Motherhood and Morality

By Pollitt, Katha | The Nation, May 27, 1996 | Go to article overview

Motherhood and Morality


Pollitt, Katha, The Nation


For years feminists have argued that there is a great deal of sexual coercion and violence against girls and women and that most of it goes unreported. For their pains, they have been labeled victimologists, paranoids, man-haters, hysterics, prudes, New Victorians and falsifiers of research data, even as study after study confirms the basic outlines of this unflattering portrait of American life. (See, for example, Nina Bernstein's excellent May 5-6 New York Times series on campus crime, which exposes the many clever ways colleges keep gang rapes and acquaintance rapes out of their official crime statistics--exactly as rape counselors charged, to widespread skepticism, when Katie Roiphe cited official campus rape figures to "prove" date rape was hyped.)

For years, too, feminists have pointed out that sexual coercion and violence against girls and women are causally bound up with a wide variety of social ills, from unwanted pregnancy to mental illness to homelessness. Just last week, for example, NOW announced the results of a Taylor Institute study suggesting that up to 80 percent of current welfare recipients are or have been victims of physical domestic abuse. This analysis has not, to put it mildly, made much of a dent in the family-values cheerleading that dominates the policy hot-air-waves.

Enter Newsweek's Joe Klein, scourge of black men and single mothers, twin carriers of the dreaded "culture of poverty." In his April 29 column Klein reveals what he calls the "secret truth" about pregnant teens, which is that many of them are victims of sexual abuse and have been impregnated by predatory older men. Stop the presses! Isn't this exactly what feminists have been saying since forever? The research Klein cites--an Alan Guttmacher Institute study that found that two-thirds of teen mothers were impregnated by men over 20; a Washington State study that found 62 percent of pregnant teens had been raped or molested before becoming pregnant--along with other studies showing high rates of coercive sex generally and by older men particularly, has been widely cited by feminists and others concerned with young girls, including me (!) many times (!) right here (!). The clinical psychologist Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which gives much the same picture of attention-starved and insecure girls from troubled families who are easily exploited by lupine boys and men, has been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year with half a million copies in print. Some secret!

What's made Joe Klein suddenly so interested in the victimization of teenage girls by older men is an idea being pushed by the Progressive Policy Institute: privately run "second-chance homes" for teenage welfare mothers instead of A.F.D.C. It's easy to see why Klein would go for this idea and even urge states to make it mandatory: He gets to send a whole lot of black men off to jail for statutory rape and establish welfare receipt as proof positive of family dysfunction. True, the plan does require expressing some sympathy for inner-city Magdalenes--not Klein's favorite charity--but at least it allows for their confinement and instruction in "motherhood and morality. …

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