Countless young women in middle and high school alike find themselves in life-altering situations far too often: unexpected and unwanted pregnancy. These pregnancies typically derail a young lady’s life and sometimes negatively affect the father of the child as well, although to a much lesser degree. It is the girl who must carry, birth, and nurture the child she grows inside. The teenage father can easily separate himself from the girl and move on with his life, freely pursuing his aspirations. Teenage pregnancy, although devastatingly common, is absolutely avoidable, but not through the typical pathways one might expect. The teenage pregnancy rate will not decrease because of free contraception or abstinence-only talks at high schools. The U.S. must create a fresh, holistic approach to this problem, because this problem affects all Americans, not only teenage mothers.
In the United States, teenage girls become pregnant at staggering rates. One would assume that with all of the sex education public schools offer, the rate would be much lower. Girls of color tend to have a higher rate of teenage pregnancy. It is easy to observe this and claim that for some reason, girls of color are more promiscuous or less careful when they have sex. These young girls have been blamed and written off as less valuable than their white teenage counterparts for this reason and many others. But, it is unfair and racist to make such a blanket statement without delving into the reasons behind each girl’s pregnancy. Perhaps one will find that the problem is more systemic than previously thought.
Each girl becomes pregnant for a different reason, although the method for each pregnancy is obviously the same. Looking past the act of unprotected sex, one can see a dozen reasons why a young girl chooses to engage in sex, fully knowing the risks that come with it. Yet these reasons are often overlooked or denied and the cycle continues with each generation of teenage girls. One reason for the high teenage pregnancy rate for girls of color is poverty. Poverty is complex and it manifests in various forms, from children who go hungry, to the elderly who cannot afford their medication. Poverty is at the root of many problems in the U.S. But, there are a few types of poverty that present themselves in different ways. Young girls of color in the U.S. are more likely to be born into poverty than their white counterparts. Their parents are poor, their grandparents were poor, and their children will most likely be poor. This type of poverty is systemic and one cannot simply pull themselves out of it through hard work. Many people work extremely hard at their jobs and yet never rise above the poverty line.
Poverty impacts young girls in a few different ways. It is probable that a young girl of color, born into poverty, has a mother who became a mother as a teenager. She has seen her mother struggle as she raises her children. Her mother may work menial and unfulfilling jobs, causing financial and emotional stress. Perhaps the girl’s father is absent or only physically present. Living this type of life is extraordinarily distressing for anyone, but for a young girl, it is traumatizing and can stunt her growth as a person. In order to escape her stressful home and to discover herself as a young woman, a girl may pursue romantic relationships with boys. These relationships often serve as distractions from her seemingly inescapable reality. Knowing that boys typically desire sex more often than girls do, it is natural that a girl’s boyfriend will pressure and persuade her into having sex with him. Not wanting to be left single, like her mother or other maternal figures in her life, she will have sex with him to keep him. Clearly this narrative does not apply to every young girl who becomes pregnant, but it is a story that is far too common.
If this girl becomes pregnant, much to her dismay, she is fulfilling the cycle of pregnancy and poverty that her mother laid before her. In an attempt to escape that life, she has just become secured in it. Once a girl is pregnant, her entire life will shift to accommodate the pregnancy. Assuming that the girl chooses to carry the child to term, several things will change for her. She may lose friends, have to drop out of school, and be left by her boyfriend. Once the baby is born, a focus on work will become imperative. With another human to care for, she must take a job and leave the baby with someone else while she works. Because the young girl has left school, job options are severely limited. Most likely she will take a job at a restaurant or retail store, leaving her with little room for professional growth, and perhaps a job that dissatisfies her. Considering the higher rate of girls of color becoming pregnant and leaving school, it is not a stretch to say that teenage pregnancy leaves the U.S. with an insufficiently diverse corporate world and forces women of color into a cycle of unfulfilling work, from which they cannot easily leave.
In an effort to curb this high rate, schools and religious institutions have attempted to address the problem through two different methods: free contraception and abstinence-only talks. Schools that provide free contraception to their students are clearly more realistic and understanding regarding teenagers and their sexual practices. Teenagers will have sex for a plethora of reasons, but the best way to prevent pregnancy is to provide free contraception. This has been the typical practice for a while, yet it lacks true transformative power. The contraception that is offered at no cost tends to be male condoms. This means that a young girl must secure the contraception that her boyfriend must choose to wear. Should her boyfriend refuse a condom, she is left without protection. Contraception should include girls as well, whether that be through female condoms or birth control pills. By putting the power back into the girl’s hands, a shift will come in the teenage pregnancy rate.
The other standard method of failing sex education is abstinence-only talks, typically held at or by religious institutions. This method undoubtedly fails because of the unrealistic approach to sexuality and the scare tactics used. Abstinence-only denies teenagers’ sexual urges, which are high at this age, and it leaves them with questions. If birth control exists, why be abstinent? Abstinence-only talks also tend to focus on scaring the teenagers out of the bedroom by regaling them with graphic stories of lives ruined by pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. These diseases can also be avoided by using birth control. Teenagers may be children, but they are highly perceptive and can see past the front that adults present with these types of talks. Those who run these talks refuse to accept that teenagers will have sex regardless and proper education and preparation is vital if they are to avoid pregnancy and disease.
A new approach to sex education must be implemented in every public school in America. It should also be available in religious institutions as well. When teenagers arrive for a sex education class, the instructors should switch the narrative from “take a condom” or “don’t do it” and instead engage the teens in an honest and realistic conversation about sex, while also providing various free birth control products. Women should lead these talks for the girls and be specially trained to discern any domestic issues a girl might have that could lead her to unprotected sex and pregnancy. If an issue is identified, or even suspected, the girl should be offered free counseling or therapy to begin a pathway to healing. These sessions will be safe spaces for the girl to discuss anything that bothers her, including her sexuality. If a girl does not have a domestic problem, and even if she does, then one-on-one mentoring is what she needs.
Through this mentorship program, these young women will be exposed to influential and powerful women in their neighborhood and around the country. When an older woman takes a girl under her wing, change ensues. These girls need to see that better jobs than restaurant or retail exist for them, if they focus on school. Many of these girls have most likely never met a woman of color with a high-ranking career. Expose them to these women, let them glean wisdom from them, and their perspective on life will change. When one is raised in poverty, their outlook on life tends to be bleak and their concept of the world is small. If a girl’s horizon is widened and she sees what she could be in this one life that she has, perhaps she will make a different decision. Should she continue to engage in sex, she will hopefully be stricter about contraception. If she decides to abstain from sex completely, she will understand the reasoning behind her decision and stick with it, rather than fumbling and falling back into unprotected sex after being pressured to be abstinent. Regardless, it is a girl’s choice. But, every girl should have a comprehensive understanding of what each choice actually means for her life and for the life of those who come after her.