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.