Abstract Racialized and classed “risk” narratives of sexuality in the United States construct economically marginalized young women of color as sexually precocious, potential teen mothers who are likely to end up as burdens on the state. Some scholars underline the utility of recognizing reproductive inequalities involved in constructing teen motherhood as an unequivocal social problem, and they stress the importance of exploring teen mothers’ agency in navigating dominant risk narratives. Fewer studies analyze how young women who are not pregnant or parenting produce, reproduce, and challenge dominant risk narratives about their sexuality. Drawing on three years of intensive fieldwork among 13 young economically marginalized black and Latina women, I demonstrate how feminist ideologies of empowerment interact with pervasive risk narratives in the everyday lives of marginalized women coming of age in the “shadow of the women’s movement.” My observations show that the young women strategically navigate circulating risk narratives about their sexuality by constructing an identity of distance characterized by feminist ideals of independence, self-respect, and self-development to distance themselves from these narratives. However, as they construct this identity of distance, they also stigmatize young mothers and police their own bodies and the bodies of their friends and sisters. I draw on women-of-color feminism to reflect on the uncomfortable relationship—evident in the process of a group of young women’s identity construction—between feminist ideologies of empowerment and bourgeois heteronormativity that marginalizes young women’s sexualities by constructing teen motherhood as inherently problematic. youth, risk discourse, feminist empowerment, women-of-color feminism, reproductive justice Dominant narratives about early parenthood in the United States characterize it as an obstinate social problem. They describe teen childbirth as an epidemic in marginalized communities, treat black and Latina women as sexually precocious, and regard men in these communities as predatory (Ferguson 2000; Fields 2008; García 2009; Lopez 2008). These hegemonic risk narratives emerge collectively from the media, popular discourse, social policies, cultural attitudes about sexuality, and academic scholarship (see Barcelos and Gubrium 2014; Wilson and Huntington 2006). Feminist responses to hegemonic risk discourses around teen sexuality and parenthood can be broadly categorized into two paradigms: feminist empowerment and reproductive justice. The feminist “empowerment paradigm” (see Schalet 2009:154) emphasizes women’s independence and self-development, and underlines young women’s sexual desires, subjectivity, and experiences. Scholars surmise that sexual agency empowers young women to use contraception to prepare for sexual intercourse and protect themselves from harm, including early parenthood (e.g., Carpenter 2005; Martin 1996; Thompson 1995; Tolman 2002). The reproductive justice framework (see Luna and Luker 2013), situated within women-of-color feminism, questions the way that teen pregnancy is constructed as inherently and ubiquitously problematic by academics, policy makers, and the media. Scholars adopting the reproductive justice framework emphasize the racialized, classed, and gendered discourses that regulate and pathologize black and brown women’s bodies while privileging a white, heterosexual, middle-class life trajectory where childbirth comes after economic independence and marriage (Fuentes, Bayetti Flores, and Gonzalez-Rojas 2010; see Asencio 2002; Fields 2008; García 2009; Lopez 2008; Mann 2013; Morris 2007; Roberts 1998). Recent scholarship that employs the reproductive justice framework has incorporated the voices of pregnant and parenting young women in research and policy agendas. This scholarship finds that the experiences of parenting and pregnant young women complicate the current social problem framing of early parenthood as exclusively disempowering and limiting to young parents (Barcelos and Gubrium 2014; Fields 2005; Kelly 2000). In contrast, I ask: How do young economically marginalized women of color who are not pregnant or parenting experience the dominant narratives around early parenthood? This is a critical question because these young women have to navigate a discursive context that regards economically marginalized black and Latina youth as potential teen mothers and impending liabilities for the state (Barcelos and Gubrium 2014; Gutierrez 2008; Roberts 1998, 2014). Understanding how they experience dominant risk narratives can further illuminate the hegemonic nature of these narratives. I spent three years engaged in participant observation among a group of 13 economically marginalized young black and Latina women who were not pregnant or parenting1. My observations reveal that feminist ideologies interact with risk narratives in the everyday lives of these women. I found that these youth subscribed to dominant narratives (see Chase 2005 on narrative inquiry) that cast early parenthood as an epidemic in marginalized communities and construct their sexualities as risky. They strategically navigated these risk narratives by using feminist narratives to construct their own identities as agentic, careful, ambitious, and independent women who are morally different from and superior to the few of their peers who were young mothers. I call their strategic effort to craft a sense of self in relation to their stigmatized peers an “identity of distance.” Christie A. Barcelos and Aline C. Gubrium (2014) point out that narrative analysis offers insights into how people use narrative strategies to navigate their discursive contexts and make meaning in everyday life (see also Chase 2005; Gubrium 2006). I argue that constructing an identity of distance allowed the young women in my study to hold an “unproblematic” identity (Barcelos and Gubrium 2014:466). Their identity constitutes both real and imaginary distance from their young pregnant or parenting female peers. In the process of constructing an identity of distance the young women stigmatize and police their own bodies and the bodies of their friends and sisters. Their relational strategy to navigate risk narratives around teen parenthood helps to reproduce dominant race, class, and gender discourses that emphasize the need to police all economically marginalized black and brown women’s bodies. These narratives reinforce middle-class white heteronormative standards and threaten bonds between family members and friends. My findings highlight the effects of these narratives on young, marginalized women of color. I use these findings to reflect on how the feminist empowerment paradigm can engage with racism and classism. A FEMINIST URBAN ETHNOGRAPHY: RISK, EMPOWERMENT, AND REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE Historically, urban ethnographers paid detailed attention to romantic and sexual relationships to understand early pregnancy and parenthood trends among economically and racially marginalized youth.2 These scholars offered structural narratives to explain teen parenthood as a response to constrained opportunities (e.g., the young women desire welfare checks and the young men want to establish their masculinity) and their lack of deep connections with parents and teachers (Anderson 1999; Edin and Kefalas 2005; Kaplan 1997; Liebow 1966; Wilson 1996). These structural narratives challenge cultural narratives that privilege individual responsibility ideals and point to moral deprivation or “wrong” families (see Kelly 2000). Yet both structural and cultural narratives define teen