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Back to Maternidad Latina index |   Volume 3, No. 3: June, 2009 Opens in new window Refer Maternidad Latina to others

In This Issue: Latina teens speak up about sex, relationships and teen pregnancy

Latina teens speak up about sex, relationships and teen pregnancy

"I have things to do in my life. I definitely do not want to get pregnant now. When you have a baby, you do not dream for yourself anymore...I would be so ashamed."

Friends studying

These words, from a North Carolina Latina teen, challenge the often incorrect belief that in the Latina community a teen pregnancy is not a big deal. Among teens, Latinas have the highest rate of teen pregnancy in our state: 167.4 per 1,000 teens, compared to the overall rate of 63 per 1,000 teens. While we have seen a decline in teen pregnancy rates since 1990, Latinas have experienced the smallest decline. Given these numbers, the North Carolina Healthy Start Foundation, together with the NC Division of Public Health, Women's and Children’s Health Section, recently completed a qualitative study of teen pregnancy among Latina teens in North Carolina with the goal of gaining a better understanding of what factors contribute to pregnancy susceptibility and what factors can help protect teens from pregnancy.

As part of the qualitative study, five focus groups were conducted with Latina teens between the ages of 12 and 18 in 5 counties (Pitt, Union, Lee, Buncombe, Forsyth) and two groups were conducted with mothers of teens. Forty-six teens participated in the focus groups. Almost half were born outside of the US, mostly in Mexico. Some general results are presented here; you can view the full report: Living the Life in Between: Latina Teens Speak about Sex, Relationships and Teen Pregnancy on our web site.

Teens speak up

Hearing directly what Latinas have to say about teen pregnancy, sex, relationships and their life expectations can help us as practitioners better address their needs. Although we cannot generalize the results from these focus groups, what we heard from the teens we spoke with sheds some light into what some Latina teens think and experience.

  1. A teen pregnancy "could ruin your life." Focus group participants expressed deep concern for having a baby before finishing high school. None of the participants in the focus groups had been pregnant before. Teens reported that their parents would be angry, furious and sad if they got pregnant. Yet, they all felt that if it happened their parents would eventually be supportive. Latino families have a strong sense of familismo (family centeredness) and even though a teen pregnancy would not be condoned, Latino families are usually supportive of their daughters. Despite knowing that they would eventually have their families' support, the teens reported that they would feel "ashamed" or "like a failure." None of the teens expressed that a pregnancy would have positive consequences.
  2. Sex is a personal decision and normal in some relationships. Teens did not talk about virginity or sexual purity as one would expect from teens that come from a mostly Catholic upbringing and who expressed the negative consequences of a teen pregnancy. Instead, the teens saw sexuality as positive and natural. Although the teens seemed to recognize that an unhealthy relationship involved the pressure to have sex, they also mentioned that in an exclusive relationship, not having sex with your boyfriend could mean losing him. This is not surprising as anecdotally, Latina teens often talk about being asked to show proof of their love by having sex with their boyfriends (la prueba de amor).
  3. Amigos con derechos (friends with benefits). The teens in three of the focus groups talked about a type of relationship with no strings attached called amigos con derechos. Some of the comments made during the discussion indicated a feeling of liberation such as "He can't say anything to you about you talking to anyone else" and "You don't have to be with him, you don't owe him anything, and the same for him." We can speculate that this is in response to cultural expectations for girls to be chaste and sexually naive (known as marianismo). The teens did acknowledge that the downside of this type of relationship was that "he might be your amigo con derechos, but he can also be that for lots of other girls. You never know."
  4. Teens want "to find answers to questions." The teens in the focus groups were aware of the risks of sexually transmitted infections and the importance of using contraceptives to prevent pregnancy. Yet, they were missing correct and factual information; for example, one teen mentioned "doesn't the pill protect you from some diseases?" The teens expressed frustration at how hard it is to find reliable information. They mentioned wanting special programs in their schools to obtain reliable information on sexuality and reproductive health including contraception. Those teens who mentioned having had some type of sex education class felt they they were not given complete information. They had learned that "condoms are not 100% effective" and "no birth control is 100% effective" ; but given that they consider sex a normal part of relationships, this information left them wanting more information. The teens reported using the internet and talking to friends as a way to get answers to their questions.
  5. Mothers want to talk to their daughters, but "we did not talk about these things in my family." The mothers who participated in the focus groups expressed wanting to have a dialogue with their Mother and daughter talkingdaughters, but it was not something they knew how to do. First of all, these mothers had not experienced open communication on sexuality and reproduction with their mothers so approaching the topic was uncomfortable. Secondly, they doubted having sufficient knowledge to address the questions they might get from their daughters. Mothers expressed: "I don't even know what the right words are for body parts!" and "I don't know anything about the different kinds of [contraceptive] methods." Some of the mothers believed that their daughters would "learn what they needed to know at school."
  6. There is a cultural divide between mothers and daughters. Aside from feeling uncomfortable and inadequate to have open discussions with their daughters, some of the comments heard from both mothers and daughters made it clear that there was a cultural divide. One teen said that she wanted to talk to her mom, but that her mom was "Mexican", implying that her mom's upbringing and culture presented a barrier to this conversation. A mother expressed a similar feeling about her daughter saying that her daughter was "so American."

