article

04.06.11

Bristol's Abstinence Outrage

Sarah Palin’s daughter was paid handsomely for her abstinence campaign. The message she’s sending: getting pregnant is a great way to make money for doing nothing.

Even before it was revealed that Candies Foundation paid Bristol Palin $262,500 to be its abstinence ambassador, her campaign against teen pregnancy was a farce. The Candies Foundation exists, in the words of its 990 form, “To educate America’s youth about the devastating consequences of teen pregnancy through celebrity PSA campaigns and initiatives.” Palin, a young woman whose unplanned pregnancy has rocketed her to reality star fame, could scarcely be a worse spokesperson. Everything about her and her celebrity telegraphs the message, already distressingly prevalent in this country, that pregnancy offers a way to trade boring high school anonymity for attention and adoration.

It’s hard to blame Bristol for any this, because she’s so thoroughly a creation of our cultural and political moment. She stumbled into the spotlight at precisely the moment that fame was becoming its own justification, detached from talent or accomplishment. Thus she was able to parlay her pregnancy into a lucrative gig on Dancing With the Stars, turning herself into a celebrity magazine staple alongside misbehaving actresses and assorted Real Housewives and aspiring Bachelorettes. She commands speaking fees of up to $30,000, and her memoir, “Not Afraid of Life,” is coming out this summer.

Which is all very well for her—with no education and a child to support, she’s lucky to have fallen into such a readymade career. But Bristol has also, evidently, inherited her mother’s grandiosity and sense of entitlement, which is why, rather than recognizing her unusual fortune, she imagines that her prominence is earned. Recall her Facebook outburst last year, where she told a critic of her family, “You’ll be as successful as my baby daddy, And actually I do work my ass off. I’ve been a single mom for the last two years.”

Everything about her and her celebrity telegraphs the message, already distressingly prevalent in this country, that pregnancy offers a way to trade boring high school anonymity for attention and adoration.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Bristol believes self-promotion is a worthy cause for which she should be well compensated. The villains here are those who enabled her: The Candies Foundation, Dancing With the Stars, The Secret Life of The American Teenager, where she appeared in a cameo last summer. The problem isn’t just that the abstinence, which Palin promotes, is ineffective. It’s also that Palin is a walking advertisement for teen motherhood.

After declining for more than a decade, recent studies have shown that teen pregnancy is on the rise, with 7 percent of teenage girls becoming pregnant in 2006, the last year for which we have figures. For many girls, it’s because they don’t have access to sex education or contraception; as the Guttmacher Institute has pointed out, the increase in teen pregnancy rates coincides with the growth of abstinence-only education programs in public schools. But the problem goes beyond birth control.  A U.S. government report from last year found that a fifth of sexually active girls actually welcomed a pregnancy. Some girls, seeking love and a purpose in life, are getting pregnant on purpose.

Shushannah Walshe: Bristole’s $250K PaydayThis shouldn’t be surprising. Teenagers from poor families see that they have little besides parenthood to look forward to. Meanwhile, America has come to fetishize pregnancy to an unprecedented degree. Magazines obsessively track celebrity baby bumps. Paparazzi stalk famous toddlers. Reproduction has turned nobodies like Kate Gosselin and the girls on MTV’s Teen Mom into stars. Palin is the apotheosis of this phenomenon. She might say that pregnancy is something to be avoided, but the story of her life speaks louder. If you’re cute and lucky, it says, getting pregnant can be a way to get paid lots of money for doing nothing at all. 

Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.