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The Answer Blog

Archive for May, 2014

Teen Parents Need Support Not Shame

May 30, 2014

As health and sexuality educators we work to ensure that young people know how to prevent pregnancy, but are we also supporting teens when they become parents? Too often teen parents are shamed, and shaming does nothing to ensure young parents graduate from school and go on to pursue work that allows them to support their families. Answer recently spoke with Natasha Vianna, Online Communications Manager at the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, about the work she does to provide comprehensive sexuality education and to support pregnant and parenting teens.

Alex Medina: You’re one of the young mothers behind the #NoTeenShame campaign. What led you to start the campaign?

Natasha Vianna: My negative experiences as a teen mom were shaped by people who refused to see me as a valuable woman in our society. Adults, relatives, educators, providers and strangers have regurgitated statistics and data with the intention of limiting my potential and putting me “in my place.” Organizations claiming to have the good intention of reducing teen pregnancy were using their power and money to continue oppressing my already marginalized community by tokenizing our stories for shock effect.

Every year, I would mentally and emotionally prepare myself for May, Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, and the accompanying images, posters, PSAs and messages around teen pregnancy. Often times, I’d ask myself if my 8-year-old daughter would see these images and ask me if I ruined her life like those ads said she would. She didn’t ruin my life, she improved it. But there were few organizations that were willing to elevate those stories, the stories of teen parents who rediscovered purpose in their lives and challenged the odds because of their children.

When the Candie’s Foundation’s #NoTeenPreg campaign was launched again in May of 2013, we joined forces and created #NoTeenShame. During the 2013 campaign, we heard from many organizations around the world that were thankful for our movement. Teen moms started tweeting us their stories. The children of teen moms started sharing their narratives, and people all over were eager to hear more about us and our work. This year, we made it a point to be proactive versus reactive by collaborating with organizations and designing helpful tips for allies. This campaign has really motivated me to continue pushing for a more just society and believing that anyone really can make a difference.

AM: Many of the messages young people get from pregnancy prevention campaigns are negative and shaming. What does positive and supportive teen pregnancy prevention look like to you?

NV: All young people, including young parents, deserve equitable access to LGBTQ-inclusive comprehensive sex education that provides the information young people need to make empowered decisions about their bodies, gender, sexuality and relationships. Sex education must address the impact of systems of oppression on sexual and reproductive health and rights. It must be inclusive of people with disabilities, LGBTQ people and parents as well as be culturally and linguistically accessible.

Truthfully, I would completely stop saying “teen pregnancy prevention” entirely and reframe my own language to embrace the importance of supporting young people and their reproductive rights. Teen pregnancy itself has been narrated as a negative consequence, one that needs to be prevented no matter what. This ignores the reality that teen pregnancy is a complex issue and that there are teens who want to become parents, feel pressured to become parents or come from cultures that simply do not vilify young men and women for becoming young parents.

AM: What’s one misconception about teen pregnancy that you’d like to clear up?

That teen pregnancy will ruin a young person’s life. This was probably the most traumatizing thing I had to hear over and over again. The message itself fails to address the reality that many of us were raised by teen parents or have relatives or friends who were teen parents. My mother, my grandmother, my aunt, my cousin and almost all the women in my family were teen parents. While being a teen parent was not the ideal role for young men and women, my culture also did not perpetuate the idea that our lives would end once we were parents.

When you’re a pregnant teen and you are constantly told that teen pregnancy ruins your life, can you imagine how that feels? Can you imagine how it felt for me to carry a child inside me that society already labeled as a public health issue? Can you imagine how it felt for me to give life to the very person that society said would end mine? It was a terrible thing to live through. I’d love to see us shift from that narrative and focus on all the things young people can accomplish and then provide them with all things they need to fulfill their own dreams. We have a lot of work to do.

AM: What can health teachers do to be more inclusive of pregnant or parenting teens?

I know health educators can often feel pressured to be inclusive, but it’s important to acknowledge that expectant and parenting teens often have complex identities. Being a young parent doesn’t put us into a different category; it just adds another layer to our already existing identities. Our pregnancies don’t always put us on the path to being more informed on our sexual health, so keep in mind that like all people, we are always learning.

Where Are They Now? Sex, Etc. Writer Natasha Ramsey

May 8, 2014

Sex, Etc., Answer’s award-winning, teen-written magazine and website, has been providing the sexual health information teens need and deserve for 20 years. None of this would be possible without the teens who write the stories that educate young people across the country. These writers go on to do great work in reproductive health, public health and journalism. We recently caught up with former teen staff writer, Natasha Ramsey.

Natasha Ramsey, Teen Staff Writer, 2005-2007

Natasha Ramsey is currently a medical student at NYU, and we couldn’t be prouder of the great work she has done and continues to do to promote young people’s sexual and reproductive health. When I reached out to Natasha via e-mail she recalled being interested in sexual health as a teenager and actually having pretty good sex ed.

“I had a really great gym/health teacher in middle school who made us act out the menstrual cycle and fertilization,” she explained.

Natasha also enjoyed writing short stories and poems as a teenager, so when a tutor at her high school’s after-school program told her about Sex, Etc., she immediately applied to be a teen editor.

LH: How has Sex, Etc. shaped the work you do today?

