Magical Thinking and Pregnancy Prevention

Pat Paluzzi, DrPH

“Magical thinking” is a type of causal reasoning or causal fallacy that looks for meaningful relationships of grouped phenomena between acts and events. Those of us who work in the field of teen and unplanned pregnancy prevention are quite familiar with the concept of magical thinking as it relates to our work.  Sexually active teens and young adults know something about sex and contraception, but less than they think they know and so they underestimate the risks of unprotected sex and the U.S. continues to lead the world in teen pregnancies.

It is understandable that teens—and even some young adults—might not have all of the knowledge they need to prevent unintended pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections.  Let’s face it, medically accurate, comprehensive sex ed is not available to most youth in this country.

But magical thinking on the part of our lawmakers is ludicrous, and dangerous.  If you spend a few minutes—and I mean just a few—tracking the line of reasoning supported by Todd Akin and others (our bodies will protect us from pregnancy during ‘legitimate’ rape –just as an aside, can anyone tell me what ‘illegitimate’ rape is?), you see  the above definition of magical thinking at work. Akin and those who think like him have attempted to create a reason to ban all abortion—even in the case of rape—by grouping together various scientific phenomena to make their case. For example, it is true that ovulation, implantation, etc. are chemically driven complex functions and it is true that stress causes a set of chemical reactions in our bodies—but fact 1 plus fact 2 does not equal ludicrous statement 3, even if sprinkled with fairy dust.

Perhaps this case of magical thinking does more to support the need for comprehensive sex ed than anything else we’ve had to offer.  Certainly we want those who attempt to legislate our bodies to at least have their facts right.

I suggest that every legislator be required to take a medically accurate, comprehensive sex ed class before being able to weigh in on such topics.  Healthy Teen Network would be glad to develop and offer such a class, and at a good price!  What do you think? Would your legislators attend?

Pat Paluzzi, DrPH, is President/CEO of Healthy Teen Network.

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Healthy Teen Network wants to make sure youth and young professionals are well represented at our 33rd Annual National Conference, The Power of Youth: Joining Forces to Achieve Positive Outcomes, October 16-19 in Minneapolis, MN. We want to raise $6,000 to send at least six youth or young professionals to conference and cover all costs–registration, travel, accommodations, and meals–so they can learn the latest developments in adolescent sexual and reproductive health and strengthen their networks by connecting with key players in the field.

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Sex Ed: A Tasteful Discourse

Alexandra Eisler

Sexual health is important. So important that I—along with thousands of others—have devoted careers to it. I’m lucky I get to talk about it all… day… long. But what do we talk about when we talk about sexual health? STIs? Blood tests? Pap smears? Condoms? Not having it? Yup. That’s what we talk about,because it’s important. But seriously, have we really boiled sexual health messages down to: risk avoidance OR risk reduction?

Sex is one of the few “risky” behaviors for which we expect a nearly 100% participation rate. That means just about everyone will eventually give it the “ole’ college try.” (In the US, average age of first sex is 18).

We come to sex ed class and talk about all the scary things like pressure, disease, anatomy, and unwanted pregnancy. Those things are great to talk about, but the young people sitting in front of us are navigating a complex web of information and a biological “pull” to have sex, and there is also a clear message they are getting (and not just from the media): sex is fun…really fun. No, you don’t understand, like, really, really fun. Eventually most young people will figure out that this is true. So it seems, at minimum, disingenuous to leave out the “fun” part of the conversation.

For those who know me the following analogy will come as no surprise, so bear with me.  What would happen if, when we talk about sex, we substitute the word “sex” or “sexuality” for “food” or “cuisine”? If you want to go to dinner with someone you should talk about the type of cuisine you’d like, right? And wouldn’t it be nice to choose a restaurant you both like? Maybe you’ll find something on the menu you’ve never tried…and might enjoy! But shouldn’t you also have the right to skip dinner or just have dessert? Sexuality is as much a part of who we are, how we socialize, and build families, as food is to nourishing ourselves and our loved ones.

Unfortunately, many adolescents (and adults, too) learn about pleasure from places like pornography. That’s like learning your eating habits from Man vs. Food (a Brooklynite travels the country looking for the biggest, greasiest, most cholesterol-ridden piles of food and eats until it looks like he’ll puke)! Dr. Sven Axel-Mansson’s research on adolescents and pornography[1] says that the vast majority of youth have watched porn at some point (about 95%) and said their own sexual experiences were not like what they saw on-screen (surprise!). We’re missing a valuable opportunity to talk openly about a central part of growing up: learning to express our sexual selves in healthy, appropriate, supportive ways. In other words, when it comes to sex, we need to say what we want, how we want it, with whom we want it and how we want to respect and protect ourselves and our partners.

