Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Kidnapping Survivor Elizabeth Smart on Sexual "Purity" Messages

On May 1st and 2nd, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Advisory Council on Child Trafficking (ACCT) and Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women hosted a symposium on child sex trafficking in Baltimore, Maryland. According to the Johns Hopkins website, the symposium was part of a White House initiative to bring together stakeholders to address the needs of sexually exploited children.

Speakers at the conference included academic, political, and social justice leaders. Among those on the agenda were U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, White House Council on Women and Girls chair Valerie Jarrett, and gender-based violence researcher Rebecca Campbell.

One of the most celebrated speakers at the event was Elizabeth Smart, abduction survivor and president of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation. At age 14, Smart was abducted from her home and sexually assaulted by Brian David Mitchell. She would spend the next nine months as his captive until she was discovered in Sandy, Utah in March 2003. According to Deseret News, Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison in 2011.

At the 9:40 mark of a Fox 13 NOW video, Smart discussed how abstinence-only efforts harm sexual assault victims and contributed to her captivity. Smart recalled a school teacher who promoted abstinence by comparing people who have premarital sex to chewed-up gum.
"I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking about ... abstinence, and she said, 'Imagine you're a stick of gum, and when you engage in sex, that's like getting chewed, and then if you do that lots of time, you're going to become an old piece of gum, and who's going to want you after that? Well that's terrible! Nobody should every say that. But for me, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.' And that's how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value."
Smart urged listeners to educate young people that "you will always have value and nothing can change that."

My heart broke for Elizabeth Smart as I listened to the video. To endure abduction and brutal violence would be traumatizing enough, but to also wrestle with dehumanizing, victim-blaming "purity" would be heartbreaking.

Sadly, none of this is new for the abstinence and sexual "purity" movement. I recall the troubling messages at a Silver Ring Thing presentation I observed in 2011. The messages that associated premarital sex with emotional and spiritual devastation were bad enough, but the messages on sexual violence made me uncomfortable. One of the speakers, a sexual assault survivor, assured listeners that they can always "start over" no matter what they've done or what's been done to them. A sexual assault victim hasn't done anything wrong or violated an abstinence vow, so what would they need to "start over" from?

These messages have been circulating for some time. Many abstinence-only programs associate premarital sex with shame and disgust, which is problematic in and of itself. However, not only is such an approach completely inadequate for discussing sexual victimization, but it can potentially foster victim-blaming attitudes.

After hearing Elizabeth Smart's heartbreaking story, can we please dispense with toxic ideas about abstinence and "purity"? Sex, whether consensual or forced, does not contaminate a person or render them "chewed-up". Human beings have intrinsic value, and an individual's worth extends far beyond their sexual experiences.

Can we dispense with the victim-blaming?

Can we dispense with antiquated ideas about sex as dirty and shameful?

Can we encourage young people to delay sex without resorting to shame, guilt, and scare tactics?

Can we embrace an ethic of sex that celebrates healthy sexuality AND recognizes and validates the experiences of sexual assault victims?

Abstinence-only "purity" messages are problematic for many reasons, but they are also harmful to sexual assault victims, as Elizabeth Smart's talk demonstrates. Let's move past one-dimensional "purity" toward a multifaceted, compassionate view of sexuality.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Think Progress: Elizabeth Smart: Abstinence Education Teaches Rape Victims They’re Worthless, Dirty, And Filthy

Religion Dispatches: Traditional Mormon Sexual Purity Lesson Contributed to Captivity, Elizabeth Smart Tells University Audience

Love, Joy, Feminism: Sex and Chewing Gum: The Danger of Purity Culture


  1. "Can we encourage young people to delay sex without resorting to shame, guilt, and scare tactics?"

    Exactly, we can give teenagers actual good reasons to delay sex in certain situations, there's no reason to try to shame them into it.

    1. Hausdorff -- My thoughts exactly. We need to have mature discussions with young people about pregnancy, STDs, and delaying sex. Shame and fear don't prevent problems, and if anything just make the situation worse.


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