Bristol Palin: "Teens should just not have sex"

The young mother seemed distant and hopelessly scripted at a town hall meeting. But what she left unsaid spoke volumes.

Published May 6, 2009 10:06PM (EDT)

NEW YORK--Bristol Palin spent her Wednesday afternoon mugging for cameras (and, oh yeah, talking about teen pregnancy, kinda) at an event for the Candie's Foundation. "Entertainment Tonight," "Extra" and "Access Hollywood" swarmed the young mother, recently named Teen Ambassador to the foundation, whose mission is "to educate America’s youth about the devastating consequences of teen pregnancy through celebrity PSA campaigns and initiatives." Other bold-face names on the "the Event to Prevent Town Hall" panel included "Heroes" star Hayden Panettiere, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Garza (who was also a teen parent), Seventeen magazine's editor in chief, Ann Shoket, the CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Sarah Brown, and Neil Cole, founder of the Candie's Foundation. Chris Cuomo of "Good Morning America" moderated.

Although Candie's billed the event as a town hall meeting and bused in a load of conspicuously multicultural junior-high and high-school students to participate, the panel felt largely scripted. Cuomo read a few utterly safe, predictable audience questions -- "What do you do if your boyfriend pressures you to have sex?" -- aloud, and for the most part, the panelists answered exactly as you'd expect. There was a lot of talk about how difficult it is to raise children, how unprepared teenagers are for the task and, of course, reiterating to the teens in the audience that they shouldn't feel pressured to have sex. 

What was interesting about Palin's paltry contribution to the discussion wasn't what she said, which didn't differ much from her "Today" show interview this morning. Rather, what got me was what the young mother left unsaid. While other panelists (briefly) brought up contraception and stressed the importance of learning the facts about sex, Palin remained eerily silent for most of the meeting. When things went off-script, she didn't have much to contribute. By contrast, charismatic and articulate Hayden Panettiere made a genuine effort to connect with the assembled kids and introduce some humor and honesty into the discussion.

Asked why teen girls may end up pregnant, Palin responded, "They're not thinking about the future and not thinking before they act." Describing her experience as a young mother, she repeated her "Today" show song and dance. "It's just hard work all the time. It's a 24-hour-a-day job," she said. "You don't have friends ... You have to put your baby first." Then, prompted for a final thought, Palin reiterated a message of abstinence: "Having a kid is a huge responsibility. Teens should just not have sex." Palin spoke with a vacant look in her eyes, as though she were reciting lines she'd rehearsed a few hundred times already (which, of course, she likely was). Gone was the refreshingly unpolished Bristol Palin who, less than three months ago, admitted that abstinence was "not realistic." Mama Sarah (who wasn't in attendance, although Palin's First Dude dad grinned from the audience) certainly seems to have done some message control before allowing her daughter back into the public eye.

Other panelists made some unsettling comments, too: An otherwise canny Sarah Brown told a story implying that she thought in-school day cares and other social services made life too easy for teen mothers. And Panettiere spent a good deal of time encouraging girls to dress modestly --as though teen pregnancy can be prevented by a nice, sensible suit and some conservative flats. (Adding to the mixed messages here, the organization that hosted the event is named for Candie's Shoe company, purveyors of the sky-high heel. "Just because a woman wants to look sexy," said Candie's Foundation's Neil Cole, "doesn't mean she has to have babies.") Cole contributed perhaps the most depressing remark of the afternoon. "Guys are like dogs," he said, by way of explaining why the foundation targets girls more than boys. "Eighty percent of the guys take off. Women have to live with it." Way to encourage teen fathers to take responsibility for their actions!

In the end, the event was mired in mixed messages. The Candie's Foundation doesn't promote abstinence exclusively -- in fact, a postcard handed out at the event read, "The only foolproof way to prevent teen pregnancy is not to have sex at all. If you do, use protection every single time." So it's strange that it would nominate a Teen Ambassador who is (now, apparently) a staunch abstinence-only advocate. Rather than giving the teens in the audience any real information about their reproductive choices and responsibilities, the panelists implied that sex necessarily leads to pregnancy, which necessarily leads to 18 years of child-rearing. It was -- you betcha! -- an event that would have made Alaska's governor proud.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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