What I wish I knew 15 years ago: Learning about young families as a sexuality educator

By November 18, 2015What's New

Originally posted on Medium.com

By: Elizabeth Greenblatt, MPH; Capacity Building Coordinator at the Sea Change Program

I used to believe teen pregnancy was a problem that needed to be fixed. I started working as a sexuality educator in high school, continued through college, and became a community health educator directly out of college. Throughout this time, I firmly believed in the work I was engaging in with young people, and I believed that part of my work was to help teens avoid pregnancy. I had a difficult time understanding why someone would choose to have a child at a young age, let alone how it could be a positive experience. Caught up in my own perspective and choices, I thought pregnancy would get in the way of accomplishing goals like graduating from college or having a successful career. It wasn’t until the past year, through my work with young parents of color, that I began to understand that this viewpoint has everything to do with privilege.

During my time as a sex educator, I began to feel that something wasn’t right. I was positioning teen pregnancy as a negative consequence - an outcome to be avoided at all costs - and assumed that the young people I was working with would share in that analysis. But I began to question why young people were not included in the process of curriculum or program design. Aren’t young people the experts in their own lives? Taking their opinions out of the very education we were trying to provide only helped to create programs that didn’t connect to their lived experiences. As I worked with young parents and their allies over the last year I began to wonder, what if instead of constantly discussing teen pregnancy as a negative problem, we allowed young people to explore and own their own sexuality?

For the past year, I have been working on understanding how stigma impacts young people’s sexuality, and specifically how it affects young parents. I engaged experts in the field, including former young parents, to discuss their work, the challenges of our current approaches to sex education, and the potential solutions as they saw them. Together we wrote, From Severe Stigma to Powerful Resilience: Youth Sexuality, Parenting and the Power of Structural Support, which explores how young parents and their allies are working to end the shame-messaging that surrounds young families, and shares a new conceptual model of how stigma manifests at multiple levels of culture for young parents.  

Working on this project changed me. Speaking to young women of color broke open my understanding of the issue and provided me with an opportunity to examine my privilege as a white, upper-middle class woman who gave birth in her 30s, as well as my past mistakes with sex education. The experience ignited my desire to share the work of these advocates with the world. I was surprised to hear participants tell me over and over again that the statistics commonly shared about teen pregnancy were wrong, and that, for example, research shows that it can be healthier for young women of color to have babies at a young age (see the work of Arline Geronimus). Learning that much of the “facts” I had been trained in were based on flawed study designs was astonishing. But when you are a sex educator in the trenches, fighting to provide some small part of comprehensive sex education, it can be an afterthought to consider young families and how they fit into the big picture. You keep plowing forward, sure of the path to focus on teen pregnancy as a negative outcome and wrongly believing that this approach will somehow fix the “problem”.   

But the real problem is how our culture portrays youth sexuality. As a person who has always been committed to young people having access to information about their sexuality and reproductive health, I didn’t fully understand how stigma negatively affects young parents and how this stigma impacts their ability to feel like they have the right to exist in our society. The young parents and allies that I spoke with for our paper shared their understanding of media misrepresentation through stereotypes on television shows like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, as well as the effects of shaming ad campaigns like that of the Candies Foundation. Young people and young parents also experience stigma due to lack of federal policy to standardize comprehensive sex education in schools, and lack of enforcement of policies like Title IX, which provides protection for young parents in schools. Accessing health care and housing are other places where young parents experience discrimination and stigma, which can greatly impact their ability to maintain their health. Community and families also perpetuate stigma through labeling and name calling. Many young parents receive messages from their families and communities that they have “ruined their lives” and are “disappointments” or “poor role models.” So many young parents I spoke with discussed how stigma prevented them from leaving unhealthy relationships and created barriers to accessing much-needed support services, such as prenatal care, mental health services, sexual health services, educational resources, and more. My heart ached hearing their stories, and made me wish I could go back in time 15 years to change the way I was presenting sex education to provide more support for all young people.  

Hearing from young parents themselves has helped me understand how often teen pregnancy prevention campaigns, programs, and education efforts actually increase stigma for young families. By focusing on the individual teen parent, we ignore the larger systemic problems of poverty, racism, sexism, classism (and more) that intersect with the issue. We funnel money towards programs designed to fix the “problem of teen pregnancy”, and provide sex education that often presents teen pregnancy as the ultimate failure, which contributes to the shame and stigma that young parents experience daily. All parents, regardless of age, need support. Parenting is hard work, and a person of any age needs help to do it well. The assumption that young people can’t be amazing parents isn’t based in science, but is steeped in judgement. Treating young families with disrespect doesn’t help them to become better parents or more able to accomplish their goals. Young families are a part of our communities and it is time that we treat them as such.

We can make the choice to approach this issue differently, and do it in a way that will actually be supportive and useful to young people and young parents. We can change the way we provide comprehensive sex education and make it accessible and useful for all young people. Instead of making the goal to fix the “problem” of teen pregnancy, we can create the opportunity to discuss parenting and people’s various experiences, including the reasons people choose to delay parenting or choose not to parent at all. There are rich and diverse experiences around reproduction and sexuality that can readily be transformed into lessons and activities that will engage young people. We can also change the types of programs we create by doing what many of our participants in our paper are doing: asking young people and young parents what they need and want. We could meet young parents where they are and allow them to voice their experiences. We can include young parents in the process of program design, implementation, policy, and leadership. Who has more insight into the lives and experiences of young people than young people themselves?

Hearing from young parents and those advocating to end stigma and give truth to power has moved me deeply. To hear the joy of a young parent describing the positive ways their child has impacted their life and made them more willing to fight against adversity, is beyond inspiring. I feel honored and transformed by their ideas and how much they have already accomplished in changing the cultural narrative about young people’s sexuality and young parenting.

So please, read From Severe Stigma to Powerful Resilience: Youth Sexuality, Parenting and the Power of Structural Support, and then share it again and again. Give credit and recognition to the incredible people leading the charge in this work and to young parents themselves. This is how culture change happens: people open themselves to hearing another person’s experience and then share what they learned with others in their life. Being willing to drop your assumptions and listen is powerful, and can be the reason a shift in opinion occurs. Together, we can create a world where sexuality is a normal part of our lives, where we support young people in asking questions, and allow them the space to develop into sexually healthy and happy people.

Here’s what you can do to support young families and end the stigma around young parenting:

  • Support the work of CLRJ, #NoTeenShame, Young Women United, COLOR, NLIRH, ICAH, Forward Together, Advocates for Youth, Massachusetts Alliance on Teenage Pregnancy, New Mexico GRADS, and other partners working to end stigma for young families.
  • The next time you see a TV show with a young parent character, ask yourself what kind of support was provided to this young person and what types of solutions could provide assistance.  
  • Advocate for quality comprehensive sex education for all young people in your communities. Ask your local school districts what kind of sex education they provide and if you can see the curriculum.
  • Work to end federal funding for abstinence-only programming by contacting your representatives and senators.
  • If someone you know decides to parent at a young age, ask them what they need, support them, and make sure to not contribute further to the stigma and shame they already experience.
  • Ask your local school districts who their Title IX coordinator is and how they provide support to young families in your community.
  • If you work in the reproductive health, rights and justice field, consider examining your current programming, and see if your current “pregnancy prevention” lessons shame young families. Ask young parents to look at your programming to offer suggestions and changes.  
  • Talk to your funders, point them to From Severe Stigma to Powerful Resilience: Youth Sexuality, Parenting and the Power of Structural Support, and have open conversations about how we can use funding to better support all young people.