In "Twixt Twelve and Twenty," his popular 1958 advice book for aspiring
teenagers, Pat Boone warned of the dangers of too-early marriage. True, "if both parties are willing to make the
effort," puppy love could "ripen into the mature love that is the cornerstone of a genuinely warm, satisfying home life." But jumping the gun
could lead to disaster. Pat and his girlfriend Shirley "hadn't rushed" into
wedlock, Boone explained; they had waited until they were good and ready.
They eloped, sophomores in college, at age 19.
One wonders what Pat would have thought of the Orange County, Calif., social workers who have been helping teenage girls in their charge -- some of them as young as 13 -- to get married to the men who have impregnated them, rather than trying to get the men arrested on charges of statutory rape.
The story has become a roiling controversy. Imagine! A government agency serving as a matchmaker for sexual predators! "Helping pregnant 13-year-olds to marry the men who have physically and sexually abused them will result not only in continued abuse of the adolescent, but there is strong evidence that it will soon result in abuse to the child," a professor of social work complained in an angry letter to the Los Angeles Times. "And when the marriage ends with additional children and more abuse, will Orange County Social Services create a dating service for abusive men to cycle them into new relationships with troubled adolescents?"
Questions like these prompted Orange County (one of the most Republican in the country) to retreat from its matchmaker role. But the details of the cases cause one to pause a moment. Thirteen-year-old Isabel Gomez told social workers she truly loved her 20-year-old boyfriend. Isabel's mother -- herself only 29 -- is convinced her daughter's
troubled life has improved dramatically since he stepped into her life.
Since the marriage, she told the Los Angeles Times, "everything is much better."
situation, admittedly, is far from ideal. But would Isabel Gomez be better
served if the father of her child was behind bars?
That's a harder question to answer. Two-thirds of all teen
pregnancies involve adult men, and we can't put them all in jail. In a
notably awkward editorial last Thursday, the L.A. Times declared itself
against the Agency's matchmaking -- sort of. "A tough call is required when
the choice seems to be between a potentially workable family unit or
pointing the child mother and baby toward public assistance, absent a
father. In only a few exceptions, where all parties are willing and of
sufficient age to become responsible parents, is the risk worth taking."
Not terribly coherent, but when the subject is teen sexuality, it's
impossible to be much clearer, even if the standard political rhetoric would have you believe otherwise.
For example, we are told that we are faced with an "epidemic" of teenage pregnancy. In fact, the real epidemic years were those of Pat Boone's teendom. The birth rate among 15- to 19-year-olds after World War II leapt by more than 50% in just two years. By the 1950s, teenage girls were giving birth at twice the rates of previous decades. Indeed, the birth rate for 15-19 year-old girls in the late 1950s was some 60% higher
than it is today.
But most of the teen mothers of the 1950s were married -- and so their behavior was considered, more or less, respectable.
If there is an "epidemic," it is of out-of-wedlock births, which have tripled among teens since the 1950s. It should be noted, however, that two-thirds of these unwed mothers are not teenagers.
Still, we tend to regard teen sex as some sort of plague, with child
protection "experts" intervening in underage sexuality in ever more destructive ways. As a chilling Mother Jones magazine investigation revealed several months back, San Diego child protection workers have begun to label virtually all forms of
underage sexual experimentation (even consensual acts between children
who are roughly the same age) as "sexual abuse" -- in some cases, branding boys as young as nine as "perpetrators."
Such archaic, quasi-Victorian views are themselves part of the problem. Sexuality erupts into the lives of teenagers -- as Pat Boone knew -- with all the force and unpredictability of Hurricane Fran. And as anyone who's ever spent any time with them knows, many urban teen girls look upon pregnancy as something glamorous and even empowering -- whether the rest of us like it or not. They don't think they can make much of a life for themselves, so they settle upon making one for another.
As Kristin Luker points out in "Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of
Teenage Motherhood," many teens view childbirth as
"a pledge of hope, an acted-out wish that the lives of the next generation
will be better than those of the current generation, that this young mother
can give her child something she never had." All too often, it's a futile
hope -- and that's the part that makes teen pregnancy (in wedlock or out)
often so terribly sad.
In the halcyon '50s, early marriage made sense to an awful lot of
teenage girls: with the thought of anything more than a temporary career
more or less ruled out for those of the female persuasion, why not hop into
matronhood right out of high school? Plenty of girls did -- in 1955, the
average bride was only 20 years old.
It would be nice to think we've made some progress since then. But with Orange County social workers pushing for shotgun marriages and San Diego child-protectors going on perp-hunts, I'm not so sure we have. Both approaches reinforce the image of girls as largely passive victims, bystanders at their own fate.
Politicians, meanwhile, glibly explain the teen pregnancy "epidemic" in terms of a lack of "family values," especially in urban America. But in many ways Isabel Gomez's problem -- and the problems of countless others like her -- stems from an overdose of traditional "family values." Too many young girls still seem to believe that
fathers know best -- unwilling, for example, to insist that their lovers
use birth control, perhaps out of fear of losing them.
Girls who have confidence in themselves, and hope for their future, know that early pregnancy is a trap -- and that early marriage is less a solution to their problems than a poignant symbol of the limitations of their lives.
David Futrelle is a regular contributor to Salon's "Sneak Peeks." He has written about cultural politics for The Nation, Newsday, Lingua Franca and other publications.
"Serbs, Muslims, and Croats all want to be the chosen people. I
think we are collectively insane. I will not vote in this election. If you have a
conscience, it is the only option left."
--Ejub Sabic, 26, a Muslim veteran of the Bosnian war, on the campaign for Saturday's scheduled election in Bosnia-Herzegovina. (From "Bosnians Campaign on Old Hatreds," in Monday's
New York Times.)