Social Construction of Teenage Pregnancy in the United States: Race, Class and Gender In the United States, an estimated forty five percent of all female teenagers have premarital sex. As a result, about forty percent of all female adolescents become pregnant at least once before age twenty; and about four-fifths of these pregnancies are unintended. Twenty percent of these female adolescents bear a child, and about half of them are unmarried (Lawson and Rhode, 2). In a society that associates age appropriate sexual behavior and marital status with the welfare of the family and community, this is a very alarming statistic to many.
Throughout the past several decades American society has developed very strong, and many times mythical opinions about teenage pregnancy, the consequences it has on teen mothers, and the type of women contributing to these statistics. These mythical opinions consistently revolve around race, class and gender. Therefore, in this paper I will be examining the social constructions American society has developed about teenage pregnancy in relation to race, class, and gender as well as the misconceptions these social constructions lead to.
It will be seen that societies views on teenage pregnancy often mask the understanding of the issue, and hinder the development of a solution. Teenage motherhood is an issue that has developed a very negative social construction in the United States. When this social construction is paired with that of racial minorities, the issue becomes even more daunting. While teenage pregnancy in general has attained a very negative stigmatization, the distress about minority groups, and especially African Americans, is expressed much more frequently and dramatically than that of their white counterparts.
This has resulted in many misconceptions about the relationship between race and teenage motherhood as well as masked the understanding of the teenage motherhood trend versus aiding it. When examining the negative social constructions that have been created in the U. S. , that of African Americans cannot be ignored, especially in relation to teenage pregnancy. The African American community has been labeled as the sole proprietors of the teenage motherhood phenomenon. Black mothers under the age of twenty are paid much closer attention to than white mothers under age twenty.
This is especially true when they are single. Black teenage mothers are assumed to be producing problematic children who contribute very little, if anything, to society. If one were to ask a majority of Americans their thoughts on African Americans and teenage pregnancy, they would be very similar to the thoughts of a man recorded on a radio talk show when he stated, “Black teen mothers’ children grow up in fatherless households with mothers who have few moral values and little control over their offspring. The boys join gangs; the girls stand a good chance of becoming teen mothers themselves”.
This man’s opinion very clearly illustrates the negative association between blacks and early motherhood (Kaplan, xviii). The idea that African Americans are solely responsible for the teenage pregnancy phenomenon is highly influenced by the belief that black teenage mothers and fathers are morally unfit. Many believe them to have different moral values than those of non-minority teenagers of similar age. They are said to make their life decisions based on unmoral grounds and aspirations. This is a very inaccurate perception in many ways, however.
When creating this presumption, many tend to look at the results of decisions made by young African American mothers, versus the environment influencing these decisions. In areas around the United States where teenage pregnancy is very common for African Americans, a number of social ills can be seen; unemployment, poor housing, gangs, drugs, and disrupted families are just to name a few (Kaplan, 19). Therefore, it is very important to recognize that the high number of teenage pregnancies seen in these areas is not simply a result of high African American demographics, and their so-called “unmoral values”.
They are a result of the environmental conditions these African Americans are exposed to. One would see the same heightened percentages of white teenage pregnancies in a highly white demographic area, which was exposed to these same environmental and social ills. Another way in that the “morally unfit” argument is unreasonable, is in the fact that the majority of African American teenage mothers have the same life aspirations as their white peers. In a book written by Elaine Bell Kaplan, this very idea is explored in depth, through extensive interviews with black teenage mothers.
In an interview with a mother named Diane, Kaplan asks Diane her reasoning for no longer being in a relationship with her babies father. She stated that, “He had a ghetto mentality. He’s the kind of person who likes a casual living style. I want to get as far away as possible from this life, even if it means giving up my son. My fantasy is to give him to his father, to get married, to live somewhere else, like in another state. To marry a professional, someone who has values and ideals like I have. Have more children, be a corporate attorney, have a big beautiful house, and a car. Have money.
