In his New York Times op-ed, Richard Reeves argues that shame is an integral part of a
healthy, liberal society. The op-ed was written in response to the New York City Human Resources
Administration’s recent ad campaign targeting teen pregnancy.
The campaign ads are featured on bus shelters in “neighbourhoods with high rates of teenage pregnancy,” meaning, in effect, neighbourhoods experiencing poverty and historical disenfranchisement. The ads feature toddlers saying things such as: “Honestly, Mom… chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?“ – thus reinforcing harmful stereotypes while slinging blame at young women. Planned Parenthood issued a statement denouncing the poster campaign, stating that the ads ignore the structural realities that create the conditions for unintended pregnancy while simultaneously stigmatizing and shaming teen parents and their children.
Robert Doar, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, in a piece written in the New York Times, states that the goal of the campaign was to, “send a message about personal responsibility that would resonate with teenagers.” These types of ads are nothing new, and are problematic in similar ways to other ad campaigns that focus on personal responsibility at the expense of social accountability.
New York’s ads are meant to portray the “shameful” consequences of teen pregnancy in an effect to deter teens from becoming pregnant in the same way that Georgia’s childhood obesity ads portray overweight children in an effort to shame children and adults in to making “healthier choices.” The imagery used in the campaign of crying toddlers are meant to portray something the reader shouldn’t want to be. Teen moms, a category of people who often already feel socially isolated, are ostracized further in order to be used as a cautionary tale.
The ads include a number that people can text in order to get facts about teen pregnancy and to play a game about Anaya, a pregnant teen, and her boyfriend Louis. The game presents a series of challenges faced by Anaya and Louis that the respondent is asked to find solutions. The ensuing scenarios reinforce the message that teenage pregnancy results in poverty, social isolation and family conflict as Anaya is ridiculed by her peers and called names by her father.
What these ads do not do is give youth useful solutions or information. Not only do we deny young women access to meaningful ways of being in the world, telling them their only value lies in their physical appearance and their conformation to expected gender/sexual/race roles, we then further ostracize them from their peers by using them as an example of how not to be, of how you will end up if you act like them. All of this despite the fact that we know hurting and shaming communities will not lower teen pregnancy rates. New York’s ads are coming out at a time when teen pregnancy rates are declining. Keeping in mind that teen pregnancy rates vary wildly across provinces and territories, and that the collection of statistical information has traditionally not accurately reflected the realities of marginalized populations, in Canada the Canadian teen birth rate decreased from 22.1 per 1,000 in 1996 to 14.2 in 2009, a decline of 35.7%.
The use of shame rests on the presumption that teens have done something shame worthy. It also presumes that they have made a choice. More specifically, they have made the wrong choice or one that you, as the reader, should not make. The use of shame along with the illusion of choice ignores the many and varied reasons youth become pregnant, instead choosing to focus on the resulting pregnancy as if, by virtue of being pregnant, young women have already harmed their children. One ad says, “kids of teen moms are twice as likely not to graduate than kids whose moms were over age 22”. The ads place blame on the young mother while ignoring the influence of the other parent, social support, and any number of other factors.