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  • Mixed Messages: Norms and Social Control around Teen Sex and Pregnancy by Stefanie Mollborn
  • Sinikka Elliott
Mixed Messages: Norms and Social Control around Teen Sex and Pregnancy
By Stefanie Mollborn
Oxford University Press, 2017. 279 pages.

Mixed Messages offers a window into the conflicting messages young people get about heterosexual intercourse and teen pregnancy. Drawing primarily on 57 interviews with college students at a public university in the western United States, Mollborn uncovers a practical and a moral rationale guiding adults' sexual lessons to teenagers. The practical rationale predominates in "low religion" communities and the moral rationale prevails in "high religion" areas, Mollborn argues. The book interrogates how the practical and moral rationales play out in low and high SES communities and how these messages map onto teens' actual sexual behaviors.

For example, "low religion" communities have a moderate norm against teen sex and a strong norm for teens to use contraception if they have sexual intercourse. These communities also have a strong norm for abortion if a teen gets pregnant to avoid the negative consequences of teen parenthood. Teens in the "low religion, high SES" communities engage in less risky behavior, defined by Mollborn as less frequent heterosexual intercourse, pregnancy, and parenthood and more frequent consistent contraception use and abortion if pregnant. Teens in communities Mollborn labels "low religion, low SES" report risker sexual behaviors than those in "low religion, high SES," and part of the practical rationale in these communities includes a norm guiding weak support for teen parenthood "because it could happen to anyone" (p. 153).

The moral rationale has strong norms against teen sex, abortion, and teen parenthood because they are morally wrong. Mollborn also uncovers an emerging, contested norm in high religion communities supporting teen parenthood because it signals a youth has chosen not to have an abortion. "High religion, high SES" communities not only condemn teen parenthood as morally wrong but as irresponsible. Teens in the "high religion, high SES" group have exactly the same risk pattern as teens in the "low religion, high SES" communities, Mollborn reports, despite the moral, rather than the practical, rationale prevailing in high religion communities. In short, teens in high SES communities have the same risk patterns, regardless of whether they are guided by the moral or practical rationale and the same goes for teens in low SES communities.

Intriguingly then, while norms matter, they appear to interact with SES to inform actual behaviors in ways that align less with the different norms guiding behavior and more with the SES of the communities. As Mollborn notes, "norms aren't particularly successful at regulating teens' sexual behaviors" but they can lead to "silencing teen sexuality and negatively sanctioning teens who violate the rules, thereby worsening their lives" (p. 215). If we are to take norms seriously, which Mollborn urges sociologists to do, future research should explore whether and how social control in the form of rewards and sanctions potentially plays out differently in high and low SES communities.

That the symbol of the teen parent, as articulated by the college students interviewed, is a low-income youth of color also raises important questions about how young people develop and draw on symbolic boundaries around sexuality that are racialized, gendered, and classed. Future research should continue to pull apart whether, how, and why youth from a variety of different backgrounds construct so-called risky sexual behavior as the terrain of low-status or marginalized young people and conduct their sexual behaviors and identities in response to this image.

Overall, Mollborn argues that both the practical and moral rationales contain contradictions. Under the practical rationale, youth are told they should not have sex, but if they do, they should be careful (i.e., use contraception to avoid pregnancy). Under the moral rationale, youth hear that they should not have sex or get pregnant, but if they do, abortion is a sin. These mixed messages can be confusing, but can also leave room for individuals, families, and communities to interpret sexual activity differently and respond in more or less affirming ways, Mollborn argues.

One drawback of Mixed...


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