motherhood as a social problem, a perspective that drives attempts to alleviate teen pregnancy and parenthood as a solution to young black and Latina women’s socioeconomic marginalization (Barcelos and Gubrium 2014). One result is that the focus on teen pregnancy and parenthood has meant much less focus on challenging the racism, classism, and sexism that limit educational and occupational opportunities for these young people. My participant observation among young women who are not pregnant or parenting allows me to highlight how defining teen parenthood as a social problem directly influences their lives. Next, I discuss how I draw on the feminist empowerment paradigm, the reproductive justice framework, and women-of-color feminism to develop a critical feminist urban ethnography that explains how marginalized young women navigate dominant risk narratives. Studies that adopt the feminist empowerment paradigm argue that growing up under the “shadow of the women's movement” drives contemporary young women to employ feminist ideals of independence, self-development, and self-respect as they make decisions regarding work, motherhood, and marriage (Aronson 2008:57; Gerson 2009; Hamilton and Armstrong 2009; Stacey 1990). Scholars emphasize the need to take young women’s sexual subjectivity seriously and argue that familiarity with their own bodies and sexual desires encourages healthy sexual agency. Sexual intercourse itself should not to be denounced for disease or pregnancy. Instead, economic and cultural resources must be made available to these young women so that they can attain sexual agency (Carpenter 2005; Martin 1996; Schalet 2009; Thompson 1995; Tolman 2002). Existing studies that examine how racially and economically marginalized women engage with the feminist empowerment paradigm argue that they are often indifferent to the label feminist, and may not intentionally or explicitly draw on feminist discourse, but in fact incorporate and support feminist ideologies in their daily lives (see Aronson 2003; Edin and Kefalas 2005). For example, in a study of marriage and childbirth among economically marginalized women, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas (2005) argue that feminism has influenced an interpretation of marriage wherein it is no longer central to women’s identity. They find that economically marginalized women can now choose single motherhood because they perceive marriage as a goal that can be reached after they have achieved other things, such as economic independence. An emerging body of scholarship, situated within women-of-color feminism, emphasizes the theoretical and policy benefits of adopting a reproductive justice framework to better understand early parenthood (see Barcelos and Gubrium 2014; Fuentes et al. 2010). Scholars who adopt this framework go beyond emphasizing young women’s sexual agency, such as the right to contraception and safe sex. They also highlight a particular sociohistorical process through which teen pregnancy became culturally and economically unacceptable. They argue that privileging a heterosexual middle-class transition to adulthood reflects a racialized and classed construction of economically marginalized black and Latina women’s sexuality (Bettie 2003; Fields 2008; García 2009, 2012; Ginsburg and Rapp 1995; Lawlor and Shaw 2002; Luker 1997; Mann 2013). These scholars draw on women-of-color feminism to argue that the white feminist agenda around young women’s sexual subjectivity does not fully and critically engage how racism, heteronormativity, and classism intersect to marginalize those who diverge from normative feminist ideals of empowerment (Collins 1990; Crenshaw 1991; Delgado 2002; Hurtado 2003; Lorde 1984; Mann 2013; Schalet 2009). They observe that independence, individualism, self-development, and the opposition between self and community are middle-class, white, bourgeois, Western constructs that define women who do not embrace such ideals as deficient (Bulbeck 1998; Purkayastha 2012). The young women in my study engaged with the feminist empowerment paradigm, while also navigating dominant discourses that frame teen parenthood as a social problem in their community—they experienced racial-sexual-class oppression simultaneously (see Schalet 2009). This ideological framework of risk allowed them to engage in an “oppressive identity” construction by “othering” (Schwalbe and Mason-Schrock 1996:139) young pregnant or parenting women in their community as individuals who lacked the ability to pursue social mobility and empowerment. While identity constructions can entail distinctions from others, “othering” becomes a deleterious process in the context of inequality (Schwalbe and Mason-Schrock 1996). The young women’s precarious position in which they “othered” their friends and sisters as a way to establish themselves as empowered young women underlines how identity politics in marginalized communities often reproduces the meaning system that defined their oppression in the first place (Cohen 2010; Ferguson 2000; Fields 2008; Gamson 1995; García 2012). Centering the experiences of economically marginalized young women of color who are not pregnant or parenting, I pursued the following questions in my research: How do young black and Latina women who are not pregnant or parenting navigate dominant narratives that construct their sexualities as risky? How do the young women’s strategies for navigating risk narratives reproduce or resist hegemonic discourses around race, class, and gender? How can the young women’s strategies of navigating the dominant narratives be theorized to engage the feminist empowerment paradigm with racism and classism? DATA AND METHODS I draw on three years of ethnographic observations among a group of 13 young self-identified black and Latina women living in a socioeconomically marginalized community in the United States. From June 2010 to June 2013, I conducted intensive observations, spending five to seven days each week with the youth, usually six to eight hours per day. I utilized an inductive approach to analyze the data; I did not approach my data with preconceived categories or research questions around early parenthood, but rather let categories and research questions emerge as I analyzed data collected as part of a larger study that broadly examined 16 (3 men and 13 women) youth’s transitions to adulthood. Soon after I began my fieldwork, early pregnancy, ideals of independence and self-reliance, stigma around early parenting, moral identity, distancing strategies, policing of bodies, and a pregnancy epidemic emerged as prominent and recurrent themes in my field notes. I began paying close attention to, and coded data around, how the young women who were not parenting or pregnant talked about young parents, how they talked about their own sexualities, how they policed their own bodies and the bodies of their sisters and friends as a way to prevent early pregnancy, and how this shaped their own imagined and actual life trajectories. I analyzed my observations during my fieldwork and after I left the field site. I did not utilize qualitative data software but was guided by the research questions that emerged from the initial codes and themes. Throughout the process, I engaged with my data while writing my field notes every night and listening to the interviews, and while coding and recoding my field notes. I read widely and wrote weekly analytical and thematic memos based on emerging codes and my evolving knowledge of existing scholarship on poverty and early pregnancy, written by various types of scholars, including urban ethnographers, feminists, and scholars