To Support and Help Teen Mothers, We Must Stop Shaming Them

Teen pregnancy is generally understood as something to be prevented, to be avoided. There is no partisan debate over whether or not teen pregnancy is “bad.” The general American consensus is that teen pregnancy prevention campaigns are important and necessary. So while May, National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, has come and gone, teen pregnancy prevention campaigns are here to stay. But what do these campaigns really say to teens? What do they say about how we perceive teen parenthood? And notably, what do they say about how we view teen girls’ sexuality?

In March, the New York City Human Resources Administration released their latest teen pregnancy prevention campaign, which has been roundly criticized for its “shame and blame tactics.” Unfortunately, NYC’s campaign is but one of many that shame teen parents and frame teen mothers as irresponsible, lazy, and lascivious. The Candie’s Foundation, a campaign that marries celebrity endorsements with shaming rhetoric like “You’re supposed to be changing the world ... not changing diapers,” is the latest teen pregnancy prevention campaign to find itself caught in a storm of controversy. This time, the resistance is being led by young mothers themselves, and they are demanding an end to teen pregnancy prevention campaigns that are based on shaming teen mothers and young parents.

Created by young mother and activist Natasha Vianna, the twitter hashtag #NoTeenShame is calling on the Candie’s Foundation to end the shame tactics they employ in their campaign. The hashtag is meant to both pressure the Candie’s Foundation to engage with young parents about their experiences and a call to demand an end to the shaming tactics in their campaign. In conjunction with the social media campaign, Vianna started a petition requesting that Neil Cole, the founder of the Candie’s Foundation, meet with Vianna and a small group of young parents to discuss how shame-and-blame campaigns affect teen and young parents directly. This grassroots coalition of young parents is directly challenging the shaming rhetoric that dominates teen pregnancy prevention campaigns and demanding efforts based in support, not stigma.

Shame is a useful social tool; it works to define what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and when used against perpetrators of bigotry, can have a powerful force for societal good. But teen pregnancy prevention campaigns like the Candie’s Foundation and New York City’s recent campaign use shame to demonize teen mothers and to police the boundaries of teen girls’ sexuality. When directed at society’s most powerless citizens, shame can be a powerful means of solidifying power structures and perpetuate bigotry and oppression.

Rather than empowering teens to make responsible decisions and educating teens on important issues like consent in sex, campaigns like the Candie’s Foundation actively perpetuate the framework that portrays teen mothers as unworthy social pariahs. Instead of educating teens about safe sex and how to make informed sexual decisions, the Candie’s Foundation results to stigmatizing and shaming teen mothers. Yes, teen mothers; it is overwhelmingly apparent that the target of shame in teen pregnancy prevention campaigns is almost always teen mothers. 

The rhetoric used to describe the statistics they cite puts the blame on teen mothers, rather than teen parents. For instance, the Candie’s Foundation features “facts,” such as “Sons of teen mothers are twice as likely to end up in prison.” Notice that the statement references sons of teen mothers, rather than teen parents. Campaigns like the Candie’s Foundation use this kind of rhetoric to normalize the shaming judgment within what seems to be an indisputable fact. Their “fact” makes no mention of teen parents, nor does it refer to teen fathers at all, but instead blames teen mothers for their children’s likelihood of imprisonment. 

As a teen mother, Vianna came up against a wall of resistance and shame from her parents, teachers, school administrators, and most of the adults in her life. She detailed how the shame she felt from being a teen mother “kept me from asking for help when I needed it most and it put me in dangerous and unsafe situations.” And sadly, this is to be expected when we live in a culture that stigmatizes teen pregnancy and teen motherhood as shameful and irresponsible. Campaigns like the Candie’s Foundation help cultivate a culture that demonizes teen mothers, blames teen pregnancy on teen girls, and reinforces the patriarchal notion that teen girls’ sexuality is inherently immoral and shame-worthy. 

Grassroots efforts like #NoTeenShame are a small but critical means of shifting the public discourse around teen pregnancy. Campaigns like these elevate the voices of those who are oppressed and stigmatized, and force those of us who are either complicit in our actively perpetuate a culture of shame to listen to the actual stories and perspectives of teen and young parents, to challenge our preconceived, hegemonic notions about who is an appropriate parent and who is not. Rather than reiterating the same narrow-minded stereotype of the irresponsible, lascivious teen mother, efforts like Vianna’s force us to see the underlying power systems that inhibit teen parents from succeeding. It is not teen parents who are at fault, but our racist, heteropatriarchal society that continually casts them as unworthy.

Perhaps it is time to abandon the notion that teen pregnancy is something to be “prevented,” and instead, focus on education and empowerment. Rather than relying on the demonization of teen mothers, we should encourage comprehensive sex education in high schools, one that advocates for consent, includes all forms of contraception, and teaches the fundamentals to maintaining a healthy and safe sex life. According to the Guttmacher Institute, comprehensive sex education in schools has varied positive effects: “either delayed or reduced sexual activity, reduced the number of sexual partners, or increased the use of condoms or other contraceptives.” 

A teen pregnancy prevention campaign based in education and empowerment is what efforts like Natasha Vianna’s are all about. It should be about support, not shame.