The Link Between Teen Pregnancy and Sexual Violence

Ashley at SAFER recently linked to a fascinating piece on teen pregnancy by The Center for American Progress. It’s one that I think everyone ought to read, because it so clearly illustrates the connection between sexual violence and “traditional” reproductive rights issues. I’ve always felt that sexual violence is undoubtedly a reproductive justice issue, as it concerns a woman’s right and ability to make choices about her sexuality and her body. But here’s an even more tangible reason why sexual violence and the choice when and if to have a child are inextricably connected. (all links from original piece)

Teen pregnancy isn’t simply about girls and boys being promiscuous, or lacking access to sex education or contraception. Too often teen pregnancy is about girls losing agency over their bodies because of the unbearable injuries of being sexually violated.

Underneath the discourse about the educational strategies needed to prevent teen pregnancy lies a much harder and complex issue: Violence in girls’ lives leaves them at risk for teen pregnancy—especially for girls of color.

A significant correlation exists between childhood sexual abuse and teen pregnancy. An estimated 60 percent of teen girls’ first pregnancies are preceded by experiences of molestation, rape, or attempted rape. In one study, between 30 and 44 percent of teen mothers were victims of rape or attempted rape. Up to 20 percent of girls become pregnant as the direct result of rape.*

The Harvard School of Public Health’s exhaustive research on the lives of girls demonstrates that girls who are victims of violence from dating partners are four to six times more likely than non-abused girls to become pregnant, and eight to nine times more likely to attempt suicide.

Other research findings compare sexually abused pregnant teens to pregnant teens who have not suffered sexual abuse. The sexually abused girls initiated intercourse a year earlier than their peers and engaged in a wide variety of high-risk behaviors, including substance abuse. The average age of first intercourse for abused girls is 13.8, in contrast to the national average of 16.2. Only 28 percent of the abused girls used birth control at first intercourse, compared to 74 percent of girls in the general population.

I’m a person who has long believed that sex education should actually be about sex rather than just about contraception, and that discussions of consent and sexual violence prevention education — and I mean real prevention education, not “watch your drink” — need to be a part of that. But I still hadn’t considered such a strong cause and effect relationship between the two until now . . . and it certainly makes me think about that high rate of teen pregnancy at my high school from a whole new angle.

The Center For American Progress also takes a look at the high number of teen pregnancies among girls of color in the context of the rates of sexual violence committed against them:

The research revealed that while 19 percent of white girls will become pregnant during their teen years, 53 percent of Latina and 51 percent of African-American girls will do so.

[. . .]

Sexual violence is especially pervasive in the lives of girls of color. An unfortunate, historical narrative oversexualizes black and brown girls. Even today this narrative renders their bodies more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and devaluation. Approximately 40 percent of black women report coercive sexual contact by the time they turn 18. Native Americans are victims of rape or sexual assault at more than double the rate of other racial groups—and are more likely to be victimized by non-Native American perpetrators

These facts are usually left out of the teen pregnancy prevention conversation. As Ashley noted, on the left there are cries for more comprehensive sex education and access, and on the right there is moral panic and proclamations that promoting abstinence is the only way. What the conservative opinion ignores/obscures is not only the unrealistic nature of their plan, but also the fact that engaging in sexual activity is not always a choice, and that refusing to talk about sex means also refusing to talk about what healthy, consensual sex actually is. And while greater access to and education about contraception is certainly needed, those of us on the left generally fail to note that greater access and education won’t help a teen who has been sexually traumatized and feels as though she does not own her own body. It seems that we may be focusing a good bulk of our efforts on an only partial solution, particularly in many communities of color where teen pregnancy rates are highest and sexual violence rates most disturbing.

These figures are quite stunning. This is what ought to be making headlines, not bullshit “pregnancy pact” scare stories. While there is of course current work being done in this area, broader awareness, support and resources are clearly needed. We just need to wake up, pay attention, admit that we haven’t been entirely right, and start doing something about it. It’s obviously much too dangerous to see sexual violence and teen pregnancy as issues that ought to be tackled separately.

cross-posted at the Curvature

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12 comments for “The Link Between Teen Pregnancy and Sexual Violence

  1. August 16, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    I also think STDs are left out of the conversation of teen pregnancy and violence. Sexually transmitted infections disproportionately affect women of color and youth, which (sadly) fits right into your points above.

  2. ucsbclassics53
    August 16, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    Is our country in denial when it comes to sexual violence? First, we have those blaming the victim when it comes to rape, those who do not understand that it’s a man’s responsibility to prevent rape, that teen pregnancy is not only about promiscious teens. I wonder if the people find it easier on their own psyche to accept that rape only happens to “sluts who deserve it” or that teens will stop getting pregnant if they listen to their parents or pastors or whatever?

    Are we so blinded as a society in our outdated and tragically wrong standards of morality that we are reluctant to do anything about this problem? We do an inadequate job in educating our boys and youth that they have responsibility when it comes to stopping rape. The problem is that sexual violence has been framed to the point that it becomes another facet of the just world belief instead of framing it by showing men and boys what is consent and what not and rape avoidance techniques. Rape prevention has often been framed so that the onus of stopping rape is solely on the woman. “Watch your drink” as you mentioned above, don’t drink too much, etc. However, unfortunately for us, it is easier to think that tradegies will never befall good people, because it gives us comfort every time we hear about a rape or murder in the news.

  3. NicaKnit
    August 16, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    I’m very glad to see this link highlighted and put out for discussion.

    This is a particularly important consideration when fighting against abstinence only education policies, since the effectiveness of abstinence is dependent on the individual’s power to accept or refuse (or otherwise negotiate) his or her sexual activity within a given relationship.

    Here in Nicaragua we have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Central America: 24.4% of total births are to teen mothers and one in three adolescents is a mother by the age of 19. 40% of births at the Managua Women’s Hospital are to mothers 15 years or younger.

    Not surprisingly, we also have one of the highest rates of sexual abuse of minors, with a distressingly high percentage of all Nicaraguan women having been abused at some point in their life and especially as young girls.

    I mention this in the context of abstinence-only education because of my personal experience fighting against its imposition on the organization I direct, which works with hundreds of children and young adults in Managua. It was incredibly frustrating for me to have to try to negotiate with people who were incapable of understanding the reality of widespread abuse and how it limits the options and influences the choices made by girls around their own sexuality.

  4. Nicole
    August 17, 2008 at 2:02 am

    Wow, this information stunned me even though it really shouldn’t have. Thank you.

  5. August 17, 2008 at 5:15 am

    What the conservative opinion ignores/obscures is not only the unrealistic nature of their plan, but also the fact that engaging in sexual activity is not always a choice, and that [b]refusing to talk about sex means also refusing to talk about what healthy, consensual sex actually is.[/b]


  6. purpleshoes
    August 17, 2008 at 9:03 am

    This is something that makes me completely nuts about any and all messages claiming that abstinence is 100% effective. First, and not germane to this discussion, the real-world failure rate of any contraceptive includes the times that people forget to or don’t feel like using it, and second: this presumes that the woman in question exists in a situation of perfect consent. Of course it would be “better” to get a teenager, or any woman, out of a situation where she is being pressured or forced into sexual activity – but in the meantime, she’s going to need something more solid than “just say no” to avoid babying up an already bad scenario.

  7. bleh
    August 17, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    So very sad. I’ve just volunteered to escort women at the local clinic. It will be very hard not to scream at the protesting people who just don’t understand this reality.

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