Have four children, all with my husband. Raise them and send them to college. There’s a real good sense of self-worth in that”(Kaplan, 95). The same could be said for many mothers Kaplan worked with throughout her study. These mothers were by no means morally unfit; they had simply made poor decisions, due to the environment in which they found themselves surrounded. The negative association between black women and teenage pregnancy does not exclusively revolve around teenage mothers, but the African American community as well. Many people believe that the black community condones teenage pregnancy.
This could not be further from the truth. The black community shares the same expectations in regards to teenage pregnancy as any other community. In the eyes of the black community, and especially family members, teenage mothers are breaking three very essential social norms about motherhood and sexuality. The first being that, “Young women should certainly not have children until they reach adult status, and not before marriage” (Kaplan, 82). This social norm, which revolves around age, motherhood, and marriage, can be viewed many times as a silent, but mutual agreement within African American families.
Mothers of teenage mothers often feel as though they were taught to follow these social norms as children, and therefore, these norms should be passed on and accepted by their children. In a statement by a mother in Kaplan’s book, this idea is very clearly demonstrated when the mother says, “You better not even discuss sex, let alone have it, with anyone until you get yourself married and talk about it to your husband. No man wants to marry soiled goods” (Kaplan, 81). This first social norm lights the pathway for the second, which is the idea that “sexually active unmarried girls become “soiled goods””(Kaplan, 82).
Throughout Kaplan’s study she found that African American mothers were embarrassed by the fact that their friends and coworkers knew their teenage daughter was sexually active. She was not only embarrassed for her daughter, but herself as well—she found it to be a big blow to her reputation. In another statement made by an African American mother whose teenage daughter was pregnant, it was stated that, “Only poor, ignorant, and mentally ill girls become pregnant at an early age. Nice girls don’t” (Kaplan, 82). This quote clearly exemplifies that approval was the last thing experienced by black teenage mothers in regards to their pregnancy.
The third, and final social norm African American families find to be broken by their daughters is “The notion that successful mothering means passing on social values to children” (Kaplan, 82). Black mothers view their daughter’s teenage pregnancy as an insult to their parenting abilities. They feel as though they failed at passing proper values onto their daughters, and view themselves and their daughters as moral failures. This is a very difficult aspect of the pregnancy for mothers to deal with, as it questions their definition of motherhood, and the views they have developed in regards to what motherhood entails.
In many ways society has turned teenage pregnancy into a black and white issue. It is important to recognize, however, that teenage pregnancy is not simply an issue that revolves solely around race. And it most certainly does not lie completely in the hands of African Americans. The rates of young, white, single mothers have vastly increased in the United States in recent decades. (Lawson and Rhode, 89). Since 1988 young women have been giving birth at a much higher rate, regardless of their skin color (Luker, 7). Therefore, if teen pregnancy rates are rising in all racial communities, other factors contributing to this rise must be examined.
This leads us to the next social construction revolving around teenage pregnancy: class. “It is true that young mothers tend to be poor women, it is much more meaningful to say that poor women tend to become young mothers” (Luker, 12). This statement is one that society has failed to truly grasp, and one that has lead to the social construction and belief that teenage pregnancy causes poverty. The idea that teenage poverty is an automatic sentence to poverty, and a contributing factor to poverty is one that is supported in the media, literature, and by society as a whole.
In an article written by a social scientist named Lloyd Eby, it is expressed that “Teenage mothers and their children experience increased levels of depression, stress, and aggression; a decrease in some indicators for physical health; higher incidence of needing the services of mental health professionals, and other emotional and behavioral problems. All these effects are linked with lifetime poverty, poor achievement, susceptibility to suicide, likelihood of committing crimes and being arrested, and other pathologies” (Eby and Donovan, 44).