NR: How has Sex, Etc. not shaped the work I do today?! If it were not for Sex, Etc., pursuing a degree in medicine would not have even crossed my mind. I always had an interest in sexual health, but my true passion was writing. I attended a health sciences high school and vowed that I would never step foot near a hospital and would become a journalist. It was through Sex, Etc. that I was exposed to the field of public health and advocacy and the pressing issues that teens face. Sex, Etc. sparked a fire in me to ensure that teens get the information they deserve about their bodies.

Additionally, the staff at Sex, Etc. was very supportive of my goals and were instrumental in my college acceptances and numerous awards and scholarships. It was no surprise that I majored in public health at Rutgers University and eventually went on to pursue an M.D. degree.

As a medical student now, I am involved in numerous activities geared towards educating teens, including creating my own sexual health curriculum for teen girls at a local high school. My experience with Sex, Etc. has been instrumental in my journey, and I honestly would not be who I am without it.

LH: What’s the most pressing sexual health issue teens face today?

NR: I believe the most pressing sexual health issue teens face today is teen pregnancy. Although the rates have decreased over the years, the few teens who do get pregnant often have many obstacles they have to face. I believe that many young women are not adequately informed about their bodies and additionally may lack the tools to effectively communicate with their partners. This is an area that I plan to work in as a physician.

LH: What did you enjoy most about writing for Sex, Etc.?

NR: Writing for Sex, Etc. was an amazing experience for several reasons. I loved that we were able to choose the topics we wanted to cover, and although the staff did edit the pieces that we wrote, I always felt that my voice always shined through in my work. Additionally, I love that our work has a legacy, and that teens are able to access our articles years after we have written them. To this day I still have copies of Sex, Etc. magazine and printouts of news clippings. I was very proud of my contributions to Sex, Etc., and had it not been for me growing out of teenage-hood, I would probably still be writing for them!

LH: What issue are you most passionate about and why?

NR: I am most passionate about women’s health and preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. As a future physician, I plan to work with disadvantaged populations as well as pilot health education programs to improve the health of the people in those populations. My passion for these areas come from the work that I did in Sex, Etc. many years ago as well as my upbringing in an urban neighborhood where I saw the need for health education in the community.

LH: Name one myth or ridiculous thing you heard about sex growing up?

NR: The most ridiculous thing I have heard is that birth control messes up your reproductive system. Unfortunately, many people still believe this ridiculous myth because they are not well informed about their reproductive organs, menstruation or birth control. This is problematic because people end up not using birth control and becoming pregnant. I am a huge proponent for birth control and try to help dispel this myth whenever I talk to my patients.

LH: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would that be?

NR: I would have dinner with President Obama and Michelle Obama. As a future physician who plans to work in disadvantaged populations, I have so much appreciation for the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, they both seem really cool!

Pregnancy Prevention Starts With Pregnancy Education

May 1, 2014

I think most people would be astounded by the number of questions I answer every week regarding pregnancy on the Forums at Sexetc.org or on the Sex, Etc. Tumblr page. If I had to guess, I’d bet that 90 percent of the questions have to do with pregnancy and whether or not the person asking the question or his partner is pregnant based on the detailed story they lay out for me.

Of these many questions asked about whether or not someone is pregnant, the vast majority of the situations described involve no risk for pregnancy. And, about half of the time when I tell the teen asking that there was low or no risk for pregnancy, they don’t believe me at first.

Easy to Dismiss

It would be easy  to dismiss a teenager’s anxiety and attribute it to hormones or “just being dramatic.” Some people would probably want to moralize and say, “Well, if teens can’t use birth control or condoms or “control themselves,” they deserve to get pregnant or contribute to a pregnancy.” But I’ve learned that teens’ anxiety about pregnancy isn’t about not using condoms, not using birth control or perhaps even not practicing abstinence; it’s that these young people literally do not understand how pregnancy happens, which means they can’t understand how to prevent it.

And that is not their fault.

How Pregnancy Happens

The teens who ask about whether they or their partners are pregnant usually describe a situation like kissing a partner who ejaculates in his jeans and wondering if this could cause a pregnancy. Or she’s on hormonal birth control and they used a condom when they engaged in oral sex, but maybe some semen got on his or her hand and they want to know if she could be pregnant. You would be surprised how many people think that sperm can live on shower walls, in sinks, on toilet seats or toilet paper or that sperm can get through layers of clothing.

Again, the fact that teens are asking these questions and want to know if they could be pregnant or could cause a pregnancy in these situations is not their fault. It’s ours, because obviously we need to do a better job of educating young people on some of the basics related to pregnancy and reproduction.

Pregnancy Education Is Pregnancy Prevention

A lot of times people hear pregnancy prevention, and they think of the methods by which to prevent pregnancy from happening: using a condom, practicing abstinence or using hormonal birth control. But I would argue that pregnancy prevention starts with something much more basic: teaching young people how a pregnancy happens. When we talk about pregnancy and reproduction with our children or our students, we should be thinking, are we doing it early and often? Are we doing it in a way that is age-appropriate and makes sense to them developmentally? And are we presenting ourselves as trusted resources so that they feel comfortable asking questions about reproduction and how it happens?

Pregnancy prevention and education too often get caught up in a debate about whether or not teens should be having sex, when really it starts with the fundamental belief that young people have a right to understand their bodies and how they work. It’s our job to arm them with the knowledge necessary for them to make healthy and informed decisions.

We owe it to them.

—Kaitlyn Wojtowicz, M.A., Coordinator of Education and Communications