of race, and incorporating the feminist empowerment paradigm, women of color feminism, and the reproductive justice framework. I repeated this process multiple times until the arguments that I present in this article became coherent. This ethnographic approach not only offered advantageous opportunities for collecting rich data, but is particularly appropriate for my research because young women who are not pregnant or parenting are not typically invited into academic or policy conversations regarding early motherhood. Participant observation of their everyday lives allowed me to gather unanticipated insights, discoveries, and complexities about how they thought about, and discussed, pregnancy and parenting (Chambliss and Schutt 2003). These observations enabled me to conclude that negatively judgmental stories about early parenthood and risk narratives about the sexuality of young women of color affect the everyday lives of young women who are not pregnant or parents. The insights I gathered also allow me to demonstrate how the empowerment paradigm is complicated by race and class oppressions in everyday life. The young women I observed were staff members at a nonprofit organization, which I call the Crystal Center (CC), located in the town of Crystal in a Northeastern state. I met the youth when I began volunteering at CC, which welcomed my unpaid labor as they were understaffed. Broadly, the organization provided a particular type of material resource to the community. I do not identify the specific resource the organization provided in order to maintain its anonymity. Since none of the youth expressed any particular interest in the goals of the organization and most of them left it soon after I started my fieldwork, any selection bias in this regard is limited. As I volunteered day-after-day at CC, my relationship with the youth evolved. My status as a young woman of color in her mid-twenties with a college degree—a goal that most of the youth aspired to attain after they finished high school—helped me build relationships with the youth. I also used conversations about my country of origin (in the global South) as an effective icebreaker. My youthful look and disposition helped the youth feel comfortable with me and they spoke freely about their romantic and sexual experiences. They did not hesitate to ask me questions about my own experiences, and I entertained these questions within reasonable boundaries. I asked the youth whether I could write about their experiences with romance, family, school, and work as they transitioned to adulthood, and they all enthusiastically agreed. Over time, I met their romantic and sexual partners, their families, their other employers, and their acquaintances. Each day, I spent time either with the group as a whole, with a few youth, or a single youth—along with their family, friends, or romantic/sexual partners. I primarily decided whom to spend time with based on the significance of the events in question and the particular needs of the youth (for example, needing a ride to school or work or assistance with an application). I also gave more emphasis to events that were likely to generate major analytical payoff (e.g., if someone wanted to visit a healthcare center for contraception; see Desmond 2012). I ate meals with the youth in their homes and sometimes slept there. I visited out-of-state relatives with some of them. I also spent holidays with them. Generally, I attempted to situate myself in their lives as intensely as possible. Although the youth initially identified me as a researcher, over time I became more of a friend (see Stack 1974). I constantly took notes on my phone, often in elaborate forms, to remind myself of important events and conversations. I tape-recorded interviews that I conducted with the youth over the course of my study to either clarify things or ask direct questions, as well as some observations. Every night, I transformed my brief notes into elaborate field notes on my computer, writing in detail about the day’s events. I also had multiple informal conversations with key individuals in the young women’s lives: parents, relatives, CC coworkers, employers, and romantic partners. I intentionally refrain from using long quotations that were not recorded. The quotations that I do use are very close approximations. The participants did not receive any direct compensation for this study. I tried my best not to inconvenience anyone with my demands. Instead, I attempted to make myself available based on their needs, offering rides and assistance with schoolwork or job searches/applications. However, power relations embedded in ethnographic works are complex and I was constantly sensitive to relationships of authority and subordination. Following Sandra Harding (2015), I attempted to collect and present data while keeping in mind how research influences the lives of marginalized groups. I frequently discussed the research findings with the young people in my study, solicited their feedback, and incorporate their suggestions in final research outcomes. In agreement with the Institutional Review board of the University of Connecticut where I completed my doctoral work, I acquired verbal informed consent from the youth in order to ensure the protection of their identities. I use pseudonyms for the people, places, and organizations in this study, and I have altered other identifying details. I came to know the small city of Crystal well after spending time with several of its residents, working in several organizations, attending community meetings, and so forth. Crystal has a population of about 28,000. Roughly 60 percent of the residents are white, 20 percent are black, and 20 percent are Latina/o (U.S. Census Bureau 2016). Most of the wealthy residents are white and live in the south end of the city close to the beach. Most of the nonwhite economically marginalized residents live near the north end or in the center of the city. The youth I observed lived in or near to a subsidized housing complex in a poor working-class area of town. Majority of the young women attended a public high school in the city (Crystal High), and three attended a technical school. The youth’s families and friends either worked at minimum-wage jobs or received welfare. Table 1 presents demographic information for each of the 13 youth in the sample, as well as information about their trajectories from high school to work/college. Table 1. Basic Information about Study Participants Name Age in2010 Race(Self-identified) Householda Current Status Lexus Martin 17 black single mother community college and work Alize Robinson 18 Latina single mother community college to full-time work Angie Martinez 18 Latina single mother community college to three jobs Shivana Abraham 20 black both parents full-time work AJb 18 Latina single mother four-year university admission, then military Lena Diaz 17 Latina single mother community college and work Cassy Alfonso 17 Latina both parents community college and work Brianna Green 17 black single mother four-year university dropout, then work, then community college and work Evelyn Salas 17 black foster mother four-year college admission, then military Ashley Florez 20 Latina single mother community college to work, then community college and work, then full-time work Letisha Gathers 18 Latina single mother four-year university dropout Cherelle Brown 17 black single mother four-year university and work Gigi Phillips 17 black father and stepmother four-year university to full-time work Name Age in2010 Race(Self-identified) Householda Current Status Lexus Martin 17 black single mother community college