Politics & Policy

Oops They Did It Again

A pregnant cover.

Editor’s note: This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: Carmen Puello at cpuello@unitedmedia.com.

Seventeen magazine is a great gift to the youth of our nation. Before the magazine’s February issue, our nation’s adolescent girls were in danger of “accidentally” falling into pregnancy, or so the magazine’s cover implies: “Shocking Ways You Could Get PREGNANT By Accident.”

Last time I checked, pregnancy results from an activity that requires some effort, some decision-making. Seventeen’s editors, however, don’t seem to live in my reality. Instead, they buy into the same dangerous and conventional wisdom that kids will have sex — end of conversation. So all adults can do is help them prevent disease and pregnancy.

A cover piece relates to the magazine’s young, impressionable readers: “Sex is so confusing. On the one hand, you’re being told not to do it (by parents and teachers) — that it’s ‘wrong,’ that there’s no way you’re ready, or that it could lead to diseases. On the other hand, you see (in real life, in movies, and on TV) that sex is a natural, healthy, and fun part of loving relationships. You also have information about birth control coming at you from every direction: friends, TV commercials, maybe sex-ed class. You think you know how to protect yourself, but it seems like such a hassle when all you want to do is focus on those totally romantic, wonderfully tingly feelings you have about your guy!”

While the article does mention the option of not having sex, the emphasis throughout is on the safe options, conventionally speaking: Get your guy to use a condom. Know how to take your pills. “It just happened,” one girl declares about accidentally getting pregnant. And the Seventeen message to teens is: It’s not that unusual. “48 percent of teen girls think it might be possible they’ll become pregnant in the next five years.” A young girl who couldn’t “accidentally” get pregnant — because she’s choosing to spend her young days doing more innocent things — might feel a bit left out. Seventeen also tells its readers that “studies show that girls who have a big plan for their future are significantly less likely to get pregnant.” Now that’s more like it. But it’s not enough.

Alarmingly, a 2004 study found that teen girls look to these magazines “as a valued source of advice about their personal lives.” The Kaiser Family Foundation reported: “According to a focus group of seventh through 11th-grade girls, conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited for YM, teen readers want the content in their magazines to reflect their lives, and they rely on magazines as a sounding board, fashion and beauty consultant and close confidant. Another survey conducted by Taylor Research & Consulting Group indicated that 12- to 15-year-old girls look to magazines (42 percent) almost as much as their friends (45 percent) for the coolest trends.”

Kaiser relayed: “In-depth interviews with girls ages 12 and 13 who were regular readers of teen magazines found that girls used the magazines to formulate their concepts of femininity and relied heavily on articles that featured boys, opinions about how to gain male approval and act in relationships with males.”

With big audiences come big responsibility, but these magazines detrimentally add to a cultural sexual pile-on. Girls are bombarded with sex. Check out the local newsstands and you’ll see that teen magazines are every father’s nightmare. They want to make sure your daughter has sexy shoes, that her prom dress be “crazy, sexy, cool.” The movies, TV, and even teen fiction are not better. “All in all, girls are being exposed to a fairly one-sided image of female sexuality on television,” writes Carol Platt Liebau in her book, Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Damages Girls (and America, Too!). “Allusions to sexual patience (waiting to have sex) are rare. Indeed, although virgins occasionally show up on popular teen shows, for the most part their abstinence is treated as the characters’ defining trait, which suggests to teens that sexual restraint is both noteworthy and unusual.” She concludes: “Sex is everywhere. Everyone’s doing it, and that’s just the way it is.”

But that’s not the way it has to be. At a recent Claremont Institute event on “Marriage, Modesty & Modernity,” Pauline Hamlette, a former Washington, D.C., elementary-school principal and national program director for the Best Friends Foundation, told those gathered, “I’ve never met a student not willing to say ‘no.’” Best Friends, developed by Elayne Bennett, seeks to create an environment where girls are inundated with healthy choices, and have adults in their lives who care enough to help them with those decisions. As Bennett has put it, “If you just want to make sure that kids don’t get pregnant and protect themselves, you’re going to have a whole lot more sexual activity. Adolescents need guidelines and standards of behavior. They want them; they give them a sense of security, and . . . well-being.” With curriculum and dedication, Best Friends shows results.

Culture magazines, TV, movies — already best friends forever with teen girls — could afford to offer the best, and not settle for pretending we can’t do more for America’s young people than help them prevent “accidents.”

© 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.


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