Back Stage out in Front: Impressions of Teen Pregnancy
The mere mention of teenage pregnancy evokes strong emotions, including sorrow, dismay, disgust, and pity. There is an impression that pregnant teenage girls have “fallen from grace,” as pregnancy is an oh-so-visible indication that they have been sexually active—an idea that makes many people shudder. The fact that the boys and men who partner in these pregnancies are (mostly) absolved of the scorn reserved for pregnant girls is an indication that the double standard about sex and sexuality remains.
We know that many teenagers are sexually active; data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) indicate that almost half (47%) of all U.S. high school students admit to having had sexual intercourse. Some teens do not use birth control, as additional data from the YRBS indicate: Of the 33.9% who had been sexually active three months before the survey, more than a third of them (37.2%) had not used a condom and only a scant 17.6% (the respondent or their partner) had used birth control pills to prevent pregnancy before their last sexual encounter. Not surprisingly, a number of these teenage girls became pregnant.
In 2002, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate was 76.4 pregnancies per 1,000 females aged 15-19. The pie chart below
represents the outcomes of these 757,000 pregnancies. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicate that a little more than half of teens aged 15-19 who became pregnant gave birth to their babies. Although 16% of these teens suffered fetal losses, 28% aborted them.
The sociological concept of impression management is useful in thinking about teen pregnancy. Impression management might be defined as caring what others think; it is being aware of how we are seen by others and attempting to influence (consciously or not) how we are perceived and ultimately treated. According to sociologist Erving Goffman, who developed the concept of impression management, we have front and backstage lives. Front stage refers to those occasions when we are “onstage” in formal roles, in “public” creating or maintaining a particular impression of ourselves.
Backstage is , like the backstage of a theatre, where we are our “private selves”; the place where people put on make-up and get dressed in preparation for being onstage. Back stage is where the real story—and not just what we want others to think, know, or feel about us—resides. So using this lens to consider pregnant teens, we recognize that unless it is common knowledge that a teenager has had an abortion or that she was pregnant and gave up a baby for adoption, she may continue to be perceived as a “good girl”, or at least maintain whatever public image she had before she became pregnant.
Notice the double standard again. When it comes to sex, girls and women are seen as either virtuous or promiscuous, but neither label is typically applied to males. This either or dichotomy acts as a constraint on female sexuality. Can you see how? Sexual activity and pregnancy may remain backstage for such girls and onlookers are likely to maintain whatever impressions they had of them, despite the girls’ experiences with sex and pregnancy. On the other hand, a pregnant girl cannot hide her backstage, because it is literally out in front! Consequently, impressions about her are bound to include this titillating knowledge.
I was very surprised to learn from CDC data that the highest teenage birth rates in the U.S. of the last 64 years were in the 1950s! As indicated in the line graph below, the 2000 U.S. birth rate of 48.7 is almost exactly half of the 1957 rate of 96.3! What factors do you think contributed to this change in birth rate? Our impression that teen pregnancy is “new” may be related to the fact that the majority (70%) of teenagers who give birth today are unmarried. The opposite was true in the 1950s when teen pregnancies frequently resulted in marriage, and in general, people married and had children at earlier ages than they do today. Many of us have the impression that there was little or no premarital sex, teen pregnancies, or births out of wedlock in the “old days;” but this data suggests that marriage helped to create that perception.
I know adults who became parents as teens, but this information is usually kept back stage. Typically, do you count the age difference between parents and their children, even when parents seem relatively young? I do not and on a few occasions have been surprised to learn that someone—sometimes even family members—I have known for a long time was a teen parent. With time, marriage, and the tacit agreement of the community, many adults are able to have their teen pregnancies “move” back stage.
But many people, including teen parents, delay marriage much longer now than during the 1950s. Should they remain unmarried? How do you think today’s teenaged parents will be perceived in ten or more years?