Teen Impregnation Is the Real Problem, Not Teen Pregnancy

When a teenage girl gets pregnant, it is often the fault of an adult male. You would not know it from reading most of the government reports and scientific publications, but teen impregnation involves men, too -- not just teenage girls and not even just teens.

There is extensive data showing that the sexual experiences of many adolescent girls are forced and unwanted. In our newly published data from the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence, 1 in 4 girls have experienced a sexual victimization by the age of 17. The National Survey of Family Growth shows that the younger a girl was at the time of her first sexual experience, the more likely it is that she did not want it to happen. It is not promiscuity, it is sexual assault.

Our national surveillance of births to teens is not conducted in ways that let us fully appreciate this. National Survey of Family Growth data from the CDC shows that the younger a girl is at first sexual intercourse, the more likely it is that her sexual partner was someone she "just met or just friends." It is 1 in 4 sexual experiences for 14-year old girls. If you think about that for even a moment, it does not make sense. The younger you are, the more likely you are to voluntarily hook up with a stranger? No. We cannot even separate stranger from "friend" in our data because of our longstanding stereotypes about the sexual behavior of girls gone wild.

The bias is apparent in numerous reports, including the one released this week by the CDC on births to teens and one released earlier this month by the Guttmacher Institute, which do not mention men or fathers in a single place in the entire report. These reports are silent on the role of men in impregnating girls. Exactly how do they think these young women are getting pregnant? It is incredibly difficult to find data about this most basic question: How old are the fathers of pregnant girls? However, existing data from Gallup and Child Trends suggest that approximately two out of three of the fathers of pregnant teens are not teens themselves.

When a teenage girl gets pregnant, the first question we should be asking is whether she is a sexual assault victim. This is important not only for the intercourse that led to the pregnancy, but also to better understand pregnancies that are not the direct result of a sexual assault. Girls who have been abused as children, whether physically, emotionally, or sexually, are at much higher risk of teen pregnancy. We need to start thinking about teen impregnation as another consequence of childhood victimization. In some cases, the same perpetrator of maltreatment or bullying is also the perpetrator of teen impregnation.

Preventing teen impregnation requires strategies aimed at reducing the sexual perpetration of minor females by older, physically stronger men. At the CDC, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control has made a shift in their violence prevention programs to focus on perpetrators, and to some extent bystanders, more than on victims. Although it can be a part of the solution to help victims become "harder targets," to borrow a criminology term, the real way to make a difference is to decrease the number of offenders. The CDC Division of Reproductive Health could learn from this initiative and also shift their focus. Where are the campaigns to teach 25-year-old men to stay away from 16-year-old girls? As the mother of a teenage daughter, I am far more concerned about predatory males than I am about my daughter's behavior, and the Federal government should be too. The problems of teen reproductive health cannot be solved without addressing the problems of rape, statutory rape and sexual misconduct against minors.

To prevent teen impregnation, we need to start talking about the men.