Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped and held for nine months as a teenager, has become an advocate against abstinence-only sex education because of the terrible groundwork it can lay for people who go on to survive sexual abuse:
She drew from her own experience while speaking at a recent forum on human trafficking at Johns Hopkins University and said she understood why some kidnapping victims might not run away from their captors after being raped. Smart, 25, said that after her own rape she "felt so dirty and so filthy."Devastating.
Smart said she grew up in a Mormon family and was taught through abstinence-only education that a person whose virginity was lost before marriage was considered worthless. She spoke to the crowd about a school teacher who urged students against premarital sex and compared women who had sex before their wedding nights 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 no longer have worth, you no 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."
She is so brave for using the platform she has as the result of a trauma to speak straightforwardly on this issue. And what she's saying resonates deeply with me. In March 2011, I wrote On Surviving and Sex Ed, in which I shared almost precisely the same experience:
One of the most intractable complications of processing for me, after surviving sexual trauma as a teenager, was my Christian upbringing—a tradition on which a huge premium is placed on purity. (I don't mean to suggest this is true in all Christian traditions, but it was in the one in which I was raised.) I was quite explicitly expected to be a virgin bride.Abstinence-only sex ed is garbage. Dangerous, ineffective, demeaning garbage. I desperately hope its purveyors will hear what Elizabeth Smart, and every woman who is a member of this grim sisterhood, has to say about its consequences for survivors.
My mother had been a virgin bride. My father had been a virgin groom. They expected their daughters to be virgins when we married, and we were expected to marry. It wasn't just from my parents that I learned of this expectation: In Sunday school, in confirmation class, in sermons—everyone from my ministers to my peers to Martin Luther himself admonished me to fiercely protect my virginity until I gifted it to my husband on my wedding night.
I was assumed to be straight and exhorted to get married and expected to be a virgin when I did.
I frankly wasn't even sure that I wanted to get married when I was raped at 16, but, after I was, I was sure that I wasn't going to be a virgin bride.
I had deeply internalized the Christian narratives about premarital sex sullying my very soul, and such was the lack of discussion surrounding consent in my young life that the idea nonconsensual sex might not "count" to whatever galactic referee was keeping score of such things never even crossed my mind.
I had also deeply internalized the cultural stereotypes of raped women being irreparably broken, women with broken minds and broken bodies.
Regarding myself as damaged goods, in both spirit and flesh, I figured it didn't matter if I engaged in sexual activity henceforth. And, beyond that grim calculation, that horrible, sad, shrugging relinquishment of my decision-making regarding sex because the decision had been made for me, was something yet worse: I didn't feel like I had any value anymore.
I'd spent my life learning that my worth as a female person was attached to my virginity.
My value as an unsullied cunt was gone.