July 25, 2006


On the Benefits of Social Stigmas: REMOVING ROAD SIGNS CAN BE DANGEROUS (David C. Stolinsky, December 1997, Oxford Review)

For a generation now we have been busy removing crucial signs from the winding and dangerous road of life. Hoping to be nonjudgmental, wishing to increase freedom, believing even that we were being compassionate, we have almost systematically deprived the young and inexperienced of much of the benefit of our experience. Life holds as many sharp curves, steep grades, and hazardous intersections as ever, but we have conspired to render them unmarked.

For example, we removed most of the signs that warned teenagers of the dangers of premature sex and pregnancy. When I went to school in the 1950s, only one girl became pregnant in six years of junior and senior high. Pregnant girls had to leave school and go live with relatives or attend Continuation School, where returning dropouts went. There was stigma attached to unmarried pregnancy. This was hard on pregnant girls, but because of it there were far fewer of them.

There was little sex education then, but there also was little teenage pregnancy. Pregnancy rates rose as sex education increased, but this unhappy fact has not dampened our enthusiasm for sex education. Indeed, we are convinced that high teen pregnancy rates mean that even more sex education is needed.

Past generations would not have dreamed of rewarding pregnant teenagers with government checks, with which they could afford their own apartments. Pregnant girls had to live with relatives, which was difficult, or at homes for unwed mothers, which was embarrassing. The responsible boy was usually given a very hard time by his family, if not the court. In some states, birth certificates bore a notation that the baby was illegitimate. Stigmatizing a child seems unjust, but the effect was to add to the mother's stigma. There were, in short, penalties rather than rewards.

Moreover, abortion was unsafe, illegal, and rare. Some women were killed or injured by illegal abortions -- a terrible price to pay. But maybe that's one reason why there were so few abortions.

Transgressive behavior has to have consequences.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 25, 2006 10:17 AM
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