In 2013, a picture of a baby with tight curls and tears rolling down his cheeks greeted passengers on the New York City subway.
“I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen,” the ad read.
“Honestly Mom,” another ad read, “chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?”
The subway ads, paid for by the city, would become a catalyst for a group of young moms who had begun to find each other through blogging and online activism and shared a sense of frustration about how the media, advocacy groups, and politicians across the political spectrum depicted their parenting. Over the next 10 years, they would use the controversy around the New York City campaign to go public with their own experiences as teen parents, stories far more nuanced than the subway ads. With no budget, the young moms would design a social media campaign called No Teen Shame. Their work would shape public policy and research, while debunking widespread myths about young parents. Along the way, they would face off against multimillion-dollar organizations like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
Ten years later, there’s been a quiet sea change in the way public health experts and policy-makers talk about teen pregnancy. The National Campaign is now called Power to Decide. May, which was once Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month—dreaded by teen parents who spent their Mother’s Day being bombarded with shaming ads—is now Sex Ed for All Month. The No Teen Shame campaign is a big part of the reason for that change.
Gloria Malone didn’t know any of that would happen in March 2013, when her daughter, then 6 years old, asked her why the babies on the subway were crying. Malone, who became pregnant at 15, had started writing frankly about her experiences on her blog, Teen Mom NYC. Back then, the ads were just another egregious example of public health policies that shamed teen parents, rather than informing them or offering them support.
“I would hear from other young parents in New York City, and they were like, ‘I’m on my way to school with my baby, and my stroller, and my book bag, and my diaper bag, and all this shit, and I walk in, and I see what’s supposed to be my baby, telling me…that they’re not going to have a future,’” Malone said. “‘I’m doing everything I can to prevent that from happening, and my city is telling me it doesn’t matter.’”
For teen parents, the shame had been coming from all sides, for decades. As with so many structural issues, governments and nonprofits tended to avoid discussion of root causes like poverty, racism, barriers to health care, and lack of sex education, and instead placed blame on teen parents themselves. Most teen moms lived in poverty before getting pregnant. But instead of championing anti-poverty programs like Medicaid and food stamps, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy would emphasize what a burden these programs were to taxpayers. “The public costs of teen childbearing” amounted to $9 billion a year in 2004, according to one National Campaign graphic with a dollar bill prominently displayed.
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It wasn’t just the ads. The shame came from medical providers like the nurse practitioner who pressured a sleep-deprived Natasha Vianna into getting a Depo shot two weeks after she gave birth at the age of 17. “‘Teen girls who have babies end up coming back here in a few weeks pregnant again, so we’re just going to give you something today,’” Vianna remembered the provider saying.
It came from policy-makers like the architects of Clinton-era welfare reforms whose requirements around subsidized day care in Massachusetts forced Consuela Greene to drop out of college in the 1990s. “I was in a four-year college. Then they said, all of a sudden, like, ‘Oh, we can’t help you pay for day care for your four-year college. You’ve got to go to a Welfare-to-Work program,’” Greene said. “My experience of parenting was so directly connected to resources and support that were harder for me to acquire because of policy changes and the way that society has viewed teen parents as these cautionary tales.”
The shame came from educators like the ones at Malone’s Florida high school who initially refused to let her graduate because she had too many unexcused absences from caring for her newborn, even though she had a 4.0 GPA. Teen parents are supposed to be protected from discrimination in educational settings under Title IX, but that often doesn’t happen.
Ten years ago this month, in the wake of the New York City subway ad controversy, a group of young moms—Christina Setzer, Natasha Vianna, Consuela Greene, Lisette Orellana Engel, Marylouise Kuti, Jasmin Colon, and Gloria Malone—launched the No Teen Shame campaign. They came from different states, economic backgrounds, and racial identities. Consuela Greene grew up in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester and had her sons in the 1990s. Marylouise Kuti lived across the country in New Mexico and got pregnant at 15. Because of a combination of internalized shame and denial, she hid the pregnancy until she couldn’t anymore—informing her parents in the middle of the night when she was in labor. Lisette Orellana Engel had her two children at 15 and 17, and found herself parenting two children under 2, one of whom had a disability.
“The one thing that was consistent across our experiences was the type of stigma that we experienced in health care, in education, when trying to access social services,” Vianna said.
