Bristol Palin’s pregnancy drama isn’t an excuse to slut-shame her

Bristol Palin is pregnant again, and the first thing she wants you to know is that she’s ashamed.

“I know this has been, and will be, a huge disappointment to my family, to my close friends, and to many of you,” Palin wrote in a June 25 blog post announcing her pregnancy, which she now claims was planned. She added, “I do not want any lectures and I do not want any sympathy.”

Unfortunately, she might need both.

Palin has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars as an abstinence-only advocate. After giving birth to son Tripp in her teens, Palin made a career out of being a cautionary tale. She began giving talks at conservative Christian functions, urging young people to practice abstinence rather than safe sex. She started blogging for Patheos, where she frequently writes about her opposition to reproductive rights. She even took a very public pledge to remain celibate until marriage.

It’s easy and accurate to call Palin a hypocrite. She’s made a fortune preaching the doctrine of premarital abstinence while clearly choosing to disregard it in her personal life. In a few short days, Palin has gone from being the poster child of the abstinence movement to a real-life example of what many people have been saying all along: that by not teaching teens how to have safe sex, abstinence education actually increases the likelihood of pregnancy.

Palin’s hypocrisy has very real consequences. While she’s had the resources necessary for raising children, many teen parents do not. Statistics show that teen mothers are more likely to drop out of high school, live in poverty, and require social assistance. Without education or affordable childcare, many struggle to find employment and support their families. So while Palin might be able to say that she is “fully capable of handling anything that is put in front of [her] with dignity and grace,” many other young, single parents don’t feel the same way.

Palin has been shielded from the fallout of abstinence-only education by layers of privilege. Being white and wealthy means that she’s been able to avoid the worst types of criticism; in fact, her mother was even able to use her pregnancy as a sort of political currency, holding it up as proof that her good, Christian family is just as real and flawed as anyone else’s.

She’s had to deal with name-calling, slut-shaming, and the angry glee of people delighted to see a conservative politician’s daughter tripped up on her own morals. But she has never, for example, been accused of letting down her entire race or used to justify someone’s long-held prejudices. In a country where Sasha and Malia Obama are accused of dressing like they’re going to a bar just for wearing age-appropriate clothing to a White House event, it’s not hard to imagine how much more brutal public reaction might be for an infraction greater than wearing a short skirt. 

Pregnant young women of color face a toxic mix of misogyny, classism, and racism that Palin will never have to experience. These are the girls who will bear the real brunt of Palin’s toxic abstinence-only message.

So yes, Palin certainly does deserve a lecture. She also deserves sympathy, because as much as she has promoted and financially gained from the abstinence-only movement, she’s also been hurt by it. She’s spent her life being told that her body is shameful and her desires are evidence of sin. She views sexuality not with joy but with shame, regret, and fear. 

If Palin had been able to access some of the things she relentlessly campaigns against—contraceptives, legal abortion, or even just a proper understanding of biology—she might not have found herself in the position of both announcing and apologizing for her pregnancy at the same time. It’s heartbreaking that Palin would anticipate disappointment from her friends and parents when sharing what should be happy news. This is not how anyone should feel about a wanted pregnancy.

As the teenage daughter of a Republican vice presidential candidate, Palin must have certainly felt an enormous pressure to publicly atone for her first pregnancy; the pro-abstinence advocacy that she’s done since then has likely been part of that atonement. Hopefully now that she’s no longer a teenager and her mother is further from the public eye, she’ll be able to take a critical look at what she has said and done and recognize how harmful and wrong she’s been. Perhaps she’ll even be able to make an effort toward undoing some of it. That would be an excellent use of her platform and celebrity status.

Yes, Bristol Palin certainly does deserve a lecture. She also deserves sympathy.

We should be angry at Palin for earning an enormous amount of money promoting a set of beliefs that are harmful and dangerous, especially for young women. However, we should be even angrier at that system itself and the powerful right-wing men it serves. As much as Palin seems to have benefited from that system, she’s also been a victim of it—a fortunate, privileged victim, but a victim nonetheless.

In an article where she urges us not to call Bristol Palin “stupid” or an “idiot” for her choices, which have been common responses on Facebook, Skepchick’s Alex Rudewell explains, “Palin is a byproduct of poor sexual education and a culture that puts unrealistic expectations of purity on women. … In case you need to be reminded (and apparently you do), no one deserves to be slut-shamed. Hypocrisy is not an excuse for abuse.”

At the end of the day, we can only hope that she and other girls like her will be able to accept their bodies without shame, understand that their desires are not sick or wrong, and recognize that they should be able to expect love and support that doesn’t hinge on religious conditions. Any person deserves that.

Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer, activist and social agitator. Her work can be found in such varied publications as the Washington Post, Vice, Jezebel, the Toast and others. Her comments on feminism, social justice, and mental health have been featured on TVO’s The Agenda, CBC, CTV, Global and E-talk Daily. She’s really good at making up funny nicknames for cats.

Photo via gageskidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Anne Thériault

Anne Thériault

Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer and cat enthusiast who blogs about feminism, mental health, and parenting. You can follow her on Twitter at @anne_theriault.