I once knew a girl who was forced to marry her boyfriend after they were caught having sex. They were only in high school. Where I come from, it’s quite common to marry in the traditional way if you’re young and pregnant. Your baby daddy becomes your husband. I know and I have seen girls from my culture get pregnant in high school. Usually, their families arrange for a wedding to save face. Having a child out of wedlock is a taboo only second to marrying someone with the same last name as you.
Even before I was in middle school, my mother was already telling me not to get pregnant. She never failed to remind my sisters and me of how much she suffered, raising us as a teenage mom. I promised her she had nothing to worry about. After all, I was taught people only had children after they got married. Besides, I wasn’t planning on doing that in middle school or high school.
Aside from the Cosmopolitan magazines I read at the public library, my sex-ed pretty much consisted of people just telling me not to “do it.” I didn’t have sex-ed in elementary school, middle school, or high school, and I definitely didn’t talk about it at home. My high school didn’t offer sex-ed classes or contraceptives. The common misconception about teaching sex-ed in schools is that it will somehow encourage kids to be more sexually active.
One time after high school, I was handed a condom and a flyer about how to have safe sex. I think a community organization was tabling nearby. I tossed the condom immediately because I found it disgusting. That was the closest I’ve ever gotten to real sex-ed.
I was told to keep my virginity “safe” for my future husband, or else he wouldn’t want me. I grew up believing that sex was a shameful thing to talk about. Conversations of sex only started entering my life when my best friend got a boyfriend in our junior year in high school.
Whenever I came across an underage pregnant girl, I always asked myself, “how come they didn’t use protection?” I was quick to judge and failed to see the bigger picture.
I did a story on teen pregnancy in college for one of my news reporting classes. Seeing it so much, it sort of normalized itself into my life and community. Nowadays, if I hear of an underage cousin, friend, or anyone who got married, I’m not even surprised anymore. Because they’re young, I always assumed it was arranged because they accidentally got pregnant.
It turns out that teen pregnancy rates in the Central Valley are the highest in the country. Fresno, my hometown, was one of the top cities with the highest numbers. There was a study done on two high schools in my hometown. One was particularly in a nicer area and the other was not.
From the years 2011 to 2014, McLane high school had over a 10% rate in teen births. Buchanan high school had less than one percent. Ninety-six percent of students who attend McLane high school come from low-income families. I asked Dr. Janet Slagter, assistant professor of women’s studies at Fresno State, an expert in women’s reproduction if poverty was the reason for these higher rates of teen pregnancies. She disagreed and said there was a problem with services being available to everyone; poverty played less of a role.
“Richer kids probably have more access to resources so the teen pregnancy rates are probably lower,” Slagter said. “Parents may have resources to pay for an abortion, the resources to provide the kids with contraception.” If kids in poorer neighborhoods lack access to sex education, it’s likely they won’t have access to other resources either, she said.
In my culture, leaving the house with a boy and not coming home until the next day can get you into a forced marriage, depending on how traditional your family is. I’m fortunate to have less conservative parents when it comes to going out with boys. I had a friend whose mother told her never to let a boy hold her hand or else she’d get pregnant. She said once there’s touching involved, there’s no going back. It’s always “don’t do this,” and “don’t do that.”
Not talking about sex made me even more curious about it. It was difficult to find a space where I could openly talk about it, ask questions about it. I was told to wait until marriage, but some time in high school, I knew I wasn’t going to. Marriage is sacred, and I knew it was going to take me a long time to get married. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do marriage at all. If I wait, I’d probably be in my thirties to late forties before my cherry gets popped. If you come from a culture like mine, my advice is to explore and search for the answers for yourself, even if those answers don’t come from your family and friends.