Another author states that “Teenage pregnancy—the entry into parenthood of individuals who barely are beyond childhood themselves—is one of the most serious and complex problems facing the nation today…the birth of a child can usher in a dismal future of unemployment, poverty, family breakdown, emotional stress, dependency on public agencies, and health problems of mother and child” (Luker, 73). However, these indicators and symptoms of teenage pregnancy are ones that are also seen within impoverished communities that do not contain teenage mothers.
They are symptoms that plague both communities containing poor teenage mothers and poor communities without teenage mothers, and cannot be pin pointed simply to the latter. Therefore, it can be seen that the concept above, which states that teenage mothers cause poverty should be viewed in a different way, as poverty is the true cause of teenage pregnancy. Eighty percent of teenage mothers come from poor backgrounds (Luker, 112). And, in order to understand the social construction mentioned above we must first examine and understand the reasons why such a large percent of these teenage mothers come from economically unstable backgrounds.
The first major factor that can be explored is the fact that impoverished teens typically begin to have sexual intercourse at earlier stages in their lives. In addition to this fact, when they do start having sex they delay the use of effective contraceptives, and use them very inconsistently. This delayed and inconsistent use gives them many more opportunities to find themselves impregnated. All of these factors are ones that poor teenagers affluent peers tend to not take part in.
They begin having sex at a later age, and when they begin to take part in sexual practices their use of effective contraceptives is much more consistent (Luker, 114). In addition to sexual practices, poor teens are at a disadvantage in terms of educational development and ambition. The majority of teenage mothers, before getting pregnant, show very few educational aspirations, and perform poorly in school. They come from much less affluent background than their counterparts, have lower scores on cognitive and ability tests, as well as have a long history of behavioral problems, truancy, and absenteeism.
In other words these teens are young people who “were already experiencing difficulties in life on several fronts and who had little optimism about their futures” (Luker, 116). This separates poor mothers from their more affluent peers, as those who are more affluent tend to have higher career goals, better overall performance in school, consistent attendance and a greater sense of optimism about their futures. Not only do poor teenage mothers suffer from educational disadvantages, but their environment tends to influence them in a negative way.
They live in poor areas, surrounded by few people who have any hope for their future. A teenager who lives in a poor area, surrounded by poor people, and who has no successful role models, is much more likely to find herself seventeen and having a baby than a more affluent teen living in the suburbs with successful parents. Affluent teens view pregnancy as an obstacle, whereas poor teens many times view teenage pregnancy as a normal stage in life. This clearly plays a crucial role in higher teenage birth rates within non-affluent communities.
The evidence above clearly shows that circumstances the majority of poor young teenage mothers find themselves in are very bleak. These circumstances result in a higher percentage of teenage pregnancies within impoverished communities, and are ones that influence teenage mothers decision-making before conception. However, it is also important to examine the circumstances poor teen mothers encounter post pregnancy, in order to see that, while poverty is a large contributor to teenage pregnancy, the stresses it has on teen moms results in a vicious cycle of poverty, that they very seldomly escape.
The centerpiece for the cycle of poverty teenage mothers find themselves in post pregnancy is education, or lack there of. It is important to recognize that critics of the theory I am examining would argue that teen mothers lack of education is the centerpiece of their argument as well. They believe mother’s lack of education is the attributing factor to the poverty seen throughout the nation, and would therefore state that teenage pregnancy is clearly the main cause of poverty. However, this is not necessarily the case. When teen moms are “faced with the demands of a baby and schoolwork, hey tend to drop out of high school; and teen mothers who have dropped out lose any educational chances they may have had, condemning themselves and their children to lives of disadvantage. But since the teens who become pregnant are discouraged and disadvantaged to begin with, and since the fact that they are living in bleak circumstances increased the likelihood that they will get pregnant” the inference that their missed educational opportunities caused their poverty is incorrect (Luker, 116). Unfortunately, a majority of these young women would experience the same educational deficiencies whether they became pregnant or not.
