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Dignity or dirt? The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy Scarlet Letter ads

The following letter to the editor about the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy "Sex Has Consequences" ad campaign by Norm Constantine and Bonnie Benard was published in the November, 2000 issue of Youth Today.

Dirty Campaign?

The latest assault on adolescents comes from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Their new teen shame campaign consists of a series of magazine ads featuring wayward appearing teens behind large red letters spelling out CHEAP, DIRTY, NOBODY, REJECT, USELESS, or PRICK; with smaller captions below stating "sex has consequences." These ads are soon to appear nationally in the leading teen magazines. The Campaign is so enthralled with their new creations that they ask visitors to their website to vote for their favorite teen putdown, and even provide instructions on how to set one of these images as your computer desktop wallpaper.

What the developers of these ads must not realize is that in so creatively competing for the attention of potentially sexually active teens (not to mention reaping a lot of free publicity by the controversy sure to result), they are broadcasting two false and pernicious messages.

To teens they are proclaiming SEX IS DIRTY. Forget the fact that becoming a sexually healthy adult is a key developmental task of adolescence. Forget that most teens are sexually responsible, in spite of the culture they inhabit. Forget that teens are yearning for accurate and balanced information and guidance on sexuality, which they largely do not get at home, in school, nor from the media. Just remember, sex is dirty.

To adults they are proclaiming TEENS ARE DIRTY. Forget that our society sends teens bewildering mixed messages of abstinence for everyone until marriage combined with ubiquitous examples of casual sex without caring, contraception, or consequences. Forget that we adults, holding the world's strongest economy, tolerate the second highest relative-poverty rate for children of all industrialized countries. And try also to forget that adult women have a higher unwed birthrate than do teens, and that most teen births are fathered by adult men. Just remember, teens are dirty.

While the rest of the field increasingly embraces a youth development approach that values young people not as problems to be fixed but as vital school and community resources, the Campaign takes a step backwards with their new strategy based on blame, shame, and flame.

There are healthier and more effective ways to send the message of high expectations for responsible sexual behavior, and the complementary message of respect for self and others. With its substantial resources, surely the Campaign can do better.

Norm Constantine, Director
Bonnie Benard, Senior Associate
WestEd, School and Community Health Research Group
Oakland, CA