Why New York City’s Effort To Shame Teens Is The Wrong Way To Promote Sexual Health

So far, New York City’s campaign to prevent unintended teen pregnancy has been extremely successful. The public schools in the city have instituted a mandatory comprehensive sex ed curriculum, as well as a program to help expand teen’s access to contraception — both of which have directly contributed to the fact that the teen pregnancy rate in New York City has plummeted by 27 percent over the past decade.

The city’s Human Resources Administration is now expanding those efforts to a broader marketing campaign, rolling out a series of advertisements that intend to communicate the “real cost of teen pregnancy.” The ads, which will appear on subways and bus shelters across the city, are an attempt to frighten teens out of having a child at a young age:

This strategy may not be totally without precedent. Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff points out that a similar type of advertising campaign in Milwaukee helped contribute to a drop in teen pregnancies. But the huge drop that New York City has already seen over the past 10 years belies a simple fact: edgy advertising isn’t nearly as important as actually equipping young people with the resources they need to understand their bodies and mitigate their sexual risk.

In fact, a recent study demonstrates that providing young adults with the support they need can be a more effective method of preventing unwanted pregnancies than shaming teens about their sexuality. Throughout the course of the study, the teens that participated in a program tailored to help young people make good sexual choices — including providing providing personal case management, youth leadership opportunities, and specialized counseling — were much more likely to make safe sexual choices, like using condoms, than the teens who weren’t in that program. And the healthy sexual behavior extended beyond simply using protection. The teens who received support and counseling were also more likely to be able to recognize unwanted sexual attention, and refute those type of advances — in other words, they became better aware of their physical boundaries and their ability to withhold consent.

Ultimately, the United States needs a huge overhaul when it comes to society’s approach to teen sexuality. Too often, teens aren’t given accurate information about their bodies, aren’t empowered to make their own decisions, don’t know what “consent” is and how to navigate it, and are ultimately too ashamed to ask for the resources they need. Young adults need to be trusted with information about sexuality — and those who are at a higher risk for unintended pregnancy need to be supported, not stigmatized for the “failures” that result from their sexual behavior.