For a long time, I’ve wanted to do a series on teen pregnancy, as in what works and what doesn’t, along with the various unintended implications of the lessons from a feminist perspective. I have long believed that a great deal of the damage society does to women’s self-image, mothers, and parenting in general begins here. I’ve decided to start this series by reading the book The Pregnancy Project: A Memoir by Gaby Rodriguez and Jenna Glatzer. I’m about halfway through and I’m gathering my material to write about it. This book, if you haven’t heard of it, follows a sixteen year old girl whose mother and sisters were teen mothers as she conducts a social experiment wherein she pretended to be pregnant to understand why pregnant teenagers so often drop out of school, as well as what sort of factors influence whether they choose abortion, adoption, or parenting the children themselves. So far, she’s said some very interesting things about slut-shaming and stereotype threat and I think it’s an excellent read. I’ll probably begin my analysis of it soon. In the meantime, I’ll entertain you with a personal story from my own high school years.
As I was reading about Gaby’s encounters with some of her teachers, I was reminded of my own senior year in high school. I had a lot of extra credits from taking summer school voluntarily and being in band, but I was also a bus rider, so I didn’t have any reason to get out of school early as I’d be stuck hanging around and doing nothing until the last bell rang. I was in a unique position to take any classes I wanted after English and History, so I enrolled in Introduction to Psychology, Human Behavior, an extra French class, and Computer Science. I loved my Psychology, French, and Computer Science classes, but Human Behavior was a disaster. At the time, I was very interested in studying psychology and Human Behavior’s course description led me to believe the classes would be along those lines. Instead, all we learned about human behavior was how not to fuck up our lives. This class consisted primarily of remedial lectures on how not to get pregnant (don’t have sex!) or addicted to drugs (don’t do them). We had one project due at the end of the semester, which I turned in early for a grade of 110%. The extra 10% was because I wrote two paragraphs on my presentation instead of one. I’m such an overachiever. It was a guaranteed and extremely easy A if I could manage to attend at least most of the classes. I slept through lecture after lecture on sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholism, teen parenting, and so on, but there were two that pissed me off enough to keep me awake through the whole hour.
The first lecturer was a family counselor. She spoke at length about how many kids she knew that spent too much time on relationships and so forth while they were in high school and how terrible this would be for their future. She then had one boy and one girl from the class come to the front and gave them each a construction paper heart. She told a story about how they just met and fell in love in high school and then had sex. She had them each tear a piece of their construction paper hearts off and give it to the other. Then, they “broke up.” The boy went back to his seat while the girl remained at the front of the room. She brought another boy from the class to the front of the room and gave him a new construction paper heart. They, too, “had sex” and tore another piece of the hearts off for each other. Finally, a third boy came to the front of the room and received a new heart. This time, things worked out for the girl and the two got married. At the wedding, the lecturer explained, they should each give their whole hearts to each other. The boy handed his complete construction paper heart to the girl and she handed her mangled, third of a heart to him. “She should have her whole heart to give him, but look at the miserable piece that’s left,” the lecturer said. My eyes narrowed to slits, but I said nothing. The class nodded solemnly. Finally, the bell rang.
Some time went by before I was again mad enough to stay awake through a lecture. This time, the lecturer was a woman from a crisis pregnancy center. I don’t remember what her name was, but she had brown curly hair and periwinkle suit with a ladybug broche. She started off her lecture with the exact same construction paper heart exercise, but this time, when she made the grand finish “Look at the miserable piece that’s left!” I raised my hand.
I did not wait for her to call on me. “Do you think it’s reasonable or responsible to tell every young woman in this class that has had sex or will have sex before she marries, that she will be less of a person for it and unworthy of a future husband?”
The lecturer, very confident in her superiority over this scruffy 17 year old girl in the front row, snarled at me and said “I think it would be irresponsible to let them think otherwise” and nodded to my teacher before continuing on with her lecture. Among other gems, she was sure to include a bunch of stories of young women who were caught having sex by their parents. One of these stories went way off the rails and she said the parents brought her and her older boyfriend to court for “taking her virginity.”
“Can you show me the law that says taking somebody’s virginity is a crime?” I interjected angrily before the teacher warned me not to speak again.
“Even though his penis never entered her vagina,” she continued, “the judge ruled that the moment any part of his body passed through her labia, her virginity was lost.” The class fell silent. “Are there any questions?” I raised my hand. “Does it pertain to the lecture?” I nodded.
I looked her dead in the eye. “I think I lost my virginity to my gynecologist” I announced at the top of my voice.
“That’s different.” She protested as the class erupted in laughter.
“I did too!” came calls from the girls in the back of the class. “I don’t think I can lose my virginity” called the groom from earlier.
“What kind of settlement do you think I can get in court?” I continued.
“This isn’t funny!” the lecturer shouted. “This morning, I had to tell a thirteen year old girl that she was pregnant and HIV positive. This isn’t funny!”
When we settled down, my teacher went around the room and passed out review pages for us to fill out and show that we learned something from the lecture. I usually filled these out with “The props s/he brought were really interesting and I particularly liked the student participation portion of the demonstration” which earned me full credit each time. This time, I actually put some effort into it. I wrote that I agreed that young girls were getting pregnant and contracting serious STDs and that this was something that obviously needed to be addressed, but the message was watered down with fiction and fantasy. The lecturer lost all credibility with the class because she assumed we were incapable of knowing the difference.
I was the last to leave the class, and when I did, two of my classmates were there to tell me that I was extremely rude and they were embarrassed to be sitting near me. My face turned pink. The next day, my teacher pulled me aside and told me if I did that again she’d dock my grade. I slept through the rest of the lectures.
Thirteen years later, I can remember how awful I felt that there were thirteen year old girls learning these things about their futures. Whether her story was true or not was irrelevant. Surely it happened somewhere, to someone, and this was what she was legitimately trying to prevent. But what did she teach all the young women in the class that day? How much of it did they completely ignore because it was hyperbolic and unbelievable, and how much of it did they believe? I know now that there were a lot more problems with that lecture than my seventeen year old self could see. Since then, I’ve wondered a lot whether this was something a lot of young women were taught in school or if it was just something my especially terrible Human Behavior class allowed to happen. The Pregnancy Project is shedding some light on that. I can’t wait to get started on this series.