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Poverty Causes Teen Parenting, Not the Other Way Around

11:56 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Martha Kempner for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

A teen mother & child

Poverty is a leading factor in teen motherhood.

Like many RH Reality Check readers, I have been closely following New York City’s fear- and shame-based campaign against teen pregnancy. The print ads include pictures of crying babies with captions like “Honestly Mom, chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” The ads also tell teens that if they have a kid, they will grow up to be poor. But the ads get it all wrong. Teen parenting doesn’t cause poverty; poverty causes teen parenting.

Developed by the New York Human Resources Administration (HRA), the campaign has seen a significant backlash since it was introduced last month. A group of activists in the city created a counter-campaign and demanded the city take the ads down. As Miriam Pérez noted in an article for RH Reality Check, the backlash may have resulted in a few tweaks and improvements, but the ads are still up, and the HRA hasn’t changed the campaign’s underlying tone at all.

I finally saw the ads for myself last week. My subway car was plastered with crying babies telling their potential teen parents not to get pregnant. The ads I saw were focused on money. In one, a curly haired toddler in a bunny rabbit shirt said, “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years.” Another featured a one-and-a-half-year-old African-American girl with a bow on top of her head and tears streaming down her cheeks, saying, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars a year.”

But the one that got me, the poster that I happened to be standing in front of for my ride on the C train, was one that might almost be seen as encouraging had it not been so completely meaningless. It read, “If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty.”

I don’t know whether this statistic is accurate, though it very well might be. Let’s face it: If you graduate from high school and get a job, you are two steps ahead when it comes to not living in poverty, whether or not you get married and have kids.

But these are big “ifs” that are affected by things way out of teenagers’ control, like where they’re born, the quality of the schools in their area, whether their parents are highly educated, whether their parents are employed, the employment rate in their neighborhood, and what the economy is like when they turn 18. And none of that has to do with whether or not they become parents before they get married.

Pérez points out that supporters of the campaign are missing the point — stigmatizing teen parents won’t prevent future teen parents, because that stigma already exists. I would add that the campaign misses another very important point: Teen parenting does not cause poverty. Poverty causes teen parenting.

Cause and Effect

The ads point out that economic outcomes for teen parents and their children tend to be poor. We know that teen mothers are less likely to graduate from high school, that the children of teen mothers are also less likely to graduate from high school (one ad in the campaign points to this statistics), that teen mothers are less likely to marry, and that they are more likely to live in poverty.  It would be easy to assume that these are natural consequences of teen parenting.

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Backlash Against NYC Teen Pregnancy Campaign Brings Tweaks, But Message Remains the Same

6:59 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Miriam Pérez for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Read more of RHRC’s coverage of the New York City teen pregnancy campaign here and here.

It’s been two weeks since the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) launched its teen pregnancy campaign. Though the agency has made some small tweaks to the campaign in response to the significant backlash that has surrounded it, it remains hugely problematic.

The campaign immediately has drawn intense criticism from activists, and that backlash has gotten significant media coverage. For instance, reproductive justice activists in New York launched the No Stigma, No Shame campaign. (View a Storify of the media response to that campaign here.) The Bloomberg administration has yet to admit defeat, but the HRA has made subtle changes to the campaign, seemingly in response to the backlash. According to the Times, the SMS game I wrote about previously for RH Reality Check has been edited. In the exchange about Anaya, the pregnant teen character who is bullied at the prom, she is no longer called a “fat loser”—now she’s just called a “loser.”

Since my first article on the campaign was published, I’ve received a few additional text messages from the SMS bot. A few days into the firestorm, I received this:


A week later, I received another random text from the SMS bot, this time about premature ejaculation. The texts seemed strangely timed, and I got the impression that these new texts were sent out in response to media pressure about the campaign. Sending out a few relevant facts about pregnancy prevention is nice—but it does not negate the fact that the campaign is rooted in shame and stigma.