Together, they were ready to talk back to public health experts, government officials, and even purported allies within the reproductive health movement who had been treating them like they were the problem. Among the worst culprits was the Candie’s Foundation, a nonprofit founded by CEO Neil Cole of the women’s fashion brand Candie’s. Along with perfume and denim shorts, Cole sold abstinence-only education and teen parent stigma.
“You’re supposed to be changing the world… not changing diapers,” one Candie’s ad featuring the Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen read. Another celebrity, Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol Palin, earned $262,500 for appearing in an ad with her baby son, Tripp, her hair disheveled, next to the text, “I never thought I would be a statistic.”
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy took the same tone. “I want to be out with my friends. Instead, I’m changing DIRTY diapers at home,” one of its ads read—with the word “DIRTY” magnified in red block letters and emblazoned across a young woman’s body. In similar ads, the words “NOBODY,” “REJECT,” and “CHEAP” splashed across the bodies of young women.
By treating teen pregnancy as a personal failing that could be solved by shaming the people experiencing it, these organizations were taking their cues from a US president who, years earlier, had identified teen pregnancy as the country’s most pressing problem.
The 1990s were the era of President Clinton’s destruction of “welfare as we know it,” and of “tough on crime” policies that would fuel mass incarceration. Like Ronald Reagan before him, Clinton seized on a vulnerable scapegoat he could use to justify his cuts to the social safety net. Reagan’s racist stereotype of choice was the “welfare queen.” Clinton’s was the irresponsible teen mom. During his 1995 State of the Union address, Clinton called teen pregnancy “our nation’s most serious social problem.” Birth rates among 15-to-19-year-olds had reached a peak in 1990, hitting levels Clinton described as an “epidemic.” He was particularly concerned about “teen pregnancies and births where there is no marriage.” So in 1996 Clinton announced the formation of a National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which his administration billed as a “private-sector effort” that would receive help from the federal government but operate as an independent nonprofit. The campaign was part of a national strategy that included $50 million in abstinence-only education and welfare-to-work requirements that would wind up making life more difficult for young parents. Clinton deputized as the campaign’s first leaders a motley group that included former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, Carnegie Corporations president David Hamburg, former New Jersey governor Tom Keane, MTV head Judy McGrath, and comedian Whoopi Goldberg. Setting the tone for years to come, Clinton described teen pregnancy as “a moral problem and a personal problem.”
Seventeen years later, the New York City subway campaign ads were part of a long tradition of treating teen pregnancy as a burden that irresponsible young women had foisted on society. “One of the things that was very common in a lot of those campaigns was there’s just a lot of stigmatization of teen mothers, and not a lot of information on how to actually prevent an unplanned pregnancy,” Vianna said.
In early 2013, Vianna, Malone, and others objected to the subway ads, denouncing them in blog posts and commentaries for news outlets, from Rewire to The New York Times. Vianna appeared on NPR’s Tell Me More alongside Sarah Brown, who helped create the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy under Clinton and was still its CEO.
Brown defended the New York City subway ads. “I do understand that they’re edgy; there is no question about that,” she said. “But, first of all, the facts that they relay are true. They may not be said in the gentlest way, and the pictures sure grab attention; but it is true that the fathers of most teen pregnancies disappear. It is true that most teen mothers don’t graduate from high school and have a tough, tough time in this economy.”
This sense that pregnancy ruins a young parent’s life didn’t feel true to the founders of No Teen Shame, whose own experiences were often the opposite.
“We all worked really hard…and I think, found, purpose and drive,” Marylouise Kuti said. “We wanted to be the best versions of ourselves, because we were parents.”
Research has shown that phenomenon is more common than people assume. Reports of negative outcomes for teen mothers often failed to take into account the circumstances they were living in before they got pregnant, according to research from the Group for Advancement of Psychiatry that Vianna would go on to coauthor. In fact, teens with children did not have higher levels of poverty, deprivation, poor health, or education when compared with their socioeconomic peers. In some cases, teen mothers did better than their peers.
The group’s research underlined how just harmful the stigma against teen parents could be.
“Stigma is a stress,” said Dr. Jean-Victor Wittenberg, infant psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and lead author of the paper on teen parent stigma. “Being treated different is stressful; being discriminated against is stressful.” That stress could lead to worse outcomes for teen moms and their babies. Rather than solving a public health problem, the ads and the stigma against teen parents were contributing to it.
