Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

Scarlet Letter.

By Meredith O’Brien


Joseph Burkett. Casey Aldridge. Gloucester High School boys. Arthur Dimmesdale. Do those names ring any bells? Think . . . where have you heard them before? Perhaps these names will help: Lara Logan, Jamie Lynn Spears, Gloucester High girls and Hester Prynne.


Why are the women on the list better known than the men? The same reason there isn’t a male equivalent for words like whore, jezebel, slut, hussy and bimbo. (And no, Elaine Benes’ term “mimbo” doesn’t even come close to the toxicity of the female terms.) Why is it that when it comes to unmarried or adulterous sex -- particularly sex that results in pregnancy -- it’s the women who are sluts and whores lacking morals, but the guys who impregnated them are essentially ignored or lauded as manly men simply doing what nature intended, spreading their seed? Why is it okay to lionize a playboy who “plays the field” while at the same time women who have sex (playgirls?) are called slurs, even in these post-Sex and the City days? These questions have been foremost in my mind as news events, coupled with the public and media’s response to them, have been, shall we say, dreadfully unequal lately.


CBS/60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan recently told the Washington Post that she’s pregnant. Her current husband, from whom she’s estranged and is currently divorcing, is not the father of her unborn child. Another man, Joseph Burkett, who’s divorcing his wife (the mother of his 3-year-old) got Logan pregnant. After reading about Logan on The Huffington Post [1], I scrolled down and saw the first comment from a reader. It was one word: Whore. That reader, along with others who chimed in, weren’t talking about Burkett, who’s divorcing the mother of his child and who also presumably knows what happens when you have unprotected sex.


Seventeen-year-old TV actress Jamie Lynn Spears gave birth to a baby earlier this summer and gave her first interview to OK Weekly. When her interview was mentioned by the Boston Herald [2] a reader posted a comment on the paper’s web site calling her “a teenage slut.” No word on whether Casey Aldridge, the baby’s father, is also considered a male of ill repute.


Eighteen teenaged girls attending Gloucester High School made national news [3] because they’re pregnant, some of them, reportedly, and sadly, on purpose. One of the girls, Lindsey Oliver, 17, appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America [4] with her 20-year-old boyfriend Andrew Psalidas saying that the pregnancy was unintentional, that they know they’re too young to be parents but they’re going to make the best of the situation. Yet across the country, Oliver and the other girls are being maligned. A nearby Massachusetts town has a satirical “Horribles [5]” parade which annually lampoons public issues and officials, that this year included a float [6] that mocked the minors -- who are not high-profile celebrities surrounded by handlers and people to protect them -- featuring young women dressed up as the pregnant Gloucester teens gyrating provocatively to music, men also dressed as the girls with legs wide open to give “birth” while in stirrups, complete with signs which said, “GHS Girls Went to Band Camps Came Back Pregnant Tramps,” “Jamie-Lynn led us to sin” and “Sluts missed sex ed.”


Andrew Psalidas, who identified himself as one of the males who got one of the Gloucester girls pregnant notwithstanding, if you Google the Gloucester teen pregnancies searching for any mention of the males who impregnated the other teenaged girls, you might find a reference in Time Magazine [7] about a nameless, homeless 24-year-old who supposedly got one of the girls pregnant, but precious little else. When the story was initially breaking, the Gloucester Daily Times [8] ran a news article entitled, “Boys also a focus in school contraception talks” saying, “determining the identity of the fathers of high school students’ babies has been difficult because of confidentiality issues but . . . [the school superintendent’s] understanding from school staff is that many of the fathers were not Gloucester High students.” Even still, there’s no widely expressed scorn for the males who remain nameless while the girls who are having their babies are demeaned as sluts who many believe deserve to be publicly mocked.


This reminded me of the classic, The Scarlet Letter [9], where Hester Prynne – who’d been forced into marrying an old man she didn’t love and abandoned her for years in New England – fell in love with a minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who impregnated her. When the townsfolk learned that the married Prynne was pregnant, she was imprisoned. After giving birth she was publicly shamed and forced to pin a scarlet “A” to her chest. Some fellow citizens clamored for a harsher penalty, like branding her forehead with a hot iron. Another said: “What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead? This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die.” Prynne wouldn’t divulge the name of her baby’s father, the well respected Rev. Dimmesdale, who only confessed right before his death, seven years later.

Nathanial Hawthorne called The Scarlet Letter a “tale of human frailty and sorrow.” When an unmarried woman becomes pregnant unexpectedly (or, in the case of some of the Gloucester teens, out of sheer immaturity) Hawthorne is indeed right, it is a story of human frailty. But despite the fact that 158 years have passed since the publication of The Scarlet Letter, it’s still a societal given that unmarried or adulterous women who bear children – instead of abort them so no one will know they’ve been having sex – continue to face sexual name calling, something now dubbed “slut shaming [10].” It’s still the case that the men who do the impregnating largely escape public scorn and sexually explicit slurs.


While we should discourage teen pregnancy and encourage two-parent homes, we must acknowledge that mistakes happen and when they do, what is accomplished by going after the pregnant women -- particularly young and vulnerable ones -- with rhetorical pitchforks and suggesting that “promoting shame through mockery [11]” is “our civic duty?” Michael Graham hosts a talk show on 96.9 WTKK.


Such mockery is seldom if ever directed at both parties, so what message does this discriminatory scorn send to our girls? Time’s [12] Nancy Gibbs wrote of the Gloucester girls: “Surely they deserve more sympathy and support than shame and derision, if the trend they reflect is not a typical teenager’s inclination to have sex but rather a willingness to take responsibility for the consequences.”

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