It is tempting to view the Saga of Bristol and Levi as political: the sacrifice of two young lives to the vice-presidential, now presidential, ambitions of a mother. During the campaign, the response to Bristol’s pregnancy was one of the McCain-Palin spin machine’s only successful maneuvers, from the pre-emptive announcement to the image makeover of the “fuckin’ redneck” father to the couple’s coming-out at the Republican Convention as smiling fiancés.
When McCain lost, I thought: Lucky kids, now they don’t have to get married.
They’re not going to. But the Palins haven’t moved out of Bristol’s personal life — quite the opposite. And as they and Levi’s family enact their dramas in the public eye, more private, and perhaps more universal, themes emerge. These are less about elections than emotions: notably, the fears and grief of parents watching sexuality pull their children from the heart of the family. As much as ideology, these feelings shape the politics of teen sex.
Part Two of the saga started in February, when Bristol signed on for an interview with Fox News’ Greta van Susteren, on location in Alaska. Baby Tripp would make his debut. Bristol would tell her own story. And P.S.: She’d sprung news of the interview on Sarah and Todd only the day before airtime.
On TV Bristol defended her parents: They hadn’t forced her to wed or have the baby, she said; those were her decisions, and she was in love with her “very, very, very cute” son. Still, she was not without regret. She was exhausted, and living “for another person” was “not glamorous at all.” In awkward, “like”-peppered kidspeak, Bristol honestly and affectingly articulated the ambivalence of teen motherhood, or maybe of all motherhood.
Her point: “I just — I hope that people learn from my story and just, like, I don’t know, prevent teen pregnancy, I guess.” How should that be done? Wait 10 years, she advised. For what — sex, marriage, parenthood — she did not clarify.
Then, mid-conversation, Bristol drifted way off message. Asked if she and Levi had used contraception, she declined to give details. Instead she said, “I think abstinence is, like — like, the — I don’t know how to put it — like, the main — everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it’s not realistic at all.”
Poor Sarah. Only days earlier, a CNN poll had put her at the head of the pack of 2012 Republican presidential contenders. Now her daughter was spoiling her game — again. Seeing a PR disaster gathering like an arctic blizzard on the horizon (just east of Russia), Mom swung into action. “We were down on the river, had to come up just for a second, wanted to say hi and we’ll run you down to the river,” Palin explained, incoherently as always, as she dropped in unannounced on the televised tête-à-tête. Sarah handed the baby to Bristol and stepped onto the soapbox. Greta looked scared.
“I’m proud of [Bristol] wanting to take on an advocacy role and, you know, just let other girls know that this is — it’s not the most ideal situation, but certainly you make the most of it,” a brittlely cheerful Sarah said. “This little baby is very lucky to have her as a momma. He’s gonna be just fine.”
Bristol, who’d just finished saying that she was not fine, sat mute.
Van Susteren struggled to bring the conversation around to the most anodyne, pro-family conclusion possible. Never mind sex education, contraception or abortion: “Isn’t sort of the bigger story and the bigger issue ... how important it is for families to pitch in?” This gave the would-be candidate the opportunity to play to the base. Allowing that Bristol’s large, supportive, financially comfortable family made her an “anomaly” among teen mothers, Sarah nevertheless contended that helping such moms and their kids is “not government’s role.” Perhaps the Palins will take them all in.
The mop-up campaign culminated this month, when the Candie's Foundation named Bristol its pro-abstinence “teen ambassador” for pregnancy prevention. She’s drawn mixed reviews — but she hasn’t deviated from script. This time she’s got a minder: Todd, by her side on the morning-show sofas.
These efforts have not been helped by Levi Johnston. In April, he launched his own media sweep, suggesting to Tyra Banks that the Palins must have known their daughter was doing the dirty. To Larry King, he revealed that he and Bristol used condoms, most of the time, anyway. Then he began accusing the Palins of limiting his access to Tripp and started staging a prime-time custody-and-visitation battle. All the while, he expressed skepticism about abstinence. And in the background, his mother was publicly longing to hold her grandson and fighting drug charges in Wasilla.
Reactivating damage control, the Palins held a press conference. “We’re disappointed that Levi and his family, in a quest for fame, attention and fortune, are engaging in flat-out lies, gross exaggeration, and even distortion of their relationship,” their representative said. “Bristol’s focus will remain on raising Tripp, completing her education and advocating abstinence.” The statement ended: “Bristol realizes now that she made a mistake in her relationship and is the one taking responsibility for their actions.”
Bristol was back in the embrace — and under the thumb — of her family. Her son — named almost the same as his mother’s youngest, Trig — was her mother’s, grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s baby. Bristol, a mother herself, was again her mother’s baby, too. And her lover was excised from the family portrait.
Politics, yes. But Sarah Palin’s meddling and her daughter’s muzzling speak to parental emotions that go beyond ambition, beyond religious conservatism, even beyond the personalities of the Palin brood. What parents wish is not just to control their children’s sexual behavior, but also to hold their children’s desire. I don’t mean they want incest. Rather, they wish the child never to betray her first loves for that of another.
Growing up is growing away, and for adolescents, sexuality is a prime emotional route out of the family. Yet sex education — which has always been more about adult fantasies and desires than youth’s needs — has long suggested that sex is a distraction from growing up. This is true across the political spectrum. Addressing Vassar College’s all-female Class of 1964, Planned Parenthood President Mary Calderone promised a youthful freedom to be gained by eschewing premarital sex. Hold off now, she told the students, and you will have “time ... to grow up into the woman you were meant to be.” After that, enhanced marital joys await.
Abstinence-only sex ed claims that avoiding sex brings teenagers freedom not just from parenthood but from all the trials of adulthood. “Adolescent sexual abstinence offers the freedom to develop respect for oneself and others, use energy to accomplish life goals, be creative in expressing feelings, develop necessary communication skills, develop self-appreciation,” says one conservative text. Another curriculum was subtitled “The Option of True Sexual Freedom.” Among the freedoms not touted in abstinence-only ed is reproductive freedom.
If abstinence offers kids the freedom from growing up, it tenders to parents an equally impossible corollary: freedom from watching their kids grow up. A woman at a conservative Christian convention told me that her 15-year-old daughter’s “crisis pregnancy” turned out to be “a blessing.” In renouncing her sexual relationship and pledging herself to “secondary virginity,” the girl reconnected with her family. Before giving the baby up for adoption, she shopped with her mother, played with her sisters and attended church with her father. Literally unsteady on her feet, she was thrown back to childlike dependence and gratitude, precisely at the age when she might have spurned her parents’ best-meant solicitations in order to fly on her own. With Levi iced out, Bristol is thrown back on her family’s support — until, of course, she meets another guy.
Even parents who revel in their children’s emerging sexuality can feel the pain of loss. A feminist advocate of sexual freedom described watching her son, then about 17, standing beside his girlfriend in her living room. “The light from the window was all around them, but there was no light between them.” Seeing their easy touch, “immediately, I knew they had made love,” she recalled. “I went to the kitchen and burst into tears, because I knew I was no longer the most important woman in my son’s life.”
Most commentators agree with Bristol that motherhood has made her grow up too fast. But in another way, her family’s interventions have forestalled their daughter’s separation from them and, with it, her progress toward adulthood. Sex itself is a way to “develop respect for oneself and others ... be creative in expressing feelings [and] develop necessary communication skills [and] self-appreciation.” And if a girl finds herself pregnant too soon, she still has the chance to grow into the person she wants to be. She still has a shot at freedom. In the thousands of words spilled over Bristol and Levi, the safeguard of that freedom has rarely been mentioned, even by feminist bloggers. It is abortion.