Meanwhile, the campaign’s ads can be seen all over public transportation in New York City.

Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Richard Reeves was one of the few self-identified liberals to publicly defend the campaign. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Reeves argued that shame is a necessary tool: “[L]iberals should think twice: shame is an essential ingredient of a healthy society, particularly a liberal one. It acts as a form of moral regulation, or social ‘nudge,’ encouraging good behavior while guarding individual freedom.” He goes on to cite examples of how shame can be used to discourage drunk driving or smoking. “Teenage pregnancy qualifies for some ‘moral disapprobation.’ It is a bad choice, for the parents, children and society,” he wrote, quoting John Stuart Mill.

It’s abhorrent to compare the decision to become a teen parent to drunk driving, which is not only illegal, but also directly puts the lives of innocent bystanders at risk. Shame has been used to address both issues, but they are not morally equivalent. At least Reeves is honest in one way: He acknowledges that shame tactics have negative consequences on teen parents.

But there’s an assumption in Reeves’ op-ed—and in the campaign—that teen parenthood isn’t already incredibly stigmatized. Teen parenthood is not like smoking, which has been glorified and glamorized through decades of cigarette ads and popular culture. Gloria Malone, a teen mom and blogger who was brave enough to go on The O’Reilly Factor to talk about the campaign and wrote pieces about it for RHRC and the New York Times, is one of many teen moms who’ve spoken out about the stigma and lack of support they faced. “Some people argue that these ads are a fresh approach to dealing with the problem of teenage pregnancy. But I can tell you that there’s nothing innovative about them. All they do is take the insults and stereotypes directed at teenage parents every day, and post them up around the city,” she wrote in the Times.

And that’s where we really must question the city’s decision to spend $400,000 on this campaign. Even if we believe, as Reeves does, that stigma is an effective or legitimate method of prevention, where’s the evidence that teens aren’t already getting that message?

Obviously I don’t think stigma works, nor do I even think prevention is the right goal, when it comes to teen parenting. Helping teens avoid unwanted pregnancy? Sure. But when it comes to teen parents, I think we should be investing money in making sure they have the resources they need to thrive. Further promoting stigma only makes those resources harder to reach, as Malone points out in her Times article: “[A]fter I had my daughter, my high school guidance counselor refused to see me and help me with my applications. She never expected me to graduate. Most people, even within my family, assumed I wouldn’t amount to anything and would be dependent on government assistance for the rest of my life.”

Teen parents don’t have to end up in poverty, and there’s nothing inherently immoral about parenting at any age. The problem isn’t teen parents, it’s the social and economic conditions that make it impossible to juggle parenting and a career. Those are things we as a society have control over, and improving them will help everyone, including parents of any age.

Paid Sick Leave Pays for Itself: So Why Is NYC’s Mayoral Hopeful Blocking It?

12:58 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Sarah Jaffe for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Rosa* lost her mother just a few weeks ago.

Guy in a face mask

New York City companies want to keep sick people working, despite the costs.

Her elderly parents lived at home in New York. A home health-care aide helped Rosa’s father with the burden of caring for her mother, who had Parkinson’s disease and had suffered a major stroke just over two years ago.

“We didn’t want to keep her in a nursing home, for financial reasons, for germs. They basically told us to take her home,” Rosa told RH Reality Check.

The home health-care aide didn’t have paid sick days, so she came to work sick one day, and Rosa’s parents both wound up with the flu. Her 88-year-old father recovered; her mother did not.

“My dad lives with guilt that he allowed the person to stay,” Rosa said. “I’m living with guilt because I came to work that day to make a few pennies.”

Rosa takes unpaid leave from her job in order to care for her parents — her father still struggles with heart troubles and a bad back that makes it hard for him to get around. When Rosa is sick, she goes to the office. She uses her personal days to stay home with her family. (Rosa is also a breast cancer survivor.)

