Please note that I’ve attempted to stay away from cissexist language as much as possible in this post, but all my sources assume the terms “mother” and “father” refer to “person who gave birth” and “person who inseminated”, respectively. Also, this is very America-centric, because we’re #1 among developed nations as far as teen pregnancy rates go and that’s my context.
Sometimes, ideas that sound fabulous when circulating as Tumblr screenshots are not as great after taking into consideration certain points (image transcript of the text after the jump).
The opposition to misogyny in the form of slut-shaming is commendable. The call-out of the rank hypocrisy in attitudes towards sex and reproduction is excellent. Overall, it’s a thought-provoking post and makes an excellent rhetorical point.
Taken beyond a rhetorical point, however? The notion that we should make “teen dads” happen calls attention to exactly the wrong parts of the issue with teen pregnancy in the United States.
Tumblr user misandry-mermaid writes:
Interesting how we’re always hearing how shameful and irresponsible it is to be a teen mom.
But we never hear the same messages directed at teen dads.
Or even the words “teen dad”.
It’s almost like society demonizes women’s sexuality and sexual choices while absolving men of all sexual responsibility and judgment.
Pushing a Conservative Agenda
The term “teen mother” calls to mind an underage high school girl running out of first period through the hallway and into the bathroom due to morning sickness. In all reality, the staggering majority of what are called “teen pregnancies” (69%) occurs among 18-19 year olds — as in legal adults almost out or out of high school. At least some of them could quite possibly be married at that age with plans for a family, especially in red states.
While the original post doesn’t add “unwed” to either of the terms for teen parents, that word often accompanies discussions of them. Teen pregnancy rates do not take into account the exact marital status of the teens studied and/or surveyed, but the assumption is that they are not wed. As stated above, they could be married in well over half of the cases, since that group includes only legal adults.
Why is the face of a scared pregnant minor taken as representative of teen pregnancy? It evokes fear in the way that “mostly adults” doesn’t as well as pushes the idea that waiting for traditional, non-serially-monogamous, heterosexual marriage is the answer to the perceived problem, even when most pregnant teens have at least the legal access to make that option possible for them.
Creating a male-coded spin-off to the more commonly-used term is hardly going to help to dispel the myths.
Fighting Stigma with… More Stigma?
Based on the data, it is entirely safe to say all of the following play a role in teenage pregnancy:
- Inadequate sex ed or abstinence-only programs
- Lack of access to contraception
- Economic injustice
- Conservative worldview, including normalization of young marriage
All of these have a much more visible and life-changing effect on teens who can get pregnant versus ones who could get someone pregnant, but the effect is still felt by both of those types of young people.
“Teen mom” is a term intended to shame, blame, and berate rather than to mitigate harm. Given that teen pregnancy rates are declining overall despite all the fear-mongering, and the factors above are more likely to affect non-white than white teenagers, the term also serves as a racist dog-whistle.
How exactly would “teen dad” be any different in practice as a term? It would serve to shame those teens who can get someone pregnant, who are often just as lacking in education and access as teens who can get pregnant.
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It also erases another important and horrifying factor: the adults who prey on young teens and pre-teens.
Identifying the Fathers
Let’s talk about predators.
Most young people below the age of 17 do not have sex, with the rates lower and lower the younger they are. Among that minority of younger teens (and even children younger than that) who do engage in sexual activity, the pregnancies that occur do not involve fellow teens, but adults past their teens:
Fathers of babies born to teens are often significantly older than their female partners. It is estimated that, among girls who have given birth to a child by age 15, 39 percent of the fathers are between the ages of 20 and 29.
The age gap between teen mothers and their male partners is particularly striking among the youngest adolescents. Among mothers ages 11 to 12, fathers are on average 9.8 years older, and among mothers ages 13 to 14, fathers are on average 4.6 years older.
In many of these worst-imaginable cases, where the pregnant young person is between the ages of 10 and 14, no “teen dad” was involved. Instead, they were preyed on by an adult. A term like “teen dad” erases this troubling reality involving a group that, while not in the majority, is most at-risk for everything from pregnancy-related complications* to educational disadvantages for the resulting child:
for each year younger a teenager was when she gave birth, her child’s chances of being placed in a class designed to address emotional handicaps increased by 44%, and the chances of placement in a class for youngsters with mild mental handicaps rose by 24%.
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In a society that stigmatizes the most vulnerable for occurrences that have much more to do with situation than direct personal choice, that further chips away at support for parents of any age, whose lawmakers continue to make reproductive health care services more and more inaccessible, heaping shame in a way that plays into racism, classism, and conservatism as well as ignores some of the more troubling aspects of the issue is not the answer.
* In my research for this, I learned this tidbit: “Pelvic bones do not reach their maximum size until about the age of 18; therefore, the pelvis of the teenage mother may not have grown enough to allow vaginal delivery of a normal-size baby.” So much for sexist biology “logic” that dismisses the creepiness of adult male attraction to minors with the falsehood that the closer to puberty someone with a vagina is or appears to be, the more fertile they are.