(correction to original post – I mistakenly thought that the second sex ed poster was an initiative of Barking and Dagenham council. It turns out that the theatre company ‘Chain Reaction‘ is responsible for the offending poster. ‘Chain Reaction’ receives its funding from the council and so I suspect that the council commissioned these posters and let Chain Reaction take the ‘credit’.)
Walking along a main road I looked up to see banners with flamingos on them hanging from a line of lampposts. On closer inspection it turned out these were mating flamingos with the text below it informing us
‘female flamingos stick their heads under water whilst mating. Whatever way you like doing it, make sure you use a condom’.
I’m no prude, I was just surprised at the sheer number of these posters – the street was pretty much filled with mating flamingos. But these feathery friends were delivering a fair enough point.
However, another poster around the corner on the high street was a lot more sinister. It depicted a young pregnant woman sitting on a bench looking very fed up with an estate in the background. Underneath the bench there were heaps of nappies and children’s toys and above the text informed us ‘condoms are free, babies aren’t’. There was just so much wrong with this. From playing on negative stereotypes of teenage mothers (see below for further discussion), to placing the responsibility of contraception wholly on young women, to determining the right to have children on wealth.
The poster wasn’t about informing young women about safe sex, it was encouraging the entire high street of Barking to judge this young woman for having a baby whilst being poor. It was about social control – young poor women shouldn’t have babies. It was hateful on young working class women.
I was absolutely horrified at the poster. I kept on staring at it in disbelief that such a thing existed. How is the council getting away with this? Rather than putting up posters demonising young women, they should be dealing with the real issues that the poster portrayed in a warped sort of way – such as poverty and the status of women.
Maybe she was sitting on the bench looking fed up because there are no parent and children services left in her borough from which she can receive support, because the grants for pregnant mothers were scrapped by David Cameron, and because the government will force her into low-paid work when her child is five rather than recognising her work as a mother. The local government is hacking away at services and is hoping to replace these with fostering judgement and hatred in the community. Young women are being failed and demonised.
You can make a complaint to the council about this advert here
Nina Power’s book One Dimensional Woman reproduces an extract from an interview with Toni Morrison in Time magazine from twenty years ago. She offers a fantastic rebuttal to stereotypes of ‘unwed’ and teenage mothers and argues that rather than seeing them as the problem, it is the way in which we organise society. Here’s a short extract:
Q. You don’t feel that these girls will never know whether they could have been teachers or whatever?
A. They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them all in my arms and say, ‘your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.’ That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don’t want to pay for it.
I don’t think anybody cares about unwed mothers unless they’re black – or poor. The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about. We don’t care whether they have babies or not.