Stop Shaming Drug-Using Moms Like Teen Mom 2's Jenelle Evans
You can see this play out every week on the MTV reality show Teen Mom 2, a spin-off of Sixteen and Pregnant, in which young mothers struggle to make ends meet now that they are responsible for another life.
MTV’s failure to truly grapple with issues like the difficulty of raising a kid on a low income has led many critics to call the show voyeurism rather than education. This week, we have another excuse to gawk and to judge.
On Wednesday, Teen Mom 2 star, 21-year-old Jenelle Evans, was arrested on heroin and assault charges following a violent dispute with her husband, Courtland Rogers, who was also charged with assault. It's not the first time she’s been in trouble. Evans’ run-ins with the law date back to October 2010, when she and her then-boyfriend were arrested with drug possession and breaking and entering. Since then, in addition to her latest charge, she’s been arrested for assault, harassing phone calls, violating probation by testing positive for drugs, and violating a domestic violence protection order.
Making judgments about the instability of the show's cast is central to its entertainment value. And Evans, who is regarded by many as one of the "worst" mothers on the show (though she did sign over custody of her son, Jace, to her mom in 2010), provides an easy target for judgmental viewers; there is little sympathy for a young mother who, by society’s understanding, chooses to use drugs during what should be the most important role of her life.
As Michelle Dean wrote in Bitch magazine, Teen Mom viewers develop opinions not “about the systemic disadvantage young and often single motherhood entails” but “opinions about whether these young women are doing the best they can in crappy and impossibly difficult situations....Opinions about whether they are being, above it all, ‘good moms.’”
It is the bad moms who help viewers feel better about themselves. Even Jezebel, a feminist website, mocked Evans’ latest arrest as her “working her way up to having enough mugshots to make her own novelty deck of cards.”
But pregnancy does not flip a “good-parenting” switch that magically matures young women into able caretakers. Conception is not a cure for substance abuse problems. Giving birth does not erase the scars of intimate partner violence.
On the contrary, young women like Jenelle Evans who engage in risky behavior like fighting, smoking and using drugs are more likely to become pregnant. Teenage pregnancy is also correlated with higher incidents of intimate partner abuse. The trend continues after women give birth. Young mothers are more likely to smoke, drink and use drugs than those who did not become pregnant. One study found that about a quarter of pregnant women in their late teens experienced violence before, during or after their pregnancies.
Still, when confronted with a troubled young mother dealing with substance abuse issues, we act surprised by her "bad behavior."
“We have a really difficult relationship with the notion that young women use drugs and sometimes they have children,” said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We don’t know how to reconcile those things, and tend to err on side of caution in wanting to make sure the child is protected, but at same time deny struggling young women access to services that could make a big difference in their lives.”
“As a nation, we like to say that we believe that addiction is a brain disease, and yet when we’re confronted with people that are clearly struggling with some difficulties related to substance misuse, we throw that theory out the window and treat them like villains,” Ralston added.
Rather than ask why these trends exist and work toward a solution, we treat them as if they are the fault -- or flaw -- of the mothers. Rather than providing young women with the tools to prevent substance abuse and unplanned pregnancy, we chastise them for failing to live up to an impossible standard.
“This is a medical issue, and this is what we forget,” Ralston said. “For all pregnant women, or anyone who is dependent on drugs, we have to make available whatever works for them.”
“Collective distaste for physical dependence” does not turn addiction into “a moral issue,” said Ralston, who stressed that drug abuse is rather a "biological reality.” Unfortunately, said Ralston, “our shaming culture is so strong and so pervasive that we would rather mock and vilify those women than ask how we can help redress something they seem to be clearly struggling with.”
The same factors that protect against teen pregnancy can help fight against teen drug abuse. Comprehensive and honest sex and drug education in schools, access to affordable healthcare, and income equality, to name a few, can help provide the life stability and knowledge necessary for teens’ choices to match up with what they want out of life.
For Jenelle Evans, help could have come in the form of opioid replacement therapy like methadone or suboxone, but the appropriate course of action is for her and a physician to decide.
Trashing Evans as a "train wreck" is not, however, threatening to her happiness alone. Women -- and women of color in particular -- --are the fastest-growing demographic in the prison system, and saw an 800% increase in incarceration in the past 30 years. Most women are locked up for drug or property crime, and they are more likely than jailed men to have drug dependency problems. Nonetheless, incarcerated women experience poorer health (and healthcare access) than both free women and incarcerated men.
In some states, authorities can, and do, charge drug-using women with crimes (including manslaughter and child abuse) against their fetuses. Child Protective Services will file complaints against mothers who use drugs, even if they are taking good care of their kids. They will remove children from mothers who, despite their problems with substance abuse, may still be the most stable and supportive home for their child.
As women are increasingly pulled into the drug war, the intersection between drug policy and reproductive health becomes more pronounced. Establishing a strong policy addressing both issues means leaving them to the medical, not legal, fields. At the same time, many of the loudest supporters of a woman's right to control her body vis a vis abortion and contraception are silent about the criminalization of another health issue plaguing women without access to care. Women with the least privilege and access to health care are at risk for pregnancy as well as drug abuse.
"The problem is compounded by treating people with this disease as criminals, rather than providing opportunities to get help to overcome their addictions," said Gretchen Burns Bergman, lead organizer of Moms United to End the War on Drugs. "Mothers need to speak out on these issues for the sake of their families and demand therapeutic and restorative drug policies."