Teen Pregnancy

September 19, 1994|By Harriet Meyer

POLICY PLANNERS and government officials have been spending enormous amounts of energy devising new programs to prevent teen pregnancy as part of recent welfare reform proposals.

The challenge to the planners is stark, about 357,000 children were born to unmarried teen-agers in 1990. To create effective pregnancy prevention programs, planners must take into account the range of sexual and emotional experiences that can lead an adolescent to early, unplanned parenthood.

Absent from the teen-pregnancy debate has been any discussion of the critical role played by childhood sexual abuse. I suspect that this topic has been avoided because it deals with some deeply rooted taboos.

It is critical that we confront the dismal pervasiveness of childhood sexual abuse. A beginning point is two recent surveys on childhood sexual abuse -- on one, 1 in 445 Illinois teen mothers was surveyed and the other, a poll of 1 in 535 teen mothers in Washington state. More than half of these young mothers reported that they had been sexually abused as children.

Most of the teen mothers surveyed for both studies were participating in programs for such teens and neither survey used a random sample of adolescent mothers as a comparison. While that limits our ability to apply these findings to the population at large, they nevertheless offer an important perspective.

So what do the studies show? The young women typically were repeatedly abused sexually. More than half of the victims had been abused by more than one person. Nearly half of the group of abused Illinois girls said they were abused by someone at least a decade older. In the survey comment section, young mothers also reported some extremely violent episodes, including rape at knifepoint.

Childhood sexual abuse is important to discuss because it is a major factor in guiding adolescents toward risky sexual behaviors, premature parenthood and often the welfare rolls. It subverts the process a girl needs to go through in order to grow into a competent young woman.

When sexual molestation and rape are a girl's first sexual experiences, her ability to successfully negotiate the challenges growing up and the unforgiving demands of adulthood are seriously undermined.

The lessons girls learn about sex form their understanding about issues of control, pleasure and self-determination; they carry that important information and those experiences with them as they become women. It is difficult for an adolescent girl, or for that matter an adult woman, to think of her body as her own when she learns from those closest to her that it is the property of someone else.

Even more alarming, more than half of these girls are often abused at the hands of the men who should be nurturing and protecting them. One-quarter of the abusers named in the Illinois survey were male relatives or friends -- fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, step-fathers, cousins or mothers' male companions.

Reading these findings should lead no one to believe that sexual abuse is largely confined to girls who become teen mothers. It is a serious problem in the general population with substantial numbers of adolescent girls reporting childhood or adolescent sexual abuse. A new report, "Sex and America's Teen-agers," from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, indicates that 60 percent of the girls who report that their first episode of intercourse took place before they were 15 years old have had sex involuntarily.

It is vital that we teach our children to be self-reliant by supporting their sense of initiative. The self-reliant child will become a strong, independent adult and will teach independence to her own children. Instead, because of sexual abuse, children learn that they are powerless to control their lives or even their own bodies. We are sending the wrong message by the most inappropriate of messengers.

The Clinton administration has offered a $400 million prevention initiative on teen pregnancy as part of its welfare reform effort. The plan seems to offer a balanced mixture of local program initiatives and government leadership. Mentoring, recreation, education and comprehensive family-planning programs, designed and implemented to suit the needs of their particular communities, will be combined with advocacy by government officials. These officials will be vocal in encouraging sexual abstinence and responsible sexual behavior.

Unfortunately, encouraging responsible behavior is not nearly enough. Planners must take into account the repugnant statistics on the incidence of childhood sexual abuse and use them to help shape program development and the policy debate.

Harriet Meyer, a Baltimore native, is executive director of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a social services agency in Chicago that serves young families. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.

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