While a large majority of teenage mothers would struggle with their educational pursuits, regardless of if they became pregnant or not, it is still important to examine the specific ways in which teenage pregnancy effects the education of teenage mothers. As stated above, when teens become pregnant the stress they experience between motherhood and schoolwork is too much to handle. “Pregnancy is the most common cause of school dropout among adolescent girls in the United States”. (Luker, 119) And, once a student drop’s out of school, they find it very hard to go back and finish their degree (Luker, 119).
Adolescents without a high school diploma find themselves with restricted job opportunities, unable to earn wages that will sufficiently support themselves and their child. They are trapped in the cycle of poverty, and the cycle is very hard to escape. It is very clear that the relationship between poverty and teenage pregnancy is very strong. While it would be very easy to assume that teenage pregnancy is the largest contributor to poverty, it is impossible to ignore the ways in which poverty influences young teens to become pregnant, and the role poverty plays in the lives of teenage mothers.
By blaming teenage mothers for poverty we are masking the understanding we need to acquire in order to obtain a true insight into teenage pregnancy and teenage mothers. The third and final social construction I am examining is gender. As a society we have created the idea that in the majority of cases, women are meant to take inferior roles to men, and are here to please them. This idea has carried over into teenage pregnancy, and has had immense effects on teenage mothers before, during, and after their pregnancy. And in many cases has played a major part in why teenage mothers get pregnant in the first place.
Not only does society create gender role expectations that confuse teenage mothers, but it also sends mixed messages about the roles teenage moms are supposed to play in their own life, as well as the life of their child. The first way in which teenage mothers are affected by traditional gender roles is in the fact that they fail to put themselves first in their relationships. They may have sex to please a man, and they may fail to use contraception because the man either objects or makes it difficult by complaining that contraception reduces his pleasure.
Because of the way teenage girls have been influenced by outside sources, they many times read this as a way he is trying to solidify the relationship (Luker, 6). They see contraception as a barrier between them and their relationship, and therefore welcome the idea of not using it. Many teenager mothers have stated they purposely got pregnant in attempts to obtain a committed relationship. They fail to recognize they have as much control over their relationship as their partner, and instead of looking for some forms of control and assertiveness they simply seek acceptance and the feeling that they are wanted.
These feelings are all associated with the idea that men are superior to them, and that women should seek the acceptance of a man more so than finding acceptance within herself (Luker, 4). Another concern within gender roles is that as a society we view young mothers as young women, we want them to be sensitive to the needs of others, committed to relationships and nurturing to the next generation. However, at the same time we want them to be careful, forward-thinking, attuned to the market, and prepared to invest in themselves and not others.
This clash of ideas and messages causes a great deal of confusion in the lives of teenage mothers, and causes them to feel stuck between different sets of expectations and roles. In many ways it causes them to never feel satisfied with the role they are playing, and diminishes their chances of a brighter future (Luker, 6). Not only have we created gender role expectations for women that make teen pregnancy a much more difficult experience, but the gender roles we have created for men have made teen pregnancy a much more difficult experience as well.
Women are given the responsibility of full-time care for their child, whether the male figure has involvement in their life or not. They are expected to deal with the daily stresses and issues that have been talked about above. Instead of assuming men should take these same responsibilities, we expect them not to play a large role, and have low expectations of their performance as teenage fathers. We quite simply let them off the hook. However, in order to aid teenage mothers in their daily hardships these expectations and gender roles need to be heightened for men.
We cannot continue expecting them to fail at being acceptable fathers. In conclusion, we can see that race, class, and gender play large roles in the lives of teenage mothers, and influence their lives in many ways. The roles they play depend largely on the social constructions society chooses to accept, develop, and pursue. By looking past the traditional social constructions society has developed, the ones that we have seen are often misconstrued and misguided, we can obtain a true understanding of the lives of teenage mothers, and the causes of their lifestyles and decision making.
Courtney from Study Moose