Yesterday, news broke that Bristol Palin will be receiving $14,000 to speak at a fundraiser for LifeHouse, a Christian home for unwed mothers in Louisville, Kentucky.
I can’t say I didn’t roll my eyes at that dollar amount. As someone who has for seven years been speaking on the opposite end of the spectrum, advocating comprehensive sex education and the right and ability for women of all ages to choose motherhood, adoption, or abortion, I can’t imagine raking in a sum that large, especially for a fundraiser. Most of the fundraisers I’ve keynoted across the country have been on a volunteer basis and I’ve never been paid more than $5000 dollars for a speech. Of course, my family and I are not as famous as Bristol and her family. And, of course, activists on all sides of all issues deserve to be paid for their work. Both Jessica Valenti and Monica of TransGRiot wrote eloquently earlier this month about the monetary value of activism and how the expectation that speakers be unpaid not only devalues that work but propagates an environment in which only the voices of those who are privileged enough to do it for free are heard. In any movement, this is a huge problem.
Today, Jezebel responded to the news with a post titled ‘Should Bristol Palin Be Paid This Much?’ in which Sadie Stein wonders how fiscally responsible it is for a non-profit organization to shell out such a sum when it’s desperately trying to raise money. Good point, perhaps, but questions about the dollar amount are sidestepping what I see as the real issue: the immeasurable amount of shame, misinformation, and propaganda this young woman is set to disseminate to other young people across the country.
Bristol Palin stepped into the spotlight as the pregnant, unwed, 17 year-old daughter of then relatively unknown vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The elder Palin used her daughter’s pregnancy, and the eventual birth of her grandson, to highlight her extreme anti-abortion policies and to advocate for more funding for the same abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that failed her daughter. For a brief moment, it looked as if Bristol might speak truth to power and her mother to expose the failure of the “just say no” approach when she told Fox’s Greta Van Susteran that abstinence is, “not realistic.”
Sadly, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Bristol has fashioned herself into an advocate for abstinence-only-until-marriage as a spokesperson for the Candies Foundation and has publicly advocated that all young women, without regard to their individual situations, choose young motherhood over adoption or abortion. This is undoubtedly the message she’ll carry to Lifehouse and similar groups willing to shell out the bucks to the famous teen mom.
As a reminder, despite a multi-million dollar federal tax dollar endorsement, abstinence-only programs were a resounding failure. The rates of unintended teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections rose during those dark years and teens who’d been exposed to the programs were found to be less likely to use contraception or protection upon engaging in sex. The programs deny young people medically accurate information about sexual health and often use gender stereotypes of the ‘men are raging hormonal beasts and women are prude’ variety to shame young people into abstaining, which, as Palin said herself, is often unrealistic. They deny not only information about safer sex to gay students but also deny their very existence, maintaining that the only “correct” sexual partnerships are those within a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. One more advocate for these programs, at the moment the federal government has finally decided to fund comprehensive sex education, is disheartening news for young people across the country.
Bristol Palin has also shown a startling ignorance of the reality of the lives of young women who become pregnant who do not have a famous, wealthy family. Unlike Palin, many young women don’t have sibling and nannies that can help them care for a new addition. Some are pregnant by family members, or their families are absent, or would kick them out of the house if they were to carry the pregnancy to term. Others don’t have any financial means at all to care for a baby. Others simply do not want to be mothers, maybe just not now or maybe not ever. Bristol and the organizations that will ask her to speak revere the concept of fetal life far more than the rights and concerns of real, living young women. What message can she possibly send to them other than, “If you don’t make the choices I did, shame on you.” Unless, of course, she’s talking about abstinence until marriage, in which case it’s, “do as I say, not as I do.”
I’m not saying Bristol Palin doesn’t have the right to be an activist speaker. Of course she does, even though I’ll probably disagree with everything she has to say. I’m saying that instead of focusing on the money she’s making, those of us on the side of reproductive justice need to be focusing on highlighting how harmful and yes, unrealistic, her message is. We owe young women who are pregnant accurate information on all their options and financial, emotional, and legal support for every single one of them. We owe them real depictions of the struggles, joys, and hardships of young motherhood. We owe those who’ve made different choices as much respect and support as Bristol seems to have found.
I don’t care how much I get paid to do it but this is my work. And me and the army of other young women who do the same will be countering the young Ms. Palin every step of the way.