While attempting to cut down on the number of teen pregnancies, many have overlooked the issue of sexual violence. In other words, efforts to decrease the number of teen girls who become pregnant ought to be partnered with an effort to decrease violence against teen girls – but this is rarely the case.
Teen pregnancy isn’t simply about girls and boys being promiscuous, or lacking access to sex education or contraception. Too often teen pregnancy is about girls losing agency over their bodies because of the unbearable injuries of being sexually violated.
Underneath the discourse about the educational strategies needed to prevent teen pregnancy lies a much harder and complex issue: Violence in girls’ lives leaves them at risk for teen pregnancy—especially for girls of color.
A significant correlation exists between childhood sexual abuse and teen pregnancy. An estimated 60 percent of teen girls’ first pregnancies are preceded by experiences of molestation, rape, or attempted rape. In one study, between 30 and 44 percent of teen mothers were victims of rape or attempted rape. Up to 20 percent of girls become pregnant as the direct result of rape.*
The Harvard School of Public Health’s exhaustive research on the lives of girls demonstrates that girls who are victims of violence from dating partners are four to six times more likely than non-abused girls to become pregnant, and eight to nine times more likely to attempt suicide.
Other research findings compare sexually abused pregnant teens to pregnant teens who have not suffered sexual abuse. The sexually abused girls initiated intercourse a year earlier than their peers and engaged in a wide variety of high-risk behaviors, including substance abuse. The average age of first intercourse for abused girls is 13.8, in contrast to the national average of 16.2. Only 28 percent of the abused girls used birth control at first intercourse, compared to 74 percent of girls in the general population.
Sexual violence is especially pervasive in the lives of girls of color. An unfortunate, historical narrative oversexualizes black and brown girls. Even today this narrative renders their bodies more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and devaluation. Approximately 40 percent of black women report coercive sexual contact by the time they turn 18. Native Americans are victims of rape or sexual assault at more than double the rate of other racial groups—and are more likely to be victimized by non-Native American perpetrators.
Sexual violence can play different roles in teen pregnancy. Many girls become pregnant because of coerced intercourse. Other abused teen girls become pregnant because girls subjected to sexual violence typically lose a sense of control over their bodies and often descend into a “disembodied self.” Unintended pregnancy can be the manifestation of sexually violated girls’ loss of connection to and agency over their physical selves.
Girls affected by sexual violence need support to reclaim their bodies and to make reproductive health decisions from a place of strength and health. Strength-based programs such as PACE Center for Girls in Florida and Girls Educational and Mentoring Services in New York seek to restore abused girls’ self-worth and alleviate the injuries of sexual violence.
The alarming rates of teenage pregnancy in the lives of girls broken by sexual violence—so many of whom are girls of color—require us to revisit the current discourse on teen pregnancy.
We must recognize the role of violence in girls’ reproductive journeys, and emphasize the importance of effective, evidence-based, gender-specific programs and interventions to protect girls from abuse and to heal them if or when it occurs. That means any campaign to reduce teen pregnancy must also become a campaign to reduce the unacceptable levels of violence against girls and to give all girls the opportunity to realize their full personhood, equality, dignity, and worth.
Many difficult decision must be made following the trauma of an assault or rape – pregnancy can intensify the already stressful situation. Whatever a young girl’s or woman’s course of action, ultimately “the safety of the woman, her children and unborn child are paramount” (ACT Government Health).
While pregnancy outside of marriage is not nearly the taboo it once was, girls who become pregnant while teenagers still face serious harassment and abuse from family, friends, and their communities. No teen deserves that sort of treatment but it is especially harmful for those girls who are pregnant because they were raped. Whether people realize the cause of the pregnancy or not, this is a form of victim blaming.
The young girl has felt the stares and endured the rumors running through this small town. That uninformed reaction to a pregnancy at 13 is no real surprise. People here see a child having a child and are appalled.
What they don’t know is the back story: The pregnancy is the result of a sexual assault, a fact hidden behind the curtain of privacy that cloaks juvenile court proceedings in Indiana. So the taunts, the gossip — and worse — continue. Slurs scribbled on the garage doors at the girl’s home have been painted over, but their faint outlines — and the sting — still linger.
They are remnants of repeated vandalism at the girl’s home after she told police that an older, neighborhood boy had raped her. The shadowy words peeking out from under fresh coats of white paint, however, are reminders of much more:
• A 13-year-old child’s innocence stolen as part of a disturbing trend in Indiana — the growing number of teens victimized by sexual assaults.
• A legal system — including a juvenile justice component focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment — that some advocates say lets down many victims of sex crimes.
• And, amid it all, a small-town family’s resilience in the face of life-changing adversity.
On Sept. 30, the boy sent her a text message. He said he liked her and thought she was cute. The message also asked her to come outside to talk to him. They met in the alley behind the girl’s home. After some small talk, the boy suggested they get in his car because it was getting chilly. That’s when the boy’s actions turned criminal.
“He really started flirting and then kissing me,” the girl said, “and it just escalated from there.”
The victim said he pushed her to have sex. Hoping to dissuade him, she told the boy she was on her period. But that didn’t work. He kept pushing her, physically overpowering the 95-pound girl.
“I was telling him ‘no, no,’ ” she said, “but he wouldn’t stop.”
The frightened girl kept quiet about the incident for more than a month. In hindsight, Green said, she had noticed some changes in her daughter’s demeanor during that time. But she chalked it up to the mood swings of a teenage girl.
Then in November, the girl came to her mother. She had taken a home pregnancy test.
The result: positive.
“I just freaked,” Green said, “and called the police.”
Following an investigation that turned up two other victims, the 17-year-old suspect was charged in juvenile court in January with three counts of child molesting.
A former self-proclaimed “social bug” — she was a cheerleader and athlete — the young victim has become reclusive since learning she was pregnant.
“I can’t walk out the door without someone calling me a whore or slut,” the girl said. “I used to have a lot of friends, or people I thought were my friends, but as soon as this happened I just isolated myself.”
The repeated vandalism incidents at the family’s home — including the words “whore” and “slut” scrawled on the garage doors — were reported to police. But Green said no charges were filed because there were no witnesses to the acts. Her daughter also has been the target of mean-spirited rumors and speculation that her pregnancy is the result of promiscuous behavior.
Green said she and her daughter were both opposed to abortion, but the topic came up after she learned her “baby girl” was pregnant.
“Under these circumstance,” Green said, “it would have been easier.”
But after a two-hour heart-to-heart conversation, her daughter held firm to her convictions.
“I just looked at my mom,” the girl recalled, “and told her I wanted to keep the baby.”
It is a decision, the girl acknowledged, that means she will never get to enjoy typical teenage activities and pursuits. She already has scaled back her goal of attending the University of Michigan and studying to become a veterinarian. Now, she’s hoping to attend an alternative school to earn her high school diploma, then possibly study to work in child care or as a hair stylist.
For more information and resources related to the topic of teen pregnancy and sexual violence, read Lorraine’s Story of Teen Pregnancy After Rape, Pregnancy and Partner Abuse, 50 Facts about Rape, and Get the Facts about Teen Dating Violence.