I’ve been meaning to write about this story for a while, even though it’s far afield from recent threads. I think of this as a reminder that, however much we want to believe in the possibility of being gender-blind, we have to think about gender when we think about parenthood–or at least, about becoming parents.
The Delhi School, a Louisiana charter school, had a policy that pregnant students could not attend classes and that any student suspected of being pregnant had to take a pregnancy test or she was presumed to be pregnant and treated as such. I gather the idea here was that students had to exhibit good character traits and teenage pregnancy is evidence of something less than good character.
First off, let me note that the Delhi School has now changed its policy, presumably in response to the letter from the ACLU and the attention it received. (The current policy can be found here, page 130.) You might say this is an example of how the law (and appeal to law) can actually work–and that is a good thing.
But the problem is that while the school policy here is described as extraordinary, the thinking behind it is not. (I also wonder whether what was extraordinary was the requirement of taking a pregnancy test if you were there was a suspicion of pregnancy.)
Here’s the thing–it’s not hard to imagine a code of conduct for students that forbids non-marital sex. Certainly many parents would support such a code. I’d expect to find that many schools, especially religious schools, have such a code.
When an unmarried young woman is pregnant it’s fairly clear that she violated the code. (It’s possible that she used ART to become pregnant and that no sex was involved, but I’m confident that this isn’t the most typical explanation.) And as pregnancy becomes apparent (which it usually does) the fact of her violation becomes increasingly obvious.
The prospect that the young woman would be both obviously pregnant and happy/successful in school (which I think would actually be a good thing in the grand scheme of things) could be seen to undermine the school’s policy. I might even go a step further and say that it does undermine the policy. So it’s pretty easy for me to see why school authorities would want to do something to stigmatize the pregnant woman–suspend her from school or bar her from events or something. Maybe a scarlet letter would do–something that would convey some sense that crime doesn’t pay.
In the name of gender equality, a young man who violates the school code against non-marital sex should be treated similarly. He, too, should be marked with the scarlet letter or forced to sit out activities or even stopped attending school. (And would that be for the duration of the pregnancy?) Perhaps some schools actually do this.
The problem, of course, is that it is hardly obvious which young men have engaged in non-marital sex. (It’s actually not obvious which young women did either–some of them won’t become pregnant. But when a young woman does become pregnant it is obvious that she has violated the code.) Even mandatory pregnancy tests won’t reveal the male violators.
I can actually imagine a rationale for treating the young men differently. Their violation of the code isn’t flagrant. They are not parading around displaying proof that they violated the code the way the pregnant woman is. In other words, they can pass as obedient and code-abiding students where the young women who are pregnant cannot. Thus, their presence in class is not disruptive conduct in the same way that the pregnant woman’s is. There isn’t the same need to exclude them.
I actually don’t see much wrong with this logic. There are real and substantial differences between the position of the young man and the young woman, even where they are both responsible for the same pregnancy. Her condition as expectant mother is obvious. His condition as expectant (biological at least) father isn’t.
There’s really no way for a school to know all the students who may have violated the Code. What’s happening here is that their picking to make examples of the most flagrant violaters–the ones effectively advertising their conduct. And those just happen to be women.
It’s just another manifestation of the pregnancy problem. Women get pregnant and men do not. Even though women are not pregnant for most of their lives (and some women are never pregnant) this is a tremendously important difference that radiates out in countless ways. Under the old policy, young women at Delhi School contemplating sex faced different consequences than did young men. But the change in policy doesn’t really change this–women contemplating sex really do face different consequences than do men.