For teen parents, May could be a particularly difficult time. On Mother’s Day, when moms everywhere looked forward to flowers and homemade cards, teen moms would have to watch as organizations around the country put out billboards, magazine ads, and TV commercials designed to shame young people away for becoming parents.
So when No Teen Shame launched its first social media campaign in 2013, it did so in May. The first target was the Candie’s Foundation.
“@Candiesorg plays the shame game,” an ad designed to mimic a Candie’s fact sheet read. “Here are the facts: There have been dramatic declines in the rates of teen pregnancy and teen births in nearly every state over the past five years.”
What’s more, the No Teen Shame ad noted, becoming a teen mom had no effect on future number of children, marital status, or hourly wages when researchers compared teen moms to peers who came from the same communities.
“More than 80 percent of teen moms live in poverty or near-poverty before becoming pregnant,” they wrote.
What was different about the campaign is that it was informed by experience. “We asked why,” Malone said. Why, for example, did statistics show teen moms were less likely to graduate high school?
“Because we all of us in No Teen Shame had a story of educational coercion or pushout or intimidation, once we became pregnant, that’s fucking why,” Malone said. Title IX stipulated that teen parents should be protected from harassment and allowed accommodations including excused absences. But Malone and her fellow activists had often had to fight against their educators, like the guidance counselor who refused to meet with Malone until she threatened to drop out, or the teacher who scolded Vianna in front of the whole class for missing school because of her daughter’s medical needs.
The No Teen Shame campaign started to take off on Instagram and Tumblr. Soon people were posting pictures of birthday cakes and baby shower photos, selfies and memes, with the hashtag #NoTeenShame. But even people who seemed like allies, groups that were promoting reproductive health care or working with young people, often used stigmatizing language to talk about teen pregnancy and parenting. Nor were nonprofits always eager to hear the voices of teen parents in their own words.
“There were only two times when organizations would reach out to young moms,” Vianna said. “It was, one, they needed a sob story on stage to help them raise money, or two, it was to participate in an already developed strategic opportunity to fit something that was already in their organization’s agenda.”
Their stories didn’t always fit neatly into a pro-choice framework. Vianna had gotten pregnant while attending a Catholic high school in the Boston area. She confided in a counselor who informed the school administration, and soon she found herself being pulled into a chapel by a nun, who told her that she couldn’t have an abortion because it was murder. Vianna’s mother, on the other hand, was telling her that she had to have an abortion. So Vianna went to Planned Parenthood. There, a counselor instilled the sense of agency that she had been missing.
“She explained that despite being a teenager, despite being young and pregnant, that this was a choice that I could make for myself, and that no one could force me to make a decision that I didn’t feel comfortable with,” Vianna said.
Vianna chose to become a parent. When she got home, mother kicked her out of the house. She moved in with her daughter’s father and his parents, and switched to a public high school because she could no longer pay her Catholic school’s tuition.
The trust that Vianna’s counselor had placed in her was all too rare, even within spaces that claimed to be empowering young people. To the No Teen Shame campaign founders, the idea of empowering teens felt true to the principles of reproductive justice that many reproductive health nonprofits are assumed to espouse. There were groups that supported their work from the beginning, including the Strong Families Network at Forward Together. But not everyone got it.
“We noticed that across the country, even people who were already really forward-thinking in how they engaged with young people were still struggling with this idea of stigma and young parent stigma,” Vianna said.
In trying to shift the message, they were up against the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which had added the word “Unplanned” to their name in 2005. In 2014, the National Campaign had a budget of $24 million to promote a message that was still largely focused on personal responsibility. No Teen Shame, meanwhile, was a grassroots campaign run by the seven cofounders, each of whom were raising kids while working. On the side, they did research on teen pregnancy that larger organizations relied on, made graphics for social media, and presented at conferences. Their campaign had no formal budget except small consulting fees they got from organizations that sought out the founders for advice.
Nonetheless, they were making change. In 2014, Vianna did a TED talk on teen pregnancy in Boston. Later that year, the campaign’s cofounders flew to Austin, Tex., to receive a spirit award from Healthy Teen Network. People in positions of power were starting to listen. Vianna worked with then–Boston City Council member Ayanna Pressley to revise the policy for expectant and parenting students in the city, adopting gender-neutral language to include the non-pregnant parent and requiring accommodations for students to pump and store breast milk. Kuti had helped craft a first-of-its kind state law requiring parental leave for high school students in New Mexico.
