Popcorn, TV, & A Sex Ed Chat: What About The Secret Life?

by Robin Slaw
Monday evenings for the last few weeks have been a bit exciting in our house. My daughters and I are avid watchers of the ABC Family drama, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, after which we have long and sometimes vehement conversations about those American Teenagers and how they are living their lives. I love hearing my own daughters being thoughtful and passionate about the goals and choices the TV teens are making, and I enjoy hearing how and why the girls would do things differently or why they think the teens are wrong or the parents are wrong or any of the other myriad vociferous opinions expressed every Monday evening.
I wanted to hear what some other teenage girls were thinking about recent events on Secret Life, so had a conversation with a few teen girls about the show and their thoughts about teens and sex ed in general. What follows in an edited transcript of a conversation with three teen girls about episode 6 in season 3, She Went That A’Way, originally aired on July 12, 2010. My questions are in italics.

This week, Secret Life had a pregnant teen (Adrian) change her mind about an abortion. What did you think of the show?

A: I thought it was stupid and unrealistic. She wouldn’t have changed her mind in real life.

S: I think she was pressured into changing her mind.

Can you explain more about the idea of pressure?

S: All the adults who were trying to help were pressuring her one way or the other. Her mom wanted an abortion, her dad didn’t.

T: Her mom hard-cored it, the way she was acting. Everyone was trying to inflict their opinions on her.

If a teen is facing that type of decision, how could an adult help without exerting undue influence?

T: Ricky’s mom was good, she was a counselor and tried to explain that it was [Adrian’s] choice, and just understand that she can’t go back. She was supportive.

A&T: I wouldn’t want others to give me other options, just support my choice. I know there are other options out there, but I probably don’t want to hear about them anymore. Or, they should explain every option, not only the option they support.

S: I felt like the way Ricky’s mom was wording it, I thought she was against abortion. It was the way she was describing there are choices that you can go back on, but abortion isn’t. It sounded to me like she thought there were better choices. I think if it was Ricky as the father, she might have pushed abortion a little harder. Maybe she didn’t want to deal with Adrian’s mom.

A: I don’t think any adult can give a totally unbiased opinion. Everyone has an opinion. I think if a teen was facing this kind of decision, they should talk to everyone, because that way they can hear people supporting each side, and get opinions each way. They should talk to a pro-adoption person, a pro-keep-the-baby person, and a pro-choice person.

Have you ever talked to a teen facing that kind of decision?

A: I did. I didn’t really help much because the person didn’t really talk to me much; I just knew that the person was planning to go for an abortion if she was pregnant.

S: I know one person who planned to keep her baby.

A: I know three girls at my high school who have given birth and they all kept their babies. I’ve seen their babies, either at graduation or on Facebook.

What do you think about talking to parents about abortion? In some states, teens need to get parental permission to have an abortion.

A: I think it’s fair that teens don’t need to notify their parents. I don’t think the parents have rights – they don’t have to carry the baby, they don’t have to go through the humiliation of being pregnant in high school, I don’t even think they should have to talk to their parents at all if they don’t want to.

T: But would you talk to your mom if you got pregnant?

A: I don’t ever plan to get into that position. I just graduated high school, and I’m not pregnant.

T: There is a girl in my school who got pregnant. She didn’t even know she was pregnant. She went to the nurse with what she thought was cramps, and she was in labor. She was a large girl. How could she not know? And kids that have sex, they’re embarrassed and don’t want to talk to their parents. Maybe they don’t know the symptoms of being pregnant, and they think something is wrong, but they think maybe it was because they had sex but don’t think about pregnancy, so they don’t talk to their parents.

Adrian took her mom to the clinic. How does that fit with your ideas?

A: Adrian chose to take her mom. Everyone should be able to make that choice on their own, not because the law requires it.

What would you to tell the producers of Secret Life about real teens?

A: The way everything turns out perfect in the end … it’s all too good to be true. Show a situation where a boyfriend doesn’t step up to the plate. Show a family where the kid gets thrown out of the family house. They only showed one viewpoint.

A: It’s too much like a soap opera. There’s not that much drama in real life. It’s not as twisted and intermingled in school like it is in this show. Everyone’s not all connected with everyone else. Friends don’t usually date other people’s friends because it messes everything up.

T: They need a reality check. What was the point of the show? Are they trying to show about teen pregnancy? Is the whole point of it to show how teens really live? Two girls pregnant, both of them end up with perfect lives. That’s not real. Parents are supportive. That doesn’t happen really. A lot of teens don’t have that life. Their [TV] parents are well-off. Some kids get kicked out in real life.

T: There’s a lot of drinking and drugs in my high school. Why don’t they show that?

A: Every single guy on Secret Life cheated and got away with it with no or very little consequences. That’s not real life. They need to start showing other sides of real American teens.

S&T: What about Griffin – they should show about teens who decide they are gay and can’t talk to their families about it. I know someone who got kicked out of his house when he told his family he was gay. I don’t know what happened to him. What about rape? They aren’t talking about that.

Why do you think it’s so difficult for a television show to talk about abortion, or to allow a character to have an abortion?