and work Alize Robinson 18 Latina single mother community college to full-time work Angie Martinez 18 Latina single mother community college to three jobs Shivana Abraham 20 black both parents full-time work AJb 18 Latina single mother four-year university admission, then military Lena Diaz 17 Latina single mother community college and work Cassy Alfonso 17 Latina both parents community college and work Brianna Green 17 black single mother four-year university dropout, then work, then community college and work Evelyn Salas 17 black foster mother four-year college admission, then military Ashley Florez 20 Latina single mother community college to work, then community college and work, then full-time work Letisha Gathers 18 Latina single mother four-year university dropout Cherelle Brown 17 black single mother four-year university and work Gigi Phillips 17 black father and stepmother four-year university to full-time work a This column indicates whom the young women lived with. b AJ wanted to be called AJ. Therefore, I do not assign her a last name. Table 1. Basic Information about Study Participants Name Age in2010 Race(Self-identified) Householda Current Status Lexus Martin 17 black single mother community college and work Alize Robinson 18 Latina single mother community college to full-time work Angie Martinez 18 Latina single mother community college to three jobs Shivana Abraham 20 black both parents full-time work AJb 18 Latina single mother four-year university admission, then military Lena Diaz 17 Latina single mother community college and work Cassy Alfonso 17 Latina both parents community college and work Brianna Green 17 black single mother four-year university dropout, then work, then community college and work Evelyn Salas 17 black foster mother four-year college admission, then military Ashley Florez 20 Latina single mother community college to work, then community college and work, then full-time work Letisha Gathers 18 Latina single mother four-year university dropout Cherelle Brown 17 black single mother four-year university and work Gigi Phillips 17 black father and stepmother four-year university to full-time work Name Age in2010 Race(Self-identified) Householda Current Status Lexus Martin 17 black single mother community college and work Alize Robinson 18 Latina single mother community college to full-time work Angie Martinez 18 Latina single mother community college to three jobs Shivana Abraham 20 black both parents full-time work AJb 18 Latina single mother four-year university admission, then military Lena Diaz 17 Latina single mother community college and work Cassy Alfonso 17 Latina both parents community college and work Brianna Green 17 black single mother four-year university dropout, then work, then community college and work Evelyn Salas 17 black foster mother four-year college admission, then military Ashley Florez 20 Latina single mother community college to work, then community college and work, then full-time work Letisha Gathers 18 Latina single mother four-year university dropout Cherelle Brown 17 black single mother four-year university and work Gigi Phillips 17 black father and stepmother four-year university to full-time work a This column indicates whom the young women lived with. b AJ wanted to be called AJ. Therefore, I do not assign her a last name. RISK, FEMINISM, AND THE IDENTITY OF DISTANCE Below, I discuss how young black and Latina women who are not pregnant or parenting confront and navigate risk narratives about their sexualities and teen parenthood. I discuss my data in two separate but related sections. First, I show how school personnel, nonprofit workers, families, adults in the community, and the youth of Crystal themselves collectively constructed teen parenthood as an epidemic in their community. I also describe how the young women internalized and reproduced these narratives as they policed their own bodies and those of other women around them. Second, I demonstrate the complex ways in which these young women negotiated this dominant risk discourse into a dialogue that constructed an identity of distance. I show how they drew on feminist empowerment ideals of independence, self-development, and self-respect to distance themselves from pejorative stories about teen pregnancy. Constructing and Reproducing Risk Discourse in Crystal Schools, community organizations, families, and the youth of Crystal collectively constructed teen pregnancy as an epidemic in their community (see also Ferguson 2000; Fine 1988; García 2009; Mann 2013). They associated pregnancy with disease and danger and designated every young woman’s body as a potential pregnancy site. For example, an employee at CC emphatically told me during my first month of work there that “48 percent of the youth here have STI [sexually transmitted illnesses], that’s like little ways from it becoming declared as an epidemic by CDC [Centers for Disease Control and prevention], and half of them end up pregnant.” Consistent with prior research (e.g., García 2009; Mann 2013), I found that organizations and institutions in Crystal privilege the middle-class heteronormativity that favors a particular life course where childbirth follows economic independence and/or marriage. Young Motherhood as a Social Problem At Crystal High, sex education primarily involved scare tactics that linked sex to illness and pregnancy. For example, in 2012, the public high school invited an HIV-positive woman to deliver a lecture on the perils of sex and teen pregnancy. The same evening, summarizing the talk, Angie—who was determined to delay childbirth—told me, her voice shaking with fear, “She [the woman delivering the talk] looked like a fucking zombie, that’s whatchu get for being a ho’. And they [those who become pregnant] still don’t get it.” Angie’s paternal grandparents had brought her to Crystal from Puerto Rico when she was six months old because her 19-year-old mother had begun seeing a man who was an alcoholic, and Angie had worked two jobs while going to school since she turned 14. Angie imagined that the hardships she had to confront were a result of “her mother’s bad decisions [to have a child while young].” Angie was afraid that neglecting important lessons regarding their sexualities could result in the same fate for other young women. The same year, when Planned Parenthood distributed condoms in the school without the principal’s direct approval, the teachers told the students to return the condoms. The youth discussed the incident after school with humor and confusion. AJ explained why she thought the school had asked students to return the condoms: “Cause, yo, niggas never gonna know how to use that shit [condoms], and then come up with huge-ass bellies with their baby-daddy in jail. Better not have sex if that’s how you gonna end up!” In the absence of alternative explanations, the others reluctantly accepted the one offered by AJ: “Really? I don’t know, I guess,” Angie said hesitantly. The youth were perplexed by the way that the school attempted to regulate their sexuality. They were taught that sex, especially unprotected sex, is “dangerous.” Then the school offered condoms for practicing safe sex. Then school officials told them to return the condoms. The youth interpreted this backtracking as a sign that school authorities mistrust their ability to practice safe sex. My conversations with school personnel on various occasions reflected this uncertainty, mistrust, and confusion about the youth’s sexuality. For example, during one “Beach Cleaning Day” in Crystal, a high school teacher who regularly volunteered with me said: Ahh, it’s not just teaching, it’s