- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) - One is a soft-spoken teenager who never sought fame, but was thrust into the national spotlight at the most delicate moment of her young life. The other is a glamorous pop star, a fixture in celebrity magazines and on countless iPods.

Bristol Palin and Rihanna have absolutely nothing in common _ except that they are two young women whose private turmoil is currently playing out in the harsh glare of the public sphere.

Each has also, unwittingly, become the face of a pressing social issue _ a source of teachable moments on teen pregnancy for Palin, domestic abuse for Rihanna. And each, despite all the public fascination, is having an experience that experts in those fields say mirrors that of thousands of ordinary young women across America.

Palin was already five months pregnant when she emerged into public view last year, clutching her baby brother as her mother, soon-to-be GOP superstar Sarah Palin, introduced herself to the world as John McCain’s new running mate.

The pregnancy story soon broke, and campaign handlers rushed her boyfriend, Levi Johnston, a high school hockey player, to Minnesota. They appeared together on the Republican convention stage, and Sarah Palin said the two would soon be married.

In December, their son Tripp was born, and in a recent interview on Fox News, Bristol called Johnston a “real hands-on Dad.” But this week, Johnston confirmed the couple had split “a while ago,” and then things got ugly, with Bristol implying in a statement that her former fiance and his sister had been speaking to the tabloids for financial gain.

The breakup may have launched a thousand blog posts. But in the scheme of things it was a typical outcome, say experts on teen pregnancy.

“The notion that what has happened to Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston is unique is just not supported by the data,” says Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “Marriage among teens is extremely rare.”

While half of teen mothers say they expect to marry the father of their child, Albert says, in fact fewer than 8 percent of them do within a year. And if teens do marry, that union is twice as likely to fail as that of a couple aged 20-25.

It’s not clear in this case who left whom. In any case, “Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston were trying to accomplish something very few people successfully do _ raise a child as teens,” Albert says. “That’s hard work in the best of circumstances.”

In the blogosphere, there was the inevitable I-told-you-so response. “Did anyone think these two were going to get married? I saw this coming a mile away,” was a typical post on urbanbaby.com, a Web site for mothers.

But there was also evident sympathy for Bristol Palin, who some assumed had been forced to get engaged in the first place.

And of course there was discussion of the thorny issue of how to prevent teen pregnancy. Although Palin had said in the Fox interview that, though happy, she wished the baby had come 10 years later _ and that abstinence was “not realistic at all” _ she’d avoided discussion of her views on contraception. Bloggers were less reticent this week.

“If she weren’t the progeny of abstinence-only education supporters, she might have been on the pill or using a diaphragm,” wrote Bonnie Erbe on USNews.com. On usatoday.com, another wrote: “If ‘abstinence only’ didn’t work in the Palin home, where is it going to work?”

For both conservatives and liberals, the issue is a pressing one because national statistics released in December show the teen birth rate, which had been steadily declining, on the rise for the first time in 15 years.

Some have blamed a popular culture that has recently glorified teen moms, as in the popular film comedy “Juno” and the real-life story of “Zooey 101” star Jamie Lynn Spears _ Britney’s sister.

But Albert, the teen pregnancy expert, senses that teens today are simply less concerned about contracting AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, and thus are being less careful.

And so, he says, Palin can serve as a sort of learning tool. “This is just a great time for parents to sit down at the kitchen table and say to their kids, ‘Hey, did you hear about Bristol Palin?”

Advocates for battered women hope similar discussions will arise from the Rihanna case. In the weeks since what appeared to be a police photo emerged, showing the pop star shockingly bruised and swollen from an alleged beating by boyfriend Chris Brown, the air waves and the Internet have been buzzing with the question: “Why doesn’t she leave?”

But many victims of domestic violence remain with their abusers, says Toni Troop, communications director for Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts coalition against sexual assault and domestic violence.

“It can take as many as seven attempts before a victim of domestic violence leaves a battering relationship,” says Troop. Besides, she adds, it’s fundamentally the wrong question, because it puts responsibility on the victim.

Sheryl Cates, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, agrees. “We always seem to go to the victim,” says Cates. “After 30 years, we are still asking why does she stay, and not focusing on the abuser.”

No one knows, of course, exactly what is happening now between Rihanna, 21, and Brown, 19, who’s been charged with two felonies for the alleged assault on Feb. 8. There have been conflicting reports about whether the two have reconciled.

On “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” the host grilled rap mogul Diddy about reports he had lent his house to the couple to get back together. “I don’t want any girl out there thinking it’s OK to go back to a guy who hit her,” DeGeneres said.

And Oprah Winfrey devoted Thursday’s episode of her show to “all the Rihannas of the world.”

“I’ve said before, love doesn’t hurt, and if a man hits you once, he will hit you again,” Winfrey said.

Cates says that whether Rihanna likes it or not, she’s becoming a sort of poster child for the cause of battered women.

“She is unfortunately becoming a spokesperson for the problems of domestic violence and dating violence, even though it’s a job she never signed up for,” she said.

To Troop, one of the most disturbing signs of the public reaction to the Rihanna case is that a number of teenagers interviewed by the Boston Public Health Commission said they felt Rihanna was responsible for the assault, or that both singers were to blame.

Such attitudes make it all the more important to use such celebrity cases as teachable moments, Troop says.

“We use them encourage people to talk to one another _ because domestic violence thrives on silence,” she says.

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