Who’s Going to Help Arkansas’ Young Women Avoid Unplanned Pregnancy?

Answer: Without funding for this state mandate, the work is going to fall mostly to women.

In spring 2015, the Arkansas State legislature officially called upon the state’s public universities to address unplanned pregnancy in higher education. While teen pregnancy rates have been falling for a long time nationwide, Arkansas continues to have among the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the nation (69 pregnancies per 1000 teen girls). As with the rest of the country, women ages 18 and 19 are most likely among teens to get pregnant. This, along with a high level of religiosity, contributes to early marriage in the state. Indeed, Arkansas women have the youngest average age of marriage in the nation, while the state’s men get married at the second youngest age, nationally. Not surprisingly, the state also has one of the highest divorce rates, despite the fact that it was an early adopter of covenant marriage.  The costs of early unplanned pregnancy create go far those incurred by an individual couple.

Universities need to care about this not only because we want to support the whole student but because there are real economic costs to students and to the state. Those who face a pregnancy during college are more likely to leave or languish.  Each semester at Arkansas State University, I’ve had at least two women in my courses who find out they are unexpectedly pregnant. More are already pregnant—and since I teach some courses online, I also have many who are giving birth that semester. Others, of course, don’t share this information with me. Many leave school.

I see the consequences of poor sex ed in measurable ways in my sociology of sex course at A-State. Early in the semester, students are given two assignments (optional among many): ask someone to explain sex to you and record it (with their permission) and analyze what they say and reflect upon their own sex ed experiences.  The responses are often distressing. Overall, people are reluctant or embarrassed to talk about sex. Very often, they are unsure if their information is correct. Very often, it’s not. Many of them have never spoken about their parents about sex. Others have only talked about sex in a joking way with their parents. Many have only been admonished “Don’t do it.” A depressing number received most of their sex ed from porn, which often undermines sexual pleasure.

None of this is surprising. Like many states, Arkansas does not require its schools to teach sex ed. While some of my students evaluate their sex ed classes as useful, many say that they receive no sex ed. Others learned about sex for a single day in health class—or, if they are lucky, maybe one day in middle school and one day in high school. Many of them hear more about “purity” than pregnancy or—gasp!—pleasure.

The consequences are also not surprising. States with weaker sex ed have poorer sexual health outcomes for teens and adults—including pregnancy and a range of STDs and STIs. While colleges are probably not the hotbed of sex that parents worry about or pornography promises, almost three-fourths of new HPV cases are among those 18-24, and the majority of gonorrhea and chlamydia cases are among young people. Arkansas is fifth in the nation in chlamydia cases and seventh in gonorrhea cases.  STDs/STIs and unplanned teen pregnancy and its attendant problems—depressed job prospects, increased childhood poverty, weaker relationships, higher risks for child abuse—disproportionately affect those states that do not mandate high quality sex ed, which means that the South is in particularly poor sexual health. Combine this with broad swaths of rural “red zones” that lack obstetric or gynecological care, political opposition to the expansion of publicly subsidized healthcare, widespread homophobia that jeopardizes the health of LGBT people, and high rates of the illnesses that undermine prenatal health, such as diabetes and hypertension, and you have a nation with one of the highest rates of not only teen pregnancy but also the highest rate of pregnancy-related death among peer nations, with the South leading the way.

Can Arkansas’ higher education system do something about this? Though universities often fail to support parents of young children, A-State has a remarkably good childcare center, located right across the street from student family housing. (It’s also opening its first-even lactation lounge, an endeavor that should have been done in 2009, when the state mandated space and time to breastpump and is now being done thanks to the hard work of those in Women and Gender Studies at A-State.) Yet supporting students raising young children due to mistimed pregnancies is expensive—more expensive than equipping those students to make choices that align with their values and their long-term goals. So we absolutely SHOULD do something about it.

Unfortunately, the state’s mandate is unfunded, which means much of this work will fall upon those who care about sexual health and unplanned pregnancy, which tends to be women on campus, making women, again, responsible for the sexual health outcomes of everyone.

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