having to constantly make sure they don’t do things like get pregnant, because then school is over … and I just don’t get why they get pregnant. They know what sex can do, and I mean, they can have sex. Then if you end up pregnant, though, then maybe just protect yourself and don’t do it. The teacher acknowledged that youth had sexual desires along with their right to enjoy their sexuality, but she also reckoned that they were not responsible enough and could end up becoming pregnant. Since the youth were free but irresponsible, the only solution seemed to be constant vigilance to rein in their irresponsible behavior (see also García 2009). Other neighborhood organizations and institutions expressed similar concern with teen pregnancy and took measures to regulate the youth’s sexualities. Multiple neighborhood organizations in Crystal that work toward a variety of goals, including teaching art, providing assistance for college admission, and giving anti-violence training, all intentionally and regularly reiterated to young people the importance of avoiding early parenthood. During one community meeting, an older white woman who ran the nonprofit organization that provided anti-violence training urged all organizations to collaborate in their efforts to facilitate marginalized youth’s transition to adulthood through avoiding teen pregnancy: “If you make it to 20 without a child, you’ve achieved something, and to teach that should be all our goals. Because if you’re giving them [youth] skills you have to give them [the] opportunity to use skills instead of becoming mothers.” Other attendees at the meeting nodded in agreement. This illustrates the general inordinate stress placed on preventing pregnancy among youth of color at the cost of not only recognition of other aspects of sexuality (Mann 2013), but also holistic support for marginalized youth’s transition to adulthood, including access to education and work. To help teens avoid pregnancy, organizations in Crystal offered information about birth control as well as the perils of early motherhood, which benefitted the youth. But they also policed interactions between heterosexual romantic partners. For example, one summer, a worker I had befriended at the city’s youth services office asked me to chaperone a group of high school students on a fieldtrip. This trip was organized by a nonprofit organization that focused on “youth development” in conjunction with the city’s youth services. The group asked the chaperones to look out for young men and women trying to escape supervision together. I didn’t fully realize what this “looking out” entailed and no one explained it to me, which reflected a general unwillingness to directly construct young women of color as sexually precocious. Then, as I was eating lunch at a table outside the house where the workshops were held, a student ran up to me and complained that a young couple had gone off behind the bushes: “They ran away there” (pointing in the direction they went). A nonprofit worker sitting with me left her lunch and hurriedly followed the young student to look for the couple. Ten minutes later, trying to catch her breath back at the lunch table, the nonprofit worker exclaimed, “Ah, can’t let them out of sight, Ranita, or you end up with teen moms!” Like teachers, the nonprofit workers assumed that these marginalized youth were having sex whenever they could, were too irresponsible to explore their sexuality, that sex always led to pregnancy, and that early motherhood was inherently wrong (see also Fine 1988; García 2009; Mann 2013). This preoccupation with youth’s sexuality as risky also led the young people themselves to remain vigilant and police their peers, as I will discuss below. Families also perceived early motherhood as a social problem. They primarily viewed it as a major cause of poverty. Older siblings and mothers used elaborate and creative narratives to routinely warn younger ones to avoid pregnancy. For instance, one day I visited the house where Ashley’s sister Maria and her boyfriend Johnny lived. As we sat in their young son Jojo’s room he came in, jumped onto his bed and screamed, “You want some water? You know I’m not kicking their [his friends’] ass at school no more.” Ashley and I laughed hysterically. Ashley told me: You can have a full blast conversation with this little man! He is very smart because both Maria and Johnny had him when they were fully mature, and when mature bodies have babies they’re real smart. I keep telling Siete [her young sister], girl, you’ll have babies before me, ’cause she got no control like Maria and me! Ashley was determined to pave a path toward higher education for her younger sisters, and believed that avoiding early pregnancy was necessary if one wanted to go to college. The older sisters in Ashley’s family preached to the younger ones that waiting until later in life to give birth results in smarter children. The families and youth negotiated dominant teen motherhood discourses precisely by creating their own narratives that, in turn, reproduced dominant narrative themes (see Barcelos and Gubrium 2014). While such narratives may have implications for childrearing, as some research demonstrates the benefits of growing up in homes with adults who are economically stable (e.g., Amato and Booth 2000), other research also demonstrates that marginalized women may have children early in order to navigate shorter life expectancies (Geronimus 1996, 1997). Policing Unpredictable Bodies The young women I observed at least partially accepted, internalized, and reproduced the view that their sexualities were precarious and consequently came to regard their own bodies as unpredictable. For example, AJ did not trust her body, believed that she could become pregnant at any time, and used racialized sexual stereotypes to frame her ideas. One day, AJ decided to go to Planned Parenthood to obtain birth control and asked me to drive her there. I casually inquired what type of birth control she had planned on getting and she revealed that she wanted “the rod” (form of birth control inserted under the skin): AJ: Ima get the rod ’cause one of my cuz [cousin], she got it too. And I don’t want it to come out of my lady parts like, whenever, I want the most sure-shot one. Ranita: Oh, ok. AJ: I’m dumb ’cause, like, Gio [her boyfriend], he crazy, that nigga! I’m not even getting’ laid! Cause he be wanting to take it slow … I don’t even know why Ima have to get birth control, but I told him I will get it anyway ’cause he be like no get it, and all. But I don’t wanna take no chances and end up with a baby-daddy … All these bitches in school with no-good boys. Like I’m mad scared of that shit, honestly, ’cause I think that’s what’s wrong with our community, like Latino community, all these girls gettin’ pregnant and we stuck in the ghetto. Ranita: But your sisters are not pregnant. AJ: Yeah, they’ll be soon, you’ll see. It’s crazy how it is. Like we [are] like rats giving birth. That’s why I wanna get this rod thing in my body so, you know, this shit can’t happen to me, like with condoms and pills and whatnot. Once we reached Planned Parenthood, AJ checked in while I waited in the seating area. About 45 minutes later she was called in by the nurse’s aide, only to return without the birth control she had wanted: The lady doctor just told me I can use condoms and come in later for the other thing ’cause I don’t have my mother’s social security and her proof of income and whatnot, they need that. AJ’s insistence on birth control despite not being regularly sexually active reflects personal responsibility and positive implications of her