Chicago's Newest PSA Tackles Teen Pregnancy, but What's the Underlying Message of the Ads?

“Unexpected? Most teen pregnancies are.”

That’s the tagline for the controversial advertisements springing up in the Windy City, which depict morose teenage boys with "pregnant" bellies. The ads, which launched in early May to draw attention to National Teen Pregnancy Month, are a part of a larger campaign by the Chicago Department of Health to tackle teen pregnancy. According to MyFox Chicago, images have been plastered across the city, concentrated around schools and neighborhoods with the highest rates of teen pregnancy.

As disturbing as the digitally modified images are, this is not a novel concept. As reported by the New York Daily News, the campaign was originally piloted in Milwaukee in 2009, with a slightly modified tagline: “it shouldn’t be any less disturbing when it’s a girl.” That campaign was credited with a subsequent 10 percent drop in Milwaukee’s teen pregnancy rate, according to the nonprofit ad agency that created the images. 

While I imagine this news was mellifluously ushered in by Jay Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" for the Department of Health in Milwaukee, something tells me that this PSA won't precipitate the same results in Chicago. 

To be frank, Milwaukee is a one-horse town compared to the metropolitan mega-giant. So, to predict success on a similar scale across such a divergent plane seems idealistic at best. And with mediated reports of violence saturating the news, something tells me that many Chicago youth may be too desensitized for a little Photoshop to trigger genuine responses. 

Still, the billboard images invoke an interesting point—that is, the "feminization" of labor regarding teenage pregnancy and parenthood. In depicting teenage boys as "pregnant", the billboards intimate an obvious but often understated message: It takes two. In the case of teenage pregnancy, blame is often oriented towards the female. She assumes full fault for failing to take the proper precautions and is pigeonholed for her reproductive predicament. Slut-shaming at its best. But wait, it gets better. As girls are subjected to public scrutiny and are forced to deliberate about their futures and the viability of raising a child (a decision often nuanced by poverty and lack to proper medical access), males may circumvent involvement, if they so choose. Certainly child support may serve as a legal buttress against absentee fatherhood, but anyone who has seen prime-time television knows that even these means can be evaded.

So, what is the solution?  

I'm not saying that I think coercing teenage boys to stay in their child's life is exactly the ideal route. But why is it that teen fathers think that these disappearing acts are excusable? Let's neglect their ages, financial instability, and domestic situations because the teenage girls that they impregnate often come from the same backgrounds. I think our culture needs to seriously restructure the current dialogue surrounding teenage pregnancy. The tacit message presently is that teenage pregnancy is exclusively the girl's problem—and that couldn't be more wrong. This is what leads to reckless sexual activity in the first place: the belief that teenage boys can just walk away precludes them from taking the same precautions expected of a teenage girl. And therein lies the problem. The assessment of risk and consequences is not equitable between the sexes. We need to change that. And that is exactly the kind of conversation that I hope these billboards DO spark. 

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