Over the past few weeks, a post created in honor of National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month has gone viral—challenging readers to rethink their perspective on teen moms:
Created by the blogger behind Teen Mom NYC, the post states that 39% of children born to 15-year-old mothers are fathered by men between the ages of twenty and thirty. "That means grown men father a large percent of children born to teens,” the post adds, “but teen mothers are presented as the problem.”
This message has been shared nearly 45,000 times on Facebook and thousands more times on other platforms. I myself shared it on my personal Facebook account—right before I noticed that the source of the statistic was from 1995, more than twenty years ago.
Was the figure still accurate? I decided to do a little fact-checking, and the short answer is no. That said, many of the men who father babies with teen women are older—and the message that teen moms face undue shame and blame for getting pregnant is still way too relevant.
First, a quick trip in the time machine back to 1995. That year, in his State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton called “the epidemic of teen pregnancies and births where there is no marriage … our most serious social problem." At the time, teen pregnancy rates had reached its highest level in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, with panic over the issue at a peak as well, the Committee on Unintended Pregnancy—a group commissioned by the nonprofit Institute of Medicine (now known as The National Academy of Medicine)—released a report that included the provocative statistic noted above.
But let’s fast forward to today. It’s important to note that teen pregnancy rates have dropped dramatically—a whopping 51% since the mid-nineties. So where does that leave a post like the one currently making the rounds on Facebook?
Let’s start with the age question. The majority of teen births occur among older teens, according to Kathryn Kost, lead researcher on teen pregnancy at the Guttmacher Institute. Most teen moms are between the ages of 18 and 19 years old, she says. Less than 1% of teens younger than 15 become pregnant each year, according to 2014 report.
Of course, this is not to say that 15-year-old girls are not becoming pregnant.
So what do the current stats look like for this group? It turns out that 68% of men who impregnate teen moms between the ages of 15 to 17 are under the age of 20, and 95% are under the age of 24, according to Ginny Ehrlich, the CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, citing data from the CDC’s 2014 Vital Statistics report and the most recent National Survey of Family Growth.
So the latest numbers no longer mirror those portrayed in the viral post. However, the post’s message that teen mothers are unfairly stigmatized for getting pregnant—that teen mothers are “presented as the problem”—is one worthy of exploration.
To learn more, I reached out to Gloria Malone, the blogger, mother and activist behind Teen Mom NYC and the viral post. Malone didn’t deny that her source for the post was outdated, but she stands behind the message. "Men are always excused from pregnancy," she told me by phone. "When you couple that with age and the ways in which prevention campaigns particularly feature young women of color, they’re kinda banking on stereotypes of women that exist. The stereotype that young women are unable to close their legs."
Consider this ad from DC Campaign, a Washington-based organization which aims to reduce rates of teen pregnancy in the nation’s capital, which has had some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country.
Or this widely criticized 2001 ad from TeenPregnancy.org, a website affiliated with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The ad features a young woman of color with the word"DIRTY" scrawled on top of her. To her left, the copy reads: "I want to be out with my friends. Instead I'm changing DIRTY diapers." Campaigns like this one, which traffic heavily in shame, make it difficult for women who do become pregnant.
To combat ads like these, Malone and six other teen moms launched the hashtag and Tumblr NoTeenShame with support from The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health as part of the Strong Families Movement in 2013.
“We need to stop shaming young people, and primarily young mothers because it really affects how society interacts with them,” Malone told me, recounting her own experience of being pregnant at 15 and feeling like her community turned their back on her when they thought she wouldn’t graduate from high school as a result. (Malone graduated on time and went on to earn a Bachelor's degree.) The NoTeenShame campaign also launched a Change.org petition against shame-based ads, and the hashtag is still being used on Twitter three years later.
When I asked Malone how she would recast conversations around teen pregnancy prevention, she told me she'd take the resources currently directed toward these public campaigns and the organizations behind them and redirect them to poverty-prevention programs. Research shows that poverty is both a leading cause and consequence of teen pregnancy.
When I ran Malone’s argument by Sarah Brown, the co-author of the original committee report from 1995 and one of the founding members of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Brown, who also served as the organization’s CEO for twenty years, said, “I feel for her and all young women (and men for that matter) who got caught up in this and feel stigmatized and so forth. It’s not right.”
But Brown also told me it's not an accident that most campaigns target young women, because, in her words, it's a "matter of focusing where most of the problem, pain, and responsibility lies.” She told me, “I’m happy to talk a lot about men, but I think we need to focus on who has the most at stake," adding, "Every single reversible form of contraception besides condoms is used by the female."
And she’s right, of course, that women are the ones who end up pregnant at the end of the day. But does that mean we shouldn’t hold men accountable? Hardly.
To that note, Brown agrees that conversations around teen pregnancy prevention should be more nuanced. "It’s not about preventing pregnancy entirely," she says, "It’s about postponing pregnancy even just for a couple years. Get further in school, do better in the job market, know yourself better so you can have a more stable relationship."
Brown acknowledges that some groups may have—intentionally or not—contributed to the idea that pregnancy among young women is a death sentence.
With that in mind, perhaps the country’s public health organizations would do well to enlist advocates like Malone—women who’ve lived through teen pregnancy themselves—to help paint a more authentic picture and provide them with the support they really need.
Cleo Stiller is a digital producer covering the intersections of sex, tech and culture. Words to live by: get your money's worth.