sex education. Yet it also reflects how she policed her own body, interpreting pregnancy risk in relation to her membership in a particular ethnic community. The women in my study often drew upon racialized sexual stereotypes that they imagined automatically put them at risk for teen pregnancy (García 2009; Mann 2013). Of course, teachers and other school personnel, as well as workers and volunteers at the nonprofits, often spoke in racially coded ways about how women in some communities were more likely to give birth (e.g., García 2009). For instance, a teacher told Angie that “women like her” would probably become mothers before they went to college. Angie interpreted this as “’cause I’m Latina and like from the ghetto, so I’m gonna … I might get pregnant.” The youth also interpreted risk through the men in their community. They were more likely to police their sexuality and thought they were at a higher risk of teen pregnancy when they were partnered with young men without jobs or degrees. For example, Alize dated Ben, a young black man who delivered above-average performance in school and was very invested in attending college. After two months, Alize and Ben began sexual activity and talked often about their future together. She described a life that included a house, a car, full-time jobs, and children. Even though Alize considered Ben a desirable partner, the relationship ended a few months after Ben started attending college in a different state. Alize took a full-time, minimum-wage job a few months after graduating from high school, and around this time she started dating Mike, who was two years older, a high school dropout, and an aspiring “b-boy” (also called a break-dancer). During a conversation about this new relationship, Alize shared: Nah, I’m not gonna give my cherry3 so easy! Girl’s gotta protect her thing, you know. I’m no ghetto girl who sleeps with wannabe nigga rappers, and just be stuck in the ghetto. I wanna do my nails, not change diapers! Although Alize had not worried about pregnancy when she was partnered with Ben—despite their sexual intimacy—she chose not to be sexually intimate with Mike because she might get “stuck in the ghetto … changing diapers.” The young women I observed, drew upon narratives, perpetuated by social institutions and organizations, that define young men of color as inept by virtue of their membership in certain ethnic communities (see also Ferguson 2000; Rios 2011). For instance, all of the women at one point or another acknowledged the importance of having a romantic partner who “had a future and was not ghetto,” and “ghetto” was typically associated with the risk of early pregnancy. Ashley drew on such racialization—imagining an “acceptable” Puerto Rican life partner as rare. For example, she explained to me that she wanted to marry a Puerto Rican man who “understood her culture,” but “all Puerto Ricans in Crystal [were] ghetto” and she “did not want to end up like ghetto girls who like to get pregnant.” Thus, the risk of early motherhood and consequent blocked opportunities didn’t just lie in their own bodies, it also depended on the kind of men they were involved with. Crystal’s school personnel and non-profit workers also perpetuated dominant narratives as they continuously constructed young men of color in the community as potentially violent and not invested in the labor market. For example, the youth center and other non-profit workers often organized “non-violence” training, claiming that Crystal youth needed to learn discipline before they could acquire and maintain jobs or go to college. These attitudes filtered through to the young women themselves and their views about their community’s young men. Identity of Distance: Managing Risk Discourse through Feminist Ideals of Empowerment The 13 young women I observed negotiated risk narratives about teen parenthood by constructing an identity of distance. By “identity of distance,” I mean that they established their identity as independent, self-reliant, and ambitious individuals to distance themselves from the stigma of the “early motherhood epidemic,” and pregnant and parenting women. They drew on ideals of feminist empowerment to claim their identity of distance (Aronson 2008; Stacey 1991). However, in the process they too stigmatized pregnant or parenting women. While watching a basketball game at Crystal High, for example, Gigi pointed to a pregnant girl in her class and said, “She is one of them who wanna talk about baby-daddies and show off her pregnant-ass belly in gym class like it’s some sorta fashion. These bitches be stupid!” Cherelle added, “They be thinking, ‘Ooooh, Ima show off and talk about my baby-daddy to you in gym class’! They got no self-respect, that’s what it is … My boo this, my boo that. Girl, your boo don’t even get you Subway!” According to Gigi, “showing off” a pregnant belly—especially when the father did not have resources—was problematic because “For me, I wanna do my nails and my job and college. Here I am planning for college and all these girls wanna do is change diaper. Like what the fuck you want that for.” Gigi did start attending a four-year university after high school, but she couldn’t keep her scholarship after her first semester and therefore dropped out. In this context, “do my nails” signified the young women’s desire to engage in self-care rather than caring for their children. Indeed, they continuously juxtaposed the positive self-care experience of “doing nails” to the burdensome, stigmatized parenting role of “changing diapers” (see also Barcelos and Gubrium 2014). Expressing a similar sentiment about childbirth, Angie said: “Get a life and be someone, not give birth and be someone.” The young women drew on their desire and plans for self-development to show that they were not the same as other girls in their communities who were at risk of becoming pregnant. AJ told her boyfriend and me about her future plans: My generation disgusts me! I’m thankful for the choices I've made, ’cause [pointing to her boyfriend and looking at me] he ain’t like them other niggas. We have ambitions so it’s not like my life goal is being his baby-mama. And the people I now surround myself around, nothing but good vibes. I would hate to see myself not graduating, no job, pregnant, and living off of my parents for the rest of my life, no future and feeding drama … Someday, when I look back at everything I will be able to thank myself for steering into the right path of being a smart young lady. According to AJ, her ambitions made her morally superior, and only women who pursue a similar life path deserve support and respect—even though most of the young women confronted significant barriers to pursuing higher educational opportunities while postponing childbirth. Understanding how these youth construct boundaries that define their identity of distance highlights the uncomfortable relationship between feminist empowerment and the middle-class heteronormativity that marginalizes young women’s sexualities (see Mann 2013). The youth internalize middle-class white ideals about the inherent value of a life course in which education, jobs, and marriage precede childbirth. They deploy victim-blame ideologies to stigmatize women who deviate from this path, and they denounce early motherhood using feminist ideals of independence and self-development. For example, an underlying assumption in Gigi’s, Cherelle’s, and Angie’s comments about their desires to postpone pregnancy is their belief that women who give birth lose the opportunity to become independent, self-reliant, and socioeconomically mobile because they are stuck at home caring for