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Public Shaming? On the NYC Teen Pregnancy Prevention Campaign

Unexpected or amusing experiences on the NYC subway are not infrequent for those who travel every day, in jam-packed trains, from one corner to the other of the city. The biggest shock I have had in my three years of using NYC public transit was a few months ago when, jumping onto a train at the last second, I saw the most incredible poster. It was a picture of a crying toddler of color with the words, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year.” While I was still recovering from the shock, my eyes fell upon a similar poster of a little black girl that read, “Honestly Mom… chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” As I soon found out, these two posters were part of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention campaign organized by the Human Resources Administration of the New York City Department of Social Services and strongly supported and defended by Mayor Bloomberg.

This advertising campaign is a perfect example of the entrenchment of inequalities around class, race, and gender, revealing the way they are covered up by a discourse appealing to personal responsibility. Indeed, the message conveyed by the campaign is, first and foremost, that you need to have money in order to have the right to have a child. If you are poor and nonetheless have a child, you are responsible for his or her future unhappiness, poverty, and social failure. Moreover, poverty is presented as the outcome of teenagers’ individual reproductive choices rather than being presented as the concrete material condition in which they are already living and in which they are compelled to make their choices.

It is also striking that in the posters there is no mention of social services or of abortion rights. The whole problem of teen pregnancy is reduced to a matter of individual choice, where girls are to be considered responsible for their sexual behavior. As a consequence, these amount to the communicative tactic of public shaming.

The number to text provided by the posters does not offer any information about social services or possible help; it is only meant to inform about the connection between teen pregnancy, poverty and low education. And, what is even worse, it gives the possibility to participate via text messages in a game around a pregnant teenager, Anaya, and her boyfriend, Louis. They face a series of challenges from name calling i.e. public shaming, to losing their best friends. Effectively, the advice provided by the campaign posters and website is: finish high school, get a job, and get married before even thinking about having a child. The teen pregnancy prevention campaign becomes in this way, an opportunity to reiterate sexual norms and naturalize marriage.

Finally, and most importantly, the prominent use of children of color in the campaign is fundamentally racist, as it targets the racialized groups where the rate of teen pregnancy is higher, while at the same time stressing personal responsibility. The unavoidable message, then, is that racialized people are losers, and that both poverty and teen pregnancy is not only their choice, but also their fault.

This campaign has been strongly criticized by a number of organizations and public actors, such as Planned Parenthood of NYC.

The anti-teen pregnancy campaign is evidence of what we might call a more general “double standard policy” concerning gender and sexual issues. Indeed, while in NYC formal rights are increasingly granted to women and LGBTQ people, the substantial rights granted to them vary enormously according to their class position, their ethnicity, and even their geographic location within an urban space, which is heavily divided along class and race lines. This double standard results from granting women and LGBTQ people formal rights without real resources for equality. The adoption of anti-harassment policies, quotas, anti-discrimination policies, legal gay marriages, and so on, has opened the possibility for at least a partial emancipation of women and LGBTQ people. However, these policies have not been accompanied by changes in workplace relations, proper childcare programs, or other decisive interventions aimed at granting substantial equality.

The city spent about two years and over $400,000 producing the campaign: providing real social services would have been a much better use of this money.

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Cinzia Arruzza

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