We spoke with Sara Schwarzbaum, professor in the family counseling department at Northeastern Illinois University and founder of Couples Counseling Associates in Chicago, to get her thoughts on the impact of the ad campaign featuring pregnant boys. Read our Q&A below, and visit Pregnant Boys? New Transit Ads Spark Dialogue to view the ads.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background in family counseling?
I teach graduate students in the counseling department. I teach courses to students who are going to become couples and family counselors. I’ve been doing this since 1999 at Northeastern, but I’ve been doing family counseling in private practice for 25 years.
The Chicago Department of Public Health launched a 2013 pregnancy prevention campaign featuring a series of ads of pregnant boys. What was your initial response to seeing the ad for the first time?
I’ve seen them now on the website. It was a shocking response, so I can see why people have various ideas about it. It does create a shocking response to see a male pregnant.
According to CDPH, the campaign’s goal is to spark conversations about teen pregnancy and to make the case that it’s more than just the girl’s responsibility. How successful do you think this ad campaign is or will be?
In terms of success of the campaign, I really cannot predict. I can tell you that anything that considers pregnancy as a couples' issue is a good thing to emphasize. It is a couples' issue.
However, the reasons for teen pregnancy are very complicated. Part of me says this is very powerful. But shaming people rarely helps them change behavior. When you try to shame people into changing, that generally does not work. When parents try to shame their children, or when a public health campaign tries to shame someone into changing, I don’t know if it will work. Sometimes a controversial health campaign can change people though.
What do you think the reaction will be for those that see the ads?
I had a graduate student here who was sitting right next to me when I first opened the e-mail and saw the ads. Her first response was, “yuck.” So that tells me some people will find it repugnant. She had a reaction, and it was repulsion or repugnancy. I can see how that will happen with others.
In general, female characteristics are viewed more negatively than male characteristics. Women have adopted male characteristics. A woman can walk down the street with a briefcase in her hand and wear blue “male” pajamas. Nobody will find that repugnant or repulsive. On the other hand, you will rarely see a male wearing a purse walking down the street or wearing pink “female” pajamas.
Male characteristics are viewed more positively than female characteristics. Even though we live in the 21st century, we still have old-fashioned and patriarchal ideas about masculinity and femininity. So when you see a pregnant male, it’s really shocking because it’s something solely associated with a female, and therefore may be considered repulsive or repugnant by some people. Seeing a male pregnant teen will be shocking not only because it’s different but also because it’s a female characteristic.
Do you think this ad campaign will be effective in combating teen pregnancy?
Controversy puts issues on the map, and so the media will pick up the controversy and that will make the actual campaign more visible. And if it’s more visible, more people will pay attention to it. From that point of view, it’s a good thing. A controversial public health campaign may work if people pay attention to the message that campaign is trying to give. I think it’s a powerful image. But it’s hard for me to put a plus or minus sign on it.
What do you think is the most effective tool to use to combat teen pregnancy?
The most important tool is to address systemic issues that cause poverty, illiteracy and unemployment in the first place.
Interview has been condensed and edited.