their children. However, the public denouncement of early parenting in the United States, especially in economically marginalized black and Latino communities, overlooks an important fact: postponing childbirth does not have the same implications for socioeconomically marginalized women of color, who already lack the educational and occupational opportunities they aim to access, as it does for middle-class white women (Geronimus 2003). Powerful disapproval of early parenting can maintain white middle-class cultural supremacy (Geronimus 2003; Mann 2013). The young women of color stigmatized not only young parenting and pregnant women, but also “potential” teen mothers. They defined these potential teen mothers as young women who spent time with bona fide “gangbangers,” showed little interest in or ambition toward formal education, and did not commit to regular work. The youth talked about potential teen mothers as “victims” of early motherhood who expressed no desire for social mobility, education, and financial independence. In short, these victims did not adopt a middle-class “self-development”-oriented identity (Hamilton and Armstrong 2009). The following conversation, in which Lexus and AJ caricatured a girl they thought likely to become pregnant, illustrates this point. AJ: Yo, I’m five weeks pregnant, ooooh [high pitched voice], I’m going to tell my mother after Christmas or I won’t get no presents. You wanna see my ultrasound pictures? Lexus (laughing uncontrollably): I’m tellin’ it in math class tomorrow everybody, but I don’t know who’s my baby-father, oooh! AJ (laughing hysterically): Stop! Lexus! Relax, you making me get cramps, it’s the baby moving, ouch! Lexus: ’Cause I’m really pregnant by my man, damn oooooh! [Her laughter abruptly ends.] For real though, it’s crazy how all these girls get pregnant. When I asked Lexus whether the friend they were talking about was indeed pregnant, she responded: “No, but she will be. You don’t know her. She a slut. She dates these gangbangers and don’t even do work, like she’s always getting mad grades taken away” (Lexus was referring to a practice where students lost grades for truancy). AJ added, “Like she even got a job at the mall where my cousin works, and she even got fired ’cause she was always wearing these tight-ass clothes and coming to work late.” The young women enacted the pregnancy panic by constructing the typical vulnerable would-be teen mother as an unambitious woman who dates men involved with gangs and drugs. Research demonstrates that truancy sanctions and other punitive disciplining practices, combined with classed and racialized judgments in the workplace, disproportionately disadvantage racially and economically marginalized youth (Moss and Tilly 1996; Neckerman and Kirschenman 1991; Welch and Payne 2010). The youth I studied interpreted inequalities reflected in potentially discriminatory practices at school and work as indications of potential “victimhood” and explained structural inequalities as a matter of personal shortcomings. Such racialized and classed interpretations of the early parenthood epidemic were pervasive among the youth’s understandings of young parenthood as an obstacle to class mobility and in their account of those facing limited opportunities as potential teen parents. Like Cherelle, Gigi, and Angie, Lexus and AJ constructed the potential teen mother as someone who is not interested in the type of self-development they valued. The young women thought that early motherhood was problematic because it created daily constraints on socioeconomic mobility or even precluded them from enjoying life (see Barcelos and Gubrium 2014). The construction of an archetype early parent, even through a benevolent desire to protect opportunities for friends and family the young women cared about, also sometimes threatened relationships between individuals and made them hostile. In early 2012, Ashley expressed dismay as she feared that her sisters might give birth as teens. One night, Ashley went through both her sisters’ phones after they had gone to bed and found a video of Betsy and her romantic partner having sex along with texts between Siete and Betsy about their plans to skip school and work. Ashley discussed the situation with her mother, her older sister, and me while the girls were at school, and the three of them decided to confront the younger girls that evening. Ashley called me that night, crying and furious as she explained that things had gotten out of hand and the sisters had to be “jumped and beaten a little.” Siete and Betsy ran away after packing a garbage bag full of clothes, shoes, and some makeup. Ashley was simultaneously worried about their safety and angry at their audacity to leave home. Three days later, the family learned that the two sisters had been living with a friend and her father. Soon afterward, the two sisters called home and asked for permission to return. Ashley explained to me that she would not let them come back: “You know Betsy was sleeping around with guys? Including this guy called Nick, who sleeps with everyone … We have to pay if she ends up with a baby and some gangbanger baby-daddy.” Another two days passed. Then, one evening when I was in their house, Ashley’s mother tried to convince Ashley, Maria, and Johnny that they should agree to let Siete and Betsy return home. Ashley’s mother: Ranita, you think it’s good for young girls to stay outside home? [I looked down and stared at the floor.] Ashley [looking at her mother]: Look, you want them to learn something about life? If you want them to end up like you with a hundred baby-daddies then it’s up to you. But if you don’t wanna take care of grandchildren then you better fuckin’ teach them something, alright. Ashley’s mother: No one getting pregnant before their time in this house. Maria: Your fear will come true if you don’t tell them that you mean business, their ass getting’ kicked to the street because they deserve to end up on the street. That’s what babies and mamas without daddies and money end up. Here Ashley and Maria defined their sisters as pregnancy risks. They drew on race, gender, and class hierarchies that define “good” girls as those who avoid promiscuous sexual activity. Because her sister was sexually active, Ashley claimed that she risked early motherhood. The youth viewed friends and sisters who did have children at a young age as victims of men’s sexual desires and trickery. The young women used this scenario as an opportunity to further embrace white middle-class ideals. Ashley and her 19-year-old friend Tamara, who had a child with a 32-year-old man, had the following discussion at Tamara’s mother’s apartment: Ashley (angry): You gotta get your shit together; your mama told me I could have the room and then she be giving it to someone else for $150? I don’t even wanna live here with your baby-daddy coming anyway! Tamara: I have a son now; I have responsibility. Don’t drag me into your shit now. Ashley: Girl, having babies don’t make you responsible! You got it, but you gotta take care of it! You didn’t even know your man was fucking 32 until now! I don’t want no babies when I look at your shit! You can’t even be out drinking or nothing! Tamara: Why you bringing him in for no reason? Ashley: I’m sayin’ he cheated on yo ass. ’Cause we didn’t even know he was 32 until you had his baby, why he be lying about shit like that? He gotchu pregnant and now if he gonna go then you gonna have to do shit. That’s why you gotta be careful with who you sleepin’ around with. Girl, you taught me a lesson, that’s all I’m sayin’. I be tellin’ Siete, you gang bang with them ghetto niggas, you