Kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart said she was overjoyed at hearing of the happy ending for the three missing women rescued recently in Cleveland, Ohio. Speaking to Good Morning America on Tuesday, Smart told the women that it will be important for them to move forward in order to let go of the past. She also warned listeners to give the three women and their families privacy as they begin the healing process. The healing process is something Smart has been talking about at length this past week.
On September 14, 2002, Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at knife point at the age of 14. She was held captive for nine months by a street preacher. On May 1 she spoke at Johns Hopkins Human Trafficking Forum where she openly and honestly recalled her experience being held captive for 9 months. In her speech she referenced how the culturally conservative emphasis on purity made her feel worthless. After she was rescued from her captors, Smart remarks, that she was often asked "Why didn’t you just shout out for help?" It's something Smart has thought about at length. In her speech she tries to explain her feelings:
"After that first rape, I felt crushed. Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand so easily all too well why someone wouldn’t run because of that alone."
Smart believes that so much of her feeling of worthlessness was fueled by abstinence-only sex education. She recalled a former teacher who 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 easily 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."
"The same churches that peddle purity don’t tend to think very highly of homosexuality; that homophobia, coupled with sexual shame, silences many boys and men who are assaulted by other men. For those who are assaulted by women, the broader cultural assumption that men always want sex puts up even more barriers to reporting and dealing with that abuse."
Purity culture does not only hurt women, we can all be harmed by it. Jessica Valenti has written extensively about this, most notably in her book The Purity Myth. Purity culture is what is responsible for making Elizabeth Smart feel worthless, defeated and devalued. If all of our value is determined by what does or doesn't happen between our legs, than it devalues women's personal agency. How? Virginity is often referred to as something another person has either "taken" or "stolen". It requires that you live life in a very specific binary. You either are or are not. You either have value, or you don't. That's what Elizabeth Smart is challenging us to change. "You have value, you will always have value, and nothing can change that." Abstinence-only sex education increases the shame and fear many teens experience regarding sex. In turn, this can make it more difficult for survivors to speak out or get help. It is important that our sex education enables all people to feel empowered and to feel in control of what happens to their bodies. What we learn in sex education effects how we feel about sex. If I am continually told that the most valuable part of my body is my virginity, than what I am really being told is my only value is my sexuality. That's a terrifyingly disturbing message to send to young girls, to anyone. It's time to stop shaming and fear-mongering about sex. Let's be honest and equip people with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their own sexual health and reproduction.
Smart urges parents to teach kids from a very young age that they are worthy of love no matter what happens. Your body doesn't belong to someone else. It is your own, and you have an intrinsic worth that no one and no thing can possibly take that away.