Roughly one in four teen girls become pregnant at least once by age 20 and fully half of all pregnancies in the United States are reported by women themselves as unplanned. Not too good.

By posting some intemperate thoughts about sex, love, relationships, pregnancy, childbearing, the media, public policy, our dogs, and other topics, we hope to spark a two-way discussion about how best to bring down the high rates of teen and unplanned pregnancy in this country. And who knows…from time to time, we might even offer up a few cogent thoughts that will be helpful.

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Contraception, Popular Culture, Public Policy, Teen Pregnancy, Unplanned Pregnancy
July 20, 2016

By Ashley Shew, Public Policy Intern

I grew up on country music. Riding in the backseat of my mom’s old Mercury (there’s even a country song about that), my brother and I sang many impromptu sibling-duets at the top of our lungs on long trips “to town”. Country music has always been the voice of, well, “country” people; a megaphone for the rural American experience.

Since then, my beloved country music has made some changes. Currently in the midst of the “bro-country” era, some people have accused the genre of being inauthentic in its quest to simultaneously reach a broader millennial audience while perhaps over-selling nostalgia for a rural way of life. A few well-worn themes emerge: riding around in trucks with pretty girls, drinking and enjoying the weekend, and taking pride in a simple, down-home way of life.

As a young woman from a small rural town in Texas, and a devoted country music fan, what’s been fascinating for me to observe is the way women of country music are challenging the bro-country account of small-town life. Maddie and Tae brilliantly skewered the male gaze in their infamous “Girl in a Country Song”. To some extent, the girl-duo also critiqued the way country music has silenced the experience of rural women in “Shut Up and Fish.” But some female artists are exposing some of the all-too-real consequences of riding around with your sweetheart with nothing to do by singing about teen and unplanned pregnancy.

Miranda Lambert is perhaps the best example of this in the song “Babies Makin’ Babies”. Lambert sings the story of a young couple in a small-town, without glossing over how they became parents:

“Two kids from Tacoma
In a '72 Nova,
No pill and barely old enough to drink,
Learned the ropes and tested science,
Started Pentecostal riots,
In just five minutes behind the rolling rink”

Kacey Musgraves, the current country music darling and no stranger to covering controversial concepts in her songs, had a hit with “Merry Go Round”, about the small-town view of early childbearing: “If you ain't got two kids by 21, You're probably gonna die alone. Least that's what tradition told you.

At last month’s CMAFest in Nashville, newcomer Tara Thompson performed “Vows”, a song about a shotgun wedding in a country town, which she told her fans was based on her sister’s real-life experience of unplanned pregnancy. On the same album, Thompson, who hails from rural East Tennessee, also sings “Pregnant at Prom,” a ballad about her own mother’s experience as a pregnant teen.

Of course, these women aren’t the first country artists to sing about pregnancy or even family planning (all hail Queen Loretta.) But what’s new is the way they are linking the experience of women to tell a different story about growing up in rural America. These women paint a picture of poverty and lack of opportunity, about a resigned feeling of “that’s the way it’s always been” that is in direct contrast to the happy-go-lucky, let’s-get-a-little-wild-on-the-weekend attitude of their male peers.

But today’s rural teenagers should know that neither the pasture party or the pregnant prom picture has to be their reality. In fact, overall, today’s teenagers are doing quite well at protecting themselves from unplanned pregnancy. But there are still big disparities in “country music country”. This graphic depicts teen birth rates across the United States, and shows some of the higher teen birth rates cluster in rural counties in the Southeast and Southwest. The report Sex in The (Non) City highlights some of the factors that influenced the birth rate in rural areas. Some of the themes from country music, including drinking and lack of recreational outlets, were predictors of “babies having babies”. However, what really made a difference in rural communities was access to healthcare, economic opportunity, or a path to college. When young people had access to those supports, they were much less likely to give birth as teens.

The bottom line is that kids listening to country music in today’s backseats should feel free to write their own accounts of growing up in rural America, and sing their own stories at the top of their lungs.

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