In 2016, the Candie’s Foundation rebranded to “TheNext.org” and shut down the following year. (Its CEO, Neil Cole, would later be charged with accounting fraud.) In 2017, the National Campaign hired the strategy firm Met Group to lead their rebrand to Power to Decide. In 2019, a coalition of leading reproductive health organizations including Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood, and Power to Decide announced that they would rebrand May from Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month to Sex Ed for All month.
Some groups credited the No Teen Shame campaign.
“This much-needed rebrand comes after years of labor from advocates, organizers, and young people–all across the country–who have been leading the charge,” Sex Ed for Social Change (SIECUS) communications manager Zach Eisenstein wrote at the time. “Namely, NoTeenShame created a movement in 2013 to push back ‘against the narrowly framed falsehood that young parents are incapable, irresponsible, and unworthy of dignity and respect.’”
Neither Planned Parenthood or Power to Decide mentioned No Teen Shame in their announcements about the change, an oversight that rankled the cofounders.
A year after the rebrand to Sex Ed for All month, Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, herself the daughter of a teen mother, became CEO of Power to Decide. She told me that the organization has intentionally shifted away from the personal responsibility messaging of the Clinton era. “This is something that we’ve seen in so many other movements and organizations,” McDonald-Mosley said. “It doesn’t make sense to talk about differential rates of unintended pregnancy for low-income communities versus high-income communities, or people of color versus white people, without talking about the differences in access to care and services and systemic racism.”
When I asked if she had a message for the No Teen Shame cofounders, she offered a belated thanks for their work. “I would just thank them, you know, for standing up for what is right and giving voice to their experience,” McDonald-Mosley said. “We have all grown and learned and none of that growth or learning would be possible without people being brave enough to tell their story.”
Teen pregnancy rates have been dropping steadily since 1990, a change experts attribute to greater availability of contraception, sex education, and lower rates of sex among teens. Vianna says the credit belongs to young people themselves, not to any organization or campaign. There are still no federal standards for sex education, though a bill set to be reintroduced this month, the Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act would change that. For now, just five states require schools to teach comprehensive sex education. In two of those five states, districts can get out of the requirements by refusing to teach sex ed altogether, Michelle Slaybaugh, spokesperson for SIECUS, said.
Still, there has been a shift in how people understand the potential of sex ed.
“When the No Teen Shame program started, we were still generally looking at sex education as pregnancy prevention and risk reduction,” Slaybaugh said. “Sex education improves knowledge and attitudes about dating violence and intimate partner violence. It reduces harmful beliefs, stigma, and sexist attitudes. So, now, it’s not just about prevention.”
The Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade last June threatens decades of work empowering young people to make informed decisions about sex and parenting by removing abortion as an option in many states. So does the recent rise in bills aimed at preventing educators from talking about everything from gender identity to menstruation. Hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced this year, shattering previous records. Many of these bills restrict what educators can say about sexuality and gender or even what books schools can carry.
Nor is pop culture through with shaming young parents. When the gun-toting conservative Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert announced that she was becoming a grandmother at 36 because her 17-year-old son had gotten his girlfriend pregnant, stigmatizing remarks aimed at Boebert came from people across the political spectrum. Reading the social media comments, Marylouise Kuti said she had a disturbing immediate impulse to defend Boebert, whose politics she detests. “This has just really reminded me that the work we’ve done has been so impacting and so important, but it is so not over,” Kuti said.
The founders of the No Teen Shame campaign are no longer teens but women in their 30s and older, whose children have grown up together. Some have had more children and realized that stigma hurts parents of all ages. “Having had my first at 17 and then my last at 30, that was something that was really clear to me, that these problems are systematic,” Christina Setzer said. “As a 30-year-old, I had to fight for the right to have a pumping break.”
But Setzer and her cofounders have been moved to see more and more posts when teen parents are sharing joy online. Social media is full of baby showers, maternity shoots, moments of celebration that once seemed off-limits to teen parents.
“I guess my hope is we’ve helped make the road a little bit easier for people parenting now,” Setzer said.
Finally, at least, teen moms get to celebrate Mother’s Day in a month that’s not designed to shame them for existing.