It’s often easier to talk about what we don’t want (Chlamydia, HIV, unplanned pregnancy, being called a “slut”) than it is to talk about what we do want. This includes conversations about waiting to have sex. Studies have shown that the majority of sexually experienced teens wish they’d waited longer[2]–until a certain age, a certain relationship status, a particular economic status, or until they were “ready.”

If we become more honest in how we approach sex and recognize that it can (and should!) be fun, we can open broader discussions of consent, wellness, mutual respect, and communication.  I challenge you to think about what it would look like to flip how we talk about sex: from prevention to something that can be positive and result in an enriched life: promoting healthy decisions.[3] There are even fantastic sexual health educators that have figured out how to weave pleasure into sexuality and reproductive health education—they’ve done the work for you![4]

How do you think bringing pleasure into sex ed can help us better reach youth?

Alexandra Eisler is the Training and TA Coordinator at Healthy Teen Network. 

Lisa’s Story, Part II

If you missed Part I of Lisa’s story, you can read it here.

Lisa was sad to see Pablo walk out of her life and little Angela’s. He did exactly what his dad did to him and what he said he would never do. After multiple fights and marital counseling sessions, he left their tiny bedroom weeks before Angela’s first birthday. Since then, Lisa has been juggling several housing options. At first, she stayed with her parents but the relationship with her mother deteriorated and she needed to get out. She rented a room for herself and Angela in a two-bedroom apartment she could afford with her salary.

Currently, her mother takes care of little Angela. This means that every morning at 6am, Lisa and Angela travel one hour by bus to Lisa’s mom’s house. Lisa then takes a 45-minute bus ride to her job where she works until 3pm. She takes the bus back to her mom’s house and they return to their home at 8pm. If Lisa were driving, the commute to drop Angela off would only take 20 minutes then just 10 minutes to her job. The extra two hours commuting by bus daily is really taking a toll on her life and the quality of the little time she has with her daughter. A few days a month she is in charge of closing the store at 9pm, but the last bus leaves at 8pm. Lisa relies on friends and taxis to get her to her mom’s house. With one taxi ride she spends the equivalent of one hour’s wages.

With only a high school education and no legal documentation, she is lucky to get a stable job at a clothing store with a salary slightly higher than the federal minimum wage. But Lisa is trapped. She lives in fear of being deported, she freezes and becomes anxious anytime she sees a policeman, and she doesn’t go out much. She would like to go back to school and become either a nurse or a teacher. She is smart, sharp and loves helping people. With the community college just steps from her home, one would think it should be easy for her to fulfill her dreams. But her fear of deportation keeps her away from campus. The community college recently changed their tuition policies so that any county resident with a county high school diploma pays in-county tuition, regardless of their documentation status. Still, the tuition is completely out of her reach. She is not able to work, AND go to school, AND support her daughter. But even if she is able to study, who would employ her afterwards? How would she get a driver’s license and a car to get to work? How would she be able to obtain a meaningful employment that will help her pave a secure future for her daughter?

She crossed the border in her mother’s lap when she was one-year old. She was raised in the U.S.; she got a good U.S. education, and she has the same dreams and aspirations as her peers. She is doing everything right. She works, pays her taxes, and has opened a savings account for her daughter. Yet she has been forced to be a spectator in her community with few options for upward mobility. The day President Obama announced the new policy that would allow Latino youth to study and work for two years without fear of deportation, Lisa texted me asking for help applying to the community college. Her fears were gone.

But school is the least of her problems right now. After almost one year of having no contact with Pablo, Lisa received the package she has always feared, divorce papers petitioning sole custody of Angela. She is going crazy. First, she has very few legal resources and doesn’t know the system. Because Pablo is a U.S. citizen, she is afraid he will have more rights to the child than she does. And even if she gets shared custody, where would her daughter sleep, will she be safe, will she be loved and protected? He has been gone so long without even asking for her, what are his intentions? Fathers should be allowed to build strong bonds with their children and have meaningful interactions, but sometimes this fills young mothers with a lot of fear and unanswered questions. To maintain custody—at least shared—she would need to prove she works and is able to support her daughter. She now faces the same problem she ran into when applying for child support. Because she is not documented, she can get her employer in trouble, but if she states that she doesn’t work, she would be lying. Lisa doesn’t know the system, the terms, the standards of practice, her rights as a mother above all. One thing she does know is that when you are undocumented, any certainty of due process, any standards, and safety nets disappear.

But Lisa, as well as thousands of young Latinos, are hopeful that the two years of amnesty Obama has offered will change her present and future. For many, the next two years will lift the veil of fear, will raise hopes, and may offer additional motivation to pursue an education.

What role do teen pregnancy prevention and teen parent supporters have in advocating for the rights of immigrants?

Genevieve Martínez García is a Senior Researcher at Healthy Teen Network.

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