‘I need to wait’

Surprisingly good messages about teenage sex and parenthood surface in an MTV series.
Christopher Blunt | Jul 30 2009 | comment  

Photo: mtv.comCulturally conservative messages about premarital sex have surfaced in an unusual place: MTV. The music-television network’s new reality series, 16 and Pregnant, follows sixteen-year-old American girls through five to seven months of their pregnancies and the experiences of young motherhood.

The recently completed first season includes six girls, each of whom is featured in her own hour-long episode. The show’s producers do not profess any ideological agenda, and the episodes themselves do not preach any messages explicitly. Taken as a whole, however, the girls’ stories implicitly reinforce many important “traditional” lessons that teen viewers might otherwise be inclined to dismiss.

Contraception is unreliable and can be counterproductive. All of the teen couples featured were aware of where babies come from, and of contraceptive methods; most had been using condoms at least some of the time. In this, they were following the admonitions of parents and educators to “use protection”; few seemed to have been encouraged to “practice chastity”. Indeed, one young man’s parents had been telling him since he was ten years old that he should wear a condom when he started having intercourse.

However, one effect of these parental messages, and of the “comprehensive” sex education to which many children are exposed in school, is the awakening of sensual appetites and the fuelling of adolescent promiscuity. In the heat of the moment, unsurprisingly, teenagers turn out to be as diligent about using contraceptives as they are about cleaning their rooms or taking out the trash. As one of the boys explained, “If we didn’t have the condoms, it was like, ‘Let’s do it anyway.’” And as one of the girls added, “I could have said ‘no,’ [when we didn’t have a condom] but I didn’t.”

Infants require far more time, energy, and resources -- and cause far more disruptions -- than most adolescents imagine. The five girls who kept their babies were completely overwhelmed within hours of arriving home. None was prepared for the incessant demands of a fussy newborn, or for the extreme sleep deprivation that accompanies those demands. One of the babies developed a chronic health condition that will require medical care and restrict all his future activities.

One of the girls can no longer pursue her lifelong dream of joining the Air Force. For all the girls, returning to high school is difficult enough; studying with a baby in the house is nearly impossible. For those who want to attend college, child care is much more expensive than anticipated. The girls were blindsided by the social isolation they experience; they are often trapped in the house for weeks at a time, their whole world centred on a baby, while friends move on and enjoy the usual adolescent social and sports activities without them. The isolation and overwork is all the worse because…

Teenaged boyfriends, even if they stick around, can’t be relied upon. With some exceptions, the babies’ fathers are striking for their immaturity and lack of engagement, particularly after Mom comes home from the hospital. One squanders $480 on a video game console, despite his girlfriend’s great financial needs. Others seek every opportunity to get away with friends, and take no initiative with child care while at home. As one of the girls says in frustration, “I had to grow up too fast, and I want [my boyfriend] to grow up, too.” Even the most responsible young father, who shoulders an extraordinary portion of the child care, finds he lacks the skills and education to earn enough money for the couple to even rent their own apartment.

Adoption is an act of true unselfish love, one that brings real peace to all involved. The sixth couple, Catelynn and Tyler, concluded early in the pregnancy that they lack the maturity and resources to give their unborn daughter the upbringing she deserves; thus, they pursued adoption. They loved her dearly, but they also knew (based on their own chaotic childhoods) that babies need much more than love.

We watch as they meet with a social worker at the adoption agency, select and then meet an adoptive couple, and battle vehement opposition from their own parents (who opposed the plan). When the baby does arrive, we see the boundless joy of the adoptive parents and the tremendous emotional anguish of the birth parents. But after her tears have dried and she has reflected on the process, Catelynn can say, “I’m at peace with my decision” -- something we hear from none of the other five girls.

While the episodes are often painful and difficult to watch, the stories are compelling and draw the viewer into each girl’s world. The “reality” format is particularly effective: rather than preaching a message explicitly, an approach which teens might be inclined to reject, each episode leads the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions about the wisdom of becoming sexually active -- or of trying to keep and raise a baby on one’s own, if one has already started down that path.

This is not to say that MTV has transformed itself into a bastion of cultural conservatism or family-friendly fare. The episodes contain plenty of vulgarity, teen sexual activity and even cohabitation are portrayed as “normal,” and the moderator of the final program at the end of the season admonishes teens not to strive for chastity but rather to make sure they use condoms every single time they have sex.

Still, watching the episodes themselves, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that adolescent sexual activity is a slippery slope with no happy landings. As one of the girls explains, in the finale, “It should hit every one of you in a soft spot somewhere, so you understand, ‘I need to wait.’”

Christopher Blunt, PhD, is the author of Passport, an award-winning novel about the choices and consequences one young man must navigate in the wake of an unexpected pregnancy.

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