5 Mar 2009

Today a particularly British problem is in the news: the pregnancy rate amongst under-16 girls has soared in the past year, despite government attempts to halve teen pregnancy rates by 2010. It's hard, especially as a feminist, to take a line on this without offending someone along the way. Those who see teen pregnancy rates as a result of a culture that lets down teen girls by oversexualising and undereducating them may have no problem condemning the news, but will be met by disapproval by those who see prevailing attitudes to teenage mothers as both prurient and patronising. There's certainly a school of thought, possibly formed in direct retort to extreme-right types who would like to banish all pregnant teens to Workhouses for Unwed Mothers, that teen mums are neither as stupid, nor as deprived, as we imagine. Some of them consciously choose their predicament, others fall into it by mistake, but many of them manage, survive, and go on to contribute to society, in direct contrast to their stereotype of lazy, workshy parasites.

Unfortunately, I can't really place myself in that camp. I don't think teen pregnancy is a good thing and don't condone it - but not because I believe in the stereotypical, unsubstantiated notion that 'they just do it on purpose to get a council house'. In some ways, I suppose you could say I don't think that any pregnancy is a good thing. If that sounds strange or sinister, let me clarify; I don't want children - ever. Ever. Whilst I fully support the right of everyone else in the world to reproduce as they see fit (although I continue to live in the foolish hope that they might do it responsibly), I think I'm with Shulamith Firestone when it comes to seeing pregnancy and childbearing as the biggest barrier possible to female progress. Now, I've done my feminist reading enough to know that it's not up to women to bow to a male-oriented society and give up the option to have children, merely to 'get ahead'. I know that the feminist aim is instead to transform society into a culture friendly both to women, children and the demands of childbearing and rearing, so that no one is disadvantaged merely by choosing to have kids. However, it's an aim I feel somewhat removed from, and one I find myself reluctant to fight for.

I can't say I've ever met a woman whose life didn't appear to have been compromised in some way, by having children. Every mother I've encountered seems to have given up something - a job, a relationship, time, sleep, travel, her waistline - in order to be a mother. Granted, compromise and abandoning past concerns are what comes with growing up. Granted, men who support a wife and children give up many things too. However, I reject the idea that this is inevitable or laudable. The other week, when I informed my father of my decision to jack in my job in order to take my chances on the world of writing, he reminded me 'You have to acknowledge that 98% of the population don't have the freedom to do what you've done,' because most people have mortgages and kids. A large part of me felt like responding 'So what? Those people chose to have both, no one made them do it. Should I apologise because I've been smart enough not to lumber myself with huge life choices that I know I'll live to regret?’ In a country where we have free healthcare and access to free contraception and legal, safe abortion, no one has to have a child they don't want. And yet, I'm supposed to pity those who have children and find out it's not all it's cracked up to be, or didn’t predict that it will be the biggest drain on your body, mind, sex life, relationship and sanity imaginable?

Despite all modern progress, I do still see having children as holding women back, especially those who are poor or badly educated. And teenage girls may not be getting pregnant just to land a free house, but I sure as hell don't believe they're doing it due to informed, mature decisions made on neutral grounds. They're doing it because they don't see any other prospects for themselves due to substandard education, and see pregnancy as inevitable in their lives at some point, so they decide to bring it forward by a few years. They’re doing it because they still see their sexuality as something with which to please boys/gain popularity, and are having sex long before they're ready to ask for or enjoy sex on their own terms. They're not using contraception because their immaturity means they lack the organisation or bravery to initiate or plan a sexual encounter. They're getting drunk enough to have unprotected sex - again because of their immaturity, lack of confidence, and desire to fit in and please males. They're doing it because, when you see your mum, your sisters, your aunts and your female family friends churning out child after child, the idea that you don't actually have to continue with a pregnancy doesn't seem to enter these girls' minds.

Better sex education is often trumpeted as the solution to the problem, but I doubt it's as simple as that. I'm sure there are plenty of girls who have had all the right lessons in school, read the right magazines and surfed on the right websites, yet still don't have the guts to bring a condom or tell a boy 'no glove no love' – these girls end up having unprotected sex which they know can result in pregnancy and disease, and just have to cross their fingers that they won't be the unlucky ones. How do I know this? Well, I know plenty of well-educated, very sexually aware women who have behaved like this, so it's not too much of a jump to imagine that the average girl from a deprived British estate might lack even more confidence to ask her tracksuited suitor if he has a Durex on him.

As a society we don't give girls the ability to determine their own sexuality, which is really the key to reducing unwanted pregnancy and STDs. No one makes sexual choices in a complete vacuum, and teenage girls are making their choices in an increasingly warped, poisoned culture where women are sexualised in every imaginable way, but never out of their own volition or for their own pleasure. As someone who's been able to make fully informed choices about sex and pregnancy (or rather, prevention of) throughout her life, I fail to believe that I'm the only one who's never been forced/co-erced into something I didn't want to do with my body, be it sex or pregnancy. Yet I only have to walk through the town centre on my lunch hour from work to see girls who are still children themselves pushing buggies and holding the hands of toddlers, and I don't see much real choice involved in their situation - I see their lives like a hole they fell into and now can't get out of. Maybe I'm a judgemental, privileged snob and they don't want my pity - but I feel it all the same, mainly because I can't personally imagine a worse nightmare than watching all your hopes and dreams for the future neatly crushed by the tiny fist of a baby.

Many happy mothers, young and old, may accuse me of being anti-woman and anti-mother. The women and mothers who knows me would acknowledge I'm not either, but I suppose if you tell people that their life choices constitute your most dreaded scenario, you're going to get people's backs up. I suppose the teen pregnancy story just reminds me of two sad truths - one, that we've still got so far to go in teaching our girls the self-esteem and healthy sexuality that it takes to mean what you say, whether it's a yes to sex, a no to sex, or a 'get some Trojans first, then we'll talk.' And two, that we're still so afraid to admit that pregnancy and child rearing can suck the life and soul out of you, that we won't accept that the decision not to breed at all can be a very sane one.

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