“It’s basically women who are the caregivers,” she noted. “I realize these corporations, they don’t want to do paid family leave. But they’re just eating themselves because the workers come to work exhausted.

“If it’s between work and my parents, my parents must come first.”

Rosa’s home health-care aide was just one of the 44 million workers nationwide who don’t have even a single paid sick day, according to Ellen Bravo, executive director of the Family Values at Work Consortium. A 2010 report from the Public Welfare Foundation and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that 55 percent of workers without paid sick days have gone to work with a contagious illness like the flu. “Thus, not having paid sick days is associated with an 18 percentage point increase in ill employees spreading diseases at work,” the report said. And 24 percent of parents without paid sick days have sent a sick child to school or daycare.

New York’s city council has a bill that would require paid sick days for more than 1.2 million workers. Calling for its passage, the New York Times editorial page noted that it is “a normal benefit for workers in at least 145 countries.” The bill’s been stalled, though, for more than 1,000 days, since its introduction in 2010, even as a natural disaster and flu epidemic hit the city. Christine Quinn, the powerful council speaker, has refused to bring the bill up for a vote, as Mayor Bloomberg and the business community are strongly opposed. Quinn has said that she’s in favor of the policy, but not while the economy remains weak.

Now, the bill is shaping up to be an issue in the 2013 mayor’s race, as a coalition of well-known and politically powerful women have declared they won’t support Quinn in her historic run for mayor unless she allows a vote on the bill, and there are hints that there’s a compromise afoot.

On February 25, a group of women elected officials from Congress, the state legislature, and the city council held a press conference calling for passage of the bill. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said, “…[R]ight here in New York, we can bypass congressional gridlock, enact paid sick leave, and make the Big Apple a national leader in protecting the health of our citizens and guaranteeing elementary fairness to all the working women and men who make our great city tick.”

“I think it’s pretty much a no-brainer,” said Pat Kane, an operating room nurse at Staten Island University Hospital and treasurer at the New York State Nurses Association. “When public health emergencies have to be declared during flu season, when every recommendation from every government agency involved in health says you have to stay home, I don’t see how you can have no requirement that people have to have this benefit when they’re working.”

Kane noted that at the end of January, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a new study on a new strain of norovirus, causing gastrointestinal illness, spread by people handling and preparing food. “A lot of those workers don’t have paid sick days,” she pointed out. “When you think about all the requirements to certify a restaurant, to me this should be one of those requirements.”

Paid sick leave is good reproductive health policy as well, Bravo pointed out. “From whatever angle, whether it’s prenatal visits, well baby visits or being able to have an abortion, people need time to take care of themselves without being forced either to forgo the treatment or forgo the pay or even worse, the job.”

“When they say ‘everyone’s free to stay home when they’re sick, they’re just not free to keep their paycheck or their job,’ that’s not freedom,” she continued.

Sick Leave Boosts Women’s Finances

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Vaginas Are Sperm Depositories and Other Scary Things About the State of New York’s Sex Ed Curricula

8:04 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Zero Tolerance for Clowns

(Photo: Mike Licht,

Written by Martha Kempner for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Along with many others children, teens, and adults, this week I went back to school, too. I started teaching Introduction to Human Sexuality at a local college, something I haven’t done in about six years. In an effort to gauge what my students had already learned and what they wanted to know, I gave them an anonymous questionnaire which, in part, asked them to describe their sexuality education up until this point. At least five of them said that they’d had the “standard” or “usual” high school sex education. Unfortunately, this wasn’t particularly enlightening to me because as a new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) highlights: when it comes to sex ed there is no such thing as standard; every district or even every classroom is different.