end up like Tamara, no offense to you. The pernicious stories that Ashley told about the teen pregnancy “epidemic” threatened the bonds between Ashely, her various family members, and her friend Tamara. Drawing on themes taught in school, emphasized in the media, and embraced by the local nonprofits, Ashley and Maria “othered” their sisters and friends, defining them as “bad girls” for having sex and children early. By “othering” her sisters and friend, Ashley also constructed a moral self based on ideals rooted in systems of gender-race-class oppressions that define early parenthood as inherently immoral, and young women of color, such as her sisters, as the most at risk of such immorality. This process reinforces a stratified reproduction system that considers early parenthood in marginalized communities as inherently problematic. When members of racially and economically marginalized communities adopt narratives about the sexual risks and the “pregnancy epidemic” they end up disrupting relationships in their families and communities. The young women have to walk a thin line as they construct their identities as “good girls” who are socially mobile and also stigmatize their friends and sisters who become parents as “bad girls,” while also attempting to maintain intimate relationships with them. CONCLUSIONS In this article, I extend critical feminist analyses that challenge moral panics about the sexuality and reproductive choices of young women of color. Specifically, I heed recent calls to consider young women’s sexual subjectivity and move beyond the construction of teen motherhood as inherently problematic by situating young mothers within a stratified reproduction system (see Barcelos and Gubrium 2014). I argue for the importance of recognizing the experiences of young women of color who are not themselves pregnant or parenting but are coming of age in marginalized communities where some of their young friends and family become pregnant. They too must navigate a discursive context that regards their sexuality as risky and early motherhood as an epidemic in their communities. I show how defining teen motherhood as an epidemic directly affects young women who are not pregnant or parenting. Dominant discourses that define young women’s sexuality as risky shape the landscape of meanings that the youth draw upon. By othering pregnant and parenting teens, the youth reinforced hegemonic “at risk” discourses, and perpetuated invidious rifts in their community. These discourses also shape unequal opportunity structures that economically marginalized young people of color confront. Teachers, community leaders, and policy makers, who embrace the teen parent epidemic idea, too easily overlook young women’s multifaceted needs and desires that belie the notion that they are merely “problems” to be fixed (Barcelos and Gubrium 2014). I also highlight how feminist empowerment ideals interact with risk discourses in the lives of marginalized women, by describing how race and class structures mediate experiences of everyday feminism (Aronson 2008; Stacey 1990). As socially and economically marginalized young women transition to adulthood, they navigate narratives that designate their sexualities as “risky” by creating an identity of distance. This identity draws on feminist ideals of independence, self-development, and self-respect. The young women that I observed adopted an identity of distance as socially mobile teen who avoided “bad sex” that leads to pregnancy. They encoded their sense of self with a morality that separated them from other women in the community. In the process, they often deployed victim-blame ideologies in racialized and classed ways that stigmatized young mothers, and they policed their own bodies and the bodies of other women in their lives. I show that these sorts of feminist ideals should be critically examined by scholars to better understand their connections to a heteronormative life script that privileges economic independence or marriage before childbirth and stigmatizes economically marginalized young women of color who fail to embrace this path (see Mann 2013; Schalet 2009). My study raises questions about how economically marginalized women of color experience the feminist “empowerment paradigm” (hooks 2000; Hurtado 2003; Moraga and Anzald´ua 1983). Other scholars have demonstrated how, in an attempt to participate in dominant society symbolized by white middle-class heterosexual life course, members of marginalized groups often engage in respectability politics rejecting some behaviors and marginalized individuals as “pathological” and immoral (Cohen 2010; Ferguson 2000; Fields 2008; Gamson 1995; García 2012). The young women I studied engage with the notions of independence and self-development to create distance from, as well as support, their sisters and friends who struggled to raise their children and sustain intimate ties with them. They undermine their relationships with their friends and sisters as they attempt to construct an identity to establish themselves as dignified, worthy girls with bright futures. While ideals of independence and self-development allowed them to navigate the dominant risk narratives, these often reinforced racialized, classed, and gendered discourses around early parenthood and disrupted ties within the community. Although I cannot make broad generalizations from my small sample, my ground-level ethnographic observations offer a rich context of nuanced practices that challenge some generalizations about teen pregnancy as an epidemic among young women of color (see also, Barcelos and Gubrium 2014). Further, this method is well suited to document in situ how young women deploy feminist ideals to strategically navigate the dominant risk discourse in their everyday lives. Future research should draw on large-scale qualitative data to investigate the extent to which media, academic, and popular representation of teen parenthood as an epidemic shapes the landscape of meanings that all marginalized youth draw upon: How do men in these communities navigate dominant discourses? Are there observable differences between how different racial and ethnic groups engage in this process? How does the construction of risk influence the experiences of queer-identified individuals (see García 2009)? Do youth recognize cultural strategies and ways of gaining sexual agency without reinforcing the dominant feminist perspective that often privileges white middle-class perspectives? Engaging these questions could help illuminate how focusing on teen pregnancy prevention can obscure the varied needs of youth in marginalized communities, overshadow how race, class, and gender inequalities block educational and occupational opportunities among them, and create oppressive conditions as youth are left to battle the moral and public health panic that works to define their sexuality. Footnotes 1 The young women were part of a larger study I conducted about 16 youth (13 women and 3 men) and their transition to adulthood. 2 Black and Latino/a youth continue to have a higher birthrate than their white counterparts. Black youth had a higher birth rate than their Latino/a counterparts until the mid-1990s—the teen birth rate rose among Latino/a youth between 1995 and 2012 (Child Trends 2015). However, since the early 1990s, the overall birthrate has steadily declined among all youth in the United States. 3 The word “cherry” is often used to refer to virginity. 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Social Problems – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 1, 2018
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