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How Much More Can Girls Take?
Teen girls' depression is skyrocketing—now we want to force them into childbirth
Last week, the CDC reported that the depression and sexual violence rates among teen girls have skyrocketed over the last decade: Three in 5 high school girls reported feeling persistently sad and hopeless, up 60% since 2011; and more than 1 in 10 report that they’ve been forced to have sex, a 27% increase in just two years.
What’s doubly worrying is that this survey was done in 2021, before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. It’s not difficult to imagine how much worse these numbers will be now that we’ve added forced childbirth into the mix. A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania, for example, found that abortion restrictions cause a “significant increase” in the suicide rate among women of reproductive age. That research, too, was done before we lost Roe.
America is not even nominally prepared for just how bad this is going to get.
As a mom to a 12-year old girl, I’m bereft—but also furious. There’s no reason that our daughters’ futures should be so bleak, nor is there any excuse for why our country would continue to treat this crisis as a given—an inevitable wound to bandage over, rather than an injury to prevent.
As Moira Donegan notes in The Guardian, when the CDC issued guidance to schools on how to handle this massive increase of sexual violence and depression, there was no call for curricula to discourage boys from hurting their female classmates. Instead, the agency suggested increasing the number of school counselors, and lessons for girls on how to negotiate sexual consent.
Rather than addressing the source of girls’ suffering, we expect them to simply learn how to cope with it. Sure, they may have to deal with constant harassment, assaults, and the whittling away of their rights—but at least there’s a therapist around!
For too long, the U.S. has taught young women that these injustices are inevitable, and their burden alone. We tell them if they want to be safe from sexual violence, they need to stay sober, dress modestly, and not walk home alone at night—knowing that none of those measures have been shown to lower the risk of rape.
Schools teach that boys can’t control themselves, and that it’s on girls to keep male advances at bay. Young women are told that birth control is girls’ responsibility, and that if they don’t want to get pregnant, they simply shouldn’t have sex. If they do get pregnant, we say that’s just the consequences of their actions. And if someone rapes them, the first questions are never about their well-being, but what they did to bring it on.
Girls’ attempts to take control over their lives and futures in the wake of these constant indignities are treated with a similar disdain. In Florida, for example, where teens are being increasingly denied judicial bypasses for abortion, one young woman was told that her poor grades were proof that she wasn’t mature enough to decide to end her pregnancy. Another was denied because she didn’t have a learner’s permit or car. How are these teens supposed to make sense of being told that they’re too young for an abortion but old enough to parent?
The mixed messages are everywhere, and every single one of them manages to blame and punish girls:
Watch out for boys, who only want one thing. But ‘not all men’ are bad, so stop generalizing! Protect yourself, but never accuse anyone—you could ruin his life. Look beautiful, but caring about makeup is superficial and silly. Don’t be vain, but definitely don’t be ugly. Send nudes, but if they end up on the internet it's your own fault. It goes on and on.
Now, on top of all of this horror, we want to force girls into childbirth and parenthood. Of course they’re fucking depressed.
The real crisis, the problem that needs fixing, isn’t girls’ mental health. In the midst of all this violence and dehumanization, their depression is actually very reasonable! Girls’ brains are doing what they’re supposed to do—warning them that this is all very bad.
What’s happening to teenage girls is the fallout of the crisis, not the crisis itself. We know what the real emergency is: Men’s violence and desire to control women’s bodies in one way or another. But American culture has no interest in finger-wagging at boys to stop harassing and raping girls, nor are politicians keen to stop passing legislation that dictates the details of women’s health and lives.
And so instead of stopping this nightmare, we try to teach girls how to survive it.
But how much do we really expect them to endure? At what point will the adults of this country say enough? We are failing our most sacred responsibility: To care for our children.
There is no good reason that this country, with all of its knowledge and power, should continue to pretend that it’s impossible to change the way young women are treated. Because the longer we tell girls that they need to just live with it, the more likely it is that they just...won’t.