A survey of school systems across New York was conducted by NYCLU to determine what, if anything, they were teaching students about sex. Schools in the state are not required to teach comprehensive sexuality education, and while they are required to teach about HIV and certain other health topics, most of the lessons do not address sexuality or relationships. Schools do have to teach about alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; the prevention and detection of certain cancers; child development and parenting skills; and interpersonal violence. They do not, according to the new report, Birds, Bees, and Bias, How Absent Sex Ed Standards Fail New York Students, have to teach about “healthy relationship skills, STI and pregnancy prevention, puberty, [and] anatomy” or “other core aspects of effective, comprehensive sex education.” In 2005, the Department of Education issued state standards for health education, which included many topics related to sexual health. However, these standards are voluntary, and school districts do not have to comply with them. The authors also mention the National Sex Education Standards, which were released early this year by a number of national organizations. These set minimum content requirements for concepts in sex education but are also not binding. The report concludes:

“The current legal and policy climate permits schools in New York to decide what, if any, sex education they will teach beyond the mandated HIV education. As a result, whether New York’s teens graduate from high school with the information and skills crucial to making lifelong healthy and informed decisions about sex and relationships rests in the hands of each individual school district, principal and health education teacher, with little guidance and even less oversight.”

To determine what students are learning, NYCLU sent questionnaires to a sample of school districts across the state making sure to include small, medium, and large districts. New York City was excluded in part for efficiency purposes. Since the surveys were sent out, however, the city passed a sex education mandate that went into during the 2011-2012 school year. NYCLU says: “We look forward to reviewing New York City data and instruction at a future date.” In total, 108 school districts were included, representing 542,955 students or nearly half of all students enrolled in districts outside New York City. In addition, the authors reviewed the most commonly used textbooks in the state.

The study found major gaps in the education young people should have been receiving, as well as numerous factual errors and biases in the information they were actually given.

Outdated HIV Information

As the only sexuality-related topic that is mandated, HIV is one of the subjects most likely to be covered by school districts in the state.  In fact, 93 percent of districts surveyed provided information on this topic. Unfortunately, many of them used outdated information on “prognosis, drug therapies, prevention and transmission.” Some of the outdated and inaccurate information includes districts telling kids:

  • “Once you have AIDS you will live from 6 months to 3 years.”
  • “[HIV] kills an individual.”

One district mentions AZT, the earliest antiretroviral drug, which was introduced in 1987, but does not discuss any of the newer available therapies. Another provides students with a handout that gives an illustrated timeline of what happens when you become infected with HIV. The timeline explains that one goes from being asymptomatic to having HIV symptoms within 12 years (without mentioning available drug therapies), that the individual then goes from HIV symptoms to AIDS and opportunistic infections within two years, and from there they go to a tombstone that says RIP within two more years.

Anything with a tombstone is clearly trying to instill fear in young people, which is bad enough, but this illustration is troubling in other ways as well. It misses many opportunities to talk about how people are now managing to stay healthy longer with HIV, and it misses all opportunities to mention how to prevent the spread of HIV. In fact, the person in the timeline gets tested for HIV and finds out he’s positive before going into the stage where he is asymptomatic which is described as “feeling healthy but still spreading HIV.”

Young people should know that HIV is preventable through both abstinence and the use of condoms and that it is possible to have it without spreading it.

Incomplete Information about Anatomy
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Why I’m Marching in SlutWalk NYC

9:29 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check


One night in January after a lot of dancing at a friend’s house party in Brooklyn, a male neighbor and I made our way back to our building less than a mile away. We’d both consumed alcoholic beverages but nothing unusual for twenty-somethings on a Saturday night. My roommate had a new love interest at home with him, so to give him some privacy I went back to the neighbor’s apartment to crash, which I’d done several times before. I felt safe going back there as I’d spent a lot of time with this neighbor in a Will & Grace, Glee-watching, Katy Perry-listening kind of way. He’d had a homosexual relationship for more than a year prior to our being neighbors and for all intents and purposes I thought of him and treated him like a gay, male friend.