A: Because they don’t want people to stop watching the show because they disagree with abortion. People won’t stop watching because a teen doesn’t have an abortion, but lots of people are very opposed to abortion and they would target the show if they did show an abortion.

T: It’s a fine line talking about teen pregnancy, trying to please everybody. I still wish they wouldn’t just show the bright side of it. I felt like there wasn’t any point to it, I wasn’t learning anything new; there wasn’t any real story line because it wasn’t realistic.

What do you think about the initial pregnancy, and how Amy got pregnant?

T: I think it was pretty realistic, but how can you be so stupid and not realize that you are having sex until you’ve finished? Even if you had a really bad sex ed program in your school!

T: What was she saying, was she saying they were making out and then all of a sudden, whoa? Or was she overwhelmed? They hadn’t been dating; it would have made more sense that they could get all caught up. How does it make sense that they could get that carried away when they’d never been together before?

T: It would have been … they were just kissing and then all of a sudden, holy cow, what is this inside of me?

S: I think the situations about how they got pregnant were pretty realistic. No, what about one-night stands? And people just hook up. Would a teen be that ignorant?

T: Even if he was raping her, something should have registered.

S: It just feels like she was a little more naïve than even a freshman would be. What kind of school doesn’t teach you about sex?

A: What about our elementary school? They didn’t.

A: Adrian was using birth control pills and condoms and still got pregnant. She was doing everything she should do, and still got pregnant. They changed her character when she was with Ben. She would have really gotten an abortion if it was real life. She was always headstrong all along, and then all of a sudden she just started letting other people make decisions for her? Even if she had done it and then regretted it afterward, that would have fit her character better. Whether she regretted it or not, she would have made that decision. For her character from the beginning it didn’t seem like her.

A&S&T: I’m really mad at Ashley now because she kissed Ricky. She was the only real character, but now she’s lying and cheating and just like everyone else.

What could schools do to help prevent these types of situations?

A&S&T: Schools should be able to hand out condoms. Vending machines. Nurse’s office. Locker rooms.

In NJ, schools aren’t allowed to distribute condoms. What would you say to our legislators?

A: I think it would be less embarrassing to get condoms from school than drugstores. That’s why kids don’t get condoms – they are embarrassed or they can’t get to the store. Can you imagine, “Mom, can you take me to the drugstore to get condoms?”

T: I know girls who plot to trick their parents to get birth control so they can have sex. One girl lied about bad cramps so she could go on the pill so she could have sex.

S: They should make it easier to get condoms. Kids are having sex anyway. Do you want them to be unprepared or to stay safe? One way or the other, they’re going to have sex.

A: I think they should stay out of our business. Why should they be able to make these kinds of decisions for us?

T: What if their kids had it happen? Then they would feel like, maybe I should have talked to them more. Maybe their school should have given out condoms.

A: I think schools should be required to hand out condoms or have condoms readily available for students. They have to provide us with lunch, why shouldn’t they provide us with something else that would save our lives? Ok, food is a silly idea. But what about tampons, they give us tampons. Why can’t they give us condoms?

What about sex ed classes? Tell me what you think about them.

S: I think they should prepare kids to know what to expect. Situations where it could happen. They should prepare them by talking about options and showing them options.

T: They show them options.

T: Wait, in my school they didn’t show us any contraception, no wonder everyone is pregnant!

A: In our school we had to show the pros and cons of keeping a baby, abortion and adoption. That was good. In our school, some kids had to take care of eggs. My teacher didn’t believe in that so I didn’t get to do it.

A: It doesn’t matter what they cover, because teenagers don’t want to listen to their teachers. I don’t want to listen to my teachers teaching about sex ed.

T: My teachers are respected by their students.

S: They should bring in someone who is really well trained because gym teachers don’t seem like they know what they’re talking about.

T: In my school, there was one teacher who was trained in sex ed and she did a really good job.

A: It shouldn’t be something that you have to take quizzes and tests on because then you don’t want to learn it because it seems like useless facts and kids don’t like to be forced to learn it. I don’t want to learn something in order to pass a test. If we aren’t tested then we can relax and just learn and it becomes more important. It shouldn’t be something that they force you to learn.

S: The teacher has a big part of it. If it was someone that you didn’t know it would be easier, like a guest teacher. You won’t see them for the next four years, so you could ask the embarrassing questions because you won’t see them again. And if they were experts in this, it would be better.

T: You don’t go to a history teacher to learn about math. And a guest wouldn’t be disrespected like the gym teachers are.

T: In my friend’s school they explained how to have sex correctly. How to do it the safest way possible, whether it was to not get pregnant, or not get STDs, or the well-being of your body. Personally for me, I don’t know how to have sex. I don’t really get it. Is there a right or wrong way to do it? They should explain that because maybe kids don’t know how to use a condom, it could come off or break!

S&T: They shouldn’t make it so boring. They give info that you don’t remember because it’s so boring. I don’t remember my body parts, let alone his. For me, I won’t remember when there is a time to know it.

S: There are situations with kids who run away or get raped or get kicked out. They don’t have family to teach them or help them.

What do you want to say as final words to the readers?

S: Schools don’t think about what it’s like to be a teen now. They [staff and administration] compare us to them, and a lot of things have changed since they were our age.

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