TW: Sexual abuse
Elizabeth Smart became a household name after she was kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City, UT at the age of 14 and held in captivity for nine months. She was forced into a polygamous marriage, tethered to a metal cable, and raped daily until she was rescued from her captors nine months later. Smart was recovered while she and her kidnappers were walking down a suburban street, leading many Americans who followed her story on the national news to wonder:Why didn’t she just run away as soon as she was brought outside?
Speaking to an audience at Johns Hopkins about issues of human trafficking and sexual violence, Smart recently offered an answer to that question. She explained that some human trafficking victims don’t run away because they feel worthless after being raped, particularly if they have been raised in conservative cultures that push abstinence-only education and emphasize sexual purity:
Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.”
Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.
“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,” Smart said. “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.”
Now in her mid-twenties, Smart runs a foundation to help educate children about sexual crimes. She now believes that children should grow up learning that “you will always have value and nothing can change that.”
Social psychologists and sexual abuse counselors agree that comprehensive sex education can help prevent sexual crimes. Teaching children about their bodies gives them the tools to describe acts of abuse without feeling as embarrassed or uncomfortable, and it also helps elevate their self-confidence and sense of bodily autonomy. A shame-based approach to genitalia and sexuality, on the other hand, sends kids the message that they can’t discuss or ask questions about any of those issues.
When I went through abstinence only education they did an activity where they put different activity from holding hands to intercourse around the room and asked everyone how far they would go, and how far their parents would be okay with them going. I refused to do the exercise because I thought it was inappropriate and my parents trusted me to be safe and make decisions for myself. Now that I look back on that I can’t imagine how traumatic that could have been to someone who had been sexually abused. We need to keep this in mind when discussing sex education.
Teaching sexual health and education in a shaming way sends terrible messages to our children and students. And those feelings of shame do not go away even if someone has waited to have sex until their wedding night. You can’t undo years or decades of sex-negative education with a marriage license and a ring.
Those feelings of shame do not help the children who have been sexually abused, like the article above points out, either.
When I was in middle school, I was forced to sit on a blanket in front of my health class. The teacher then had a boy in the class sit next to me to represent us having sex (the added level of humiliation and creepiness that added is beside the point). Then she added another student and another and ended the lesson by demonstrating how many people we could spread diseases to if we had sex with more than one person. I remember her specifically pointing out that even if you wait to have sex until you get engaged, your fiance could die and then no one will want to marry you because you’re “damaged goods” and “dirty”. I remember thinking that if that were true, it would still be the case if you had sex after you were married and were widowed.
But, by far, the message I took away from our sex ed lesson in health class was that I was already damaged goods because I was molested. I had “let” that happen to me and that if someone DID fall in love with me, they were a better person because they were willing to be with someone who is “damaged”.
The sex-negative dialogue is hard to undo and work past. I’m still working through it.