The next thing I know I’m feeling my pants being pulled down off my body. I heard the neighbor mutter, “Time to take charge of this situation.” And then I felt a small penis trying to enter me from behind. “No. Stop. No. Stop.” I kept repeating. I was in complete shock as I felt him enter me twice while I continued to say, “No. Stop. No. Stop.” I then felt him lift his weight off of my body and retreat. I felt frozen and totally incapacitated.

I didn’t realize fully what happened to me for at least 24 hours after the incident. I was stunned that this neighbor had just sexually violated me. I felt I had no one to turn to and no one who would understand. I looked into possible charges I could file but ultimately chose not to. There was no point in a restraining order, either, as this neighbor lived on the floor directly above mine and there was no way to avoid his constant proximity. I felt extremely uncomfortable in my own apartment building from then on. I informed my landlord of the situation and he did nothing.

When I finally felt able to tell people what happened, I was asked numerous times about what I had been wearing and if I had anything to drink. The fact that I was wearing grey pants and a black sweater and had consumed alcohol that evening should not have any bearing on what happened to me that night in January. That neighbor has since relocated to Florida. Part of me hopes it was the guilt from the crime he committed that drove him away. SlutWalk NYC wants society to know that it’s never acceptable to violate someone sexually and we need to stop blaming the victim after they have been sexually assaulted.

In April I started seeing articles about this movement to end sexual violence that began in Toronto. After a rash of sexual assaults across the York University campus a police officer told a group of college-aged women that in order to avoid being victimized they “should stop dressing like sluts.” This set off a wave of marches across the globe dubbed: SlutWalk. SlutWalk means many different things to many different people. The premise is simple: anyone who is raped did not deserve it and certainly doesn’t deserve to be blamed for the attack. To suggest it is a woman’s fault that she was raped because of a dress she may have worn is completely ludicrous and disrespectful to humanity. There have been over 70 SlutWalk marches worldwide since April and now it has come to the greatest city on Earth.

SlutWalk NYC, October 1 in Union Square, is a march to end sexual violence and rape culture. Join us at noon for the march and at 2pm for the rally. I’ll be there representing every person who has ever been sexually assaulted but never reported it, for whatever reason. We welcome anyone who believes that rape should not be accepted by society any longer. We welcome anyone who believes that nobody deserves to be raped and nobody should be blamed for their attack.

SlutWalk NYC is about eliminating phrases from our cultural lexicon like “she asked for it” with regard to a rape. SlutWalk NYC is about bringing people together to get a dialogue going about sexual violence and what we as citizens can do about it. SlutWalk NYC is about learning how we can all enjoy safe, healthy, consensual sex from now on. SlutWalk NYC on October 1st is just the beginning of this movement! Hope to see you there!

Written by Holly Meyer for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

How HIV-Positive Women Drove a Grassroots Campaign for NYC’s Sex-Ed Mandate

7:56 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check


"Teach/Learn" by duane.schoon on flickr

Written by Alison Yager for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Earlier this week, New York City announced that all public middle and high schools must provide a semester of sex education in 6th or 7th grade, and again in 9th or 10th grade. This is a tremendous achievement for the many individuals and agencies who have worked toward this goal for many years.  The Sex Education Alliance of New York City (SEANYC), a broad-based coalition, has provided a large tent under which advocates gathered with the shared mission of improving comprehensive sexuality and health education in the NYC public schools.  Participating agencies each bring something different to the table.  HIV Law Project, where I work, is an active SEANYC member.

In 2006 HIV Law Project invited a group of women living with HIV and AIDS to develop an advocacy campaign around a yet-to-be-determined issue.  They considered various issues of importance to them, and sex education was at the top of the list.  They knew that HIV continued to spread unabated through their communities, and they saw that their children and their neighbors’ children were not getting the information they needed to stay safe.  Many of the women had already stepped into this breach themselves: they gave condoms to the youth in their apartment buildings, they hosted impromptu living room chats for their teenagers’ friends about safe sex, and they routinely dispelled myths about HIV transmission.  Read the rest of this entry →