As a small qualitative study, it is hard to draw general conclusions but we can use some of the information to drive our conversations with teens and offer programs for teens and their families that help answer some of their questions.

How you can make a difference

Latinos At-A-Glance

In the US:

  • Latinas have had the highest teen birth rate of any ethnic minority since 1996.1
  • About half of Latina teens become pregnant at least once before age 20 - twice the national average.1

In North Carolina:

  • Pregnancy rate for all teens, 15-19 years old: 63.1 per 1,000.2
  • Pregnancy rate for Latina teens: 167.4 per 1,000.3

  1. An Overview of Latina Pregnancy and Birth Rates.
  2. North Carolina Reported Pregnancies for 2007.
  3. 2007 North Carolina Hispanic Teen Pregnancies: Ages 15-19
  1. Opens in new window Helping Teens Stay Healthy and Safe: Health Care, Birth Control and Confidential Services
  2. Opens in new window The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy's Latino Initiative
  3. Opens in new window Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, Hispanic Outreach
  4. Opens in new window N.C. Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiatives (TPPI)
  5. Opens in new window Planned Parenthood Central North Carolina, Peer Education Programs in Spanish
  6. Opens in new window Sex, Etc. - Online magazine for teens by teens backed by adult health professionals

Health Resources en Español

  1. Opens in new window InterSEXiones. Three Spanish-language audio recordings originally developed in Mexico but adapted for North Carolina in 2007 geared towards youth on the topics of dating violence, emergency contraception and access to contraceptives.
  2. Opens in new window Tips for Parents (Bilingual).

5 Useful Spanish Phrases

For talking with teens:

  1. ¿Qué información necesitas para protegerte de un embarazo e infecciones de transmisión sexual?  (What information do you need to protect yourself from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections?)
  2. Tener relaciones sexuales es normal, pero es importante estar conciente de los riesgos y saber cómo protegerse. (Having sex is normal, but it is important to be aware of the risks and know how to protect yourself.)
  3. Nadie puede obligarte a tener relaciones sexuales y no debe ser una prueba de amor.  (No one can force you to have sex and it should not be a test of your love for that person.)

For talking with parents:

  1. ¿Le gustaría tener información de cómo hablar con su hijo o hija sobre la sexualidad y cómo protegerse de un embarazo o infección? Would you like information about how to speak with your son or daughter about sexuality and how to prevent a pregnancy or infection?
  2. Es importante que le haga saber a su hijo/hija que está disponible para hablar de relaciones. Si no sabe la respuesta, juntos la pueden buscar.  (It is important that you let your son/daughter know that you are available to talk about relationships. If you don’t know the answer, you can find it together.

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