’t be able to bear the “shame” of having a teen girl in their family who gave birth at 18.

    this is how pregnant teens are treated, not just by society, but by their own families. and it makes me sick.

  23. Raincitygirl says:

    meanwhile, they ruin her life and potentially the child’s (raised in foster care? always wondering why “mommy gave me up”? shit.)

    Oh, if it was white and healthy, the kid will have been snapped up for adoption in the time it takes to say “What a selfless thing girls do by giving their babies to nice white Xtian couples. It almost redeems their sluttiness.”

    As for whether the girl will be okay, who knows. My uncle’s wife became pregnant as a teenager, and was forced to go to one of those homes for unwed mothers so the neighbours wouldn’t find out. And then bullied and downright threatened by her parents into agreeing to adoption. They preserved their respectability, but lost their daughter. They never understood why she got the fuck out of dodge as soon as she was old enough to start college, or why they were hardly ever allowed to visit the kids she had with my uncle. Or why she kept forgetting to invite them to milestone events. But at least the neighbours didn’t find out.

    Oh, and her son was adopted by fundies, and when he contacted her as an adult, felt it was his duty to lecture her for the sin of premarital sex. If he was that disgusted, I don’t know why he didn’t just send in a request for her medical history, instead of wanting to meet her in person. She ended up on anti-depressants for a while after that.

  24. Lorelei says:

    Still being a teenager myself, my boyfriend and I get coments and stares at drugstores when we buy condoms. Last year, a clerk gave my boyfriend, 19 at the time, a lecture about how he was too young to have sex.

    Out of almost all my friends, I appear the oldest, so I usually go out and get condoms for my friends so that they don’t have to go through that. I basically go in there looking insanely confident in my purchase, accompanied with a look that clearly says, ‘You say a damn thing to me and I swear to god you will go down.’

    It always works! :D

    But my friends have had some pretty awful experiences concerning getting condoms from stores. One friend of mine, when she was 15/16, had a clerk ask her if she wanted a bag, she said no because she had a purse, and this clerk forces her to put it in a bag and said something along the lines of, ‘what, are you going to use them in the parking lot or something?!’

    wtf?!

  25. Melanie says:

    So, how does our society “treat” pregnant girls?

    I wish that this question was just a joke, something asked with misplaced sarcasm. I end up with some combination of disgust and depression when I realize that some people really are this blind to the tone of public opinion.

    I had several experiences as a child that have shaped my fundamental beliefs in a way that my ultra conservative parents (I’m sure) prayed would never happen.

    I got pregnant at the age of 12, after being raped. No thanks to my family, I was able to get an abortion through the care of my pediatrician and the local planned parenthood. There are a lot of memories about the experience that I have repressed, things I hope I never remember. One thing I do remember, however, was the complete and total shame I was made/expected to feel by everyone.

    Through my parents wanting the church to “pray for Melanie’s forgiveness” the entire town knew I was pregnant. Adults thought I was asking for it because I had not told anyone about my assault. Kids started calling me names- slut and whore being the two most common. When I went to planned parenthood the day of my abortion, there were so many aggressive picketers outside that a group of volunteers at the clinic came outside and make a human shield to walk me in. I still remember one woman grabbing my arm and trying to physically stop me from going inside, shoving her pamphlets at me and trying to tell me that carrying this baby to term was the best option for me. That if I went inside and did this “terrible” thing, there was nothing that could be done to save my soul.

    Coming out was even worse.

    The point of this rediculously long comment is not to start some sort of pity-party, but to point out that this is the way pregnant teen girls are treated. All over this “progressive” country, every day. Some have it even worse, living in places where there is no planned parenthood, and where abortion really is not an option. And frankly, people who have the attitude of Karol are part of what makes it easy for young girls to be shamed in the first place- ignorance is not bliss and pretending that young pregnant girls face no societal repercussions is just irresponsible.

  26. Karol says:

    I feel like every time I’m at Feministe, I end up shaking my head at you lucky, lucky American-born people who have no idea about the rest of the world. So, I won’t go there this time but wow, if you guys actually knew hardship and your unbelieveable luck at being born in a country where “shame” is the end result of your teenage pregnancy…..

    The point of this rediculously long comment is not to start some sort of pity-party, but to point out that this is the way pregnant teen girls are treated. All over this “progressive” country, every day. Some have it even worse, living in places where there is no planned parenthood, and where abortion really is not an option. And frankly, people who have the attitude of Karol are part of what makes it easy for young girls to be shamed in the first place- ignorance is not bliss and pretending that young pregnant girls face no societal repercussions is just irresponsible.

    Melanie, your parents are assholes, and that fact doesn’t say anything about “society”.

    Oprah FELT like people were pointing at her, and she FELT like they were making judgements about her. Whether or not this was ACTUALLY so is up for debate.

    I don’t get how a bunch of pro-choice women, who see abortion as the bees knees of female advancement can, at the same time, feel there should be no stigma around teenage pregnancy. Most people can agree that teenage pregnancy is not desireable and that the woman’s options following such a pregnancy will be severely limited. Yet we’re supposed to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with this behavior (and I’m clearly not aiming this at rape victims which are an entirely different situation) lest we be seen as judgemental.

  27. I don’t get how a bunch of pro-choice women, who see abortion as the bees knees of female advancement can,

    Dude, this is how we know you’re a troll. It isn’t the bee’s knees. It’s the cat’s pajamas. Get you’re 1920’s slang right if you’re going to engage us on this topic.

  28. Cranefly says:

    Dude, this is how we know you’re a troll. It isn’t the bee’s knees. It’s the cat’s pajamas.

    Thank you, oh Mighty Ponygirl, for turning my frown upside-down.

  29. Aaron says:

    I feel like every time I’m at Feministe, I end up shaking my head

    Well, I certainly wouldn’t presume to speak for the proprietors of this blog, but it strikes me that one very simple and enduring solution to this problem would be to, y’know, go away.

    But, of course, that’s just my two American-born cents, and since I don’t know hardship, or my unbelievable luck at being born in a country where &c. &c., I suppose I’d do better to smile and nod and talk about what you want to talk about instead, which would appear to be how no substantial difference exists between “teenage pregnancy is undesirable” and “pregnant teenagers are filthy sluts”.

  30. ako says:

    I feel like every time I’m at Feministe, I end up shaking my head at you lucky, lucky American-born people who have no idea about the rest of the world.

    Isn’t stereotypically the liberals who are supposed to treat people being born privileged, or ‘lucky’ as some sort of crime?

    But then again that would mean expressing some acutal concerns for the people with ‘real’ problems in the post, instead of merely calling people spoiled for expressing more compassion than he personally approves of.

    And it’s nice to know that repeated cruelty to a twelve-year-old rape victim is only the fault of the parents who shared the information, and it doesn’t say anything about society that so many people were eager to call a twelve-year-old a whore, harass her, and have publically humilated. I was getting worried about what was wrong with people who’d treat a child like that, but now I know that the parents were the only blameworthy adults, and everyone else was just acting that way as the inevitable result of knowing a girl of twelve was pregnant and having it be even remotely concieveable in their minds that she might have contributed to causing it.

    (Just want to be absolutely clear that I’m perfectly aware that Melanie had nothing to do with causing it, and I’m trying to describe that kind of appaling ‘if there’s the remotest hypothetical possibility that it could concievably be her fault, we must blame the victim’ mentality, not agreeing with it).

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