Julia Gazdag
writer | producer | photographer
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Elizabeth Smart: Are We Pressured To Remain Sexually Pure?

This piece was first published on HG May 9, 2013

Elizabeth Smart: Are We Pressured To Remain Sexually Pure?

Most of us know Elizabeth Smart’s story, especially people around her hometown of Salt Lake City, UT. She was kidnapped from her home at the age of 14, sexually abused and raped daily in a forced polygamous marriage, and tethered to a metal cable. This part of her story is absolutely horrifying, but what made the news (aside from the abduction and rape of a pretty white girl, I mean) was the fact that her abuser and captor took her out in public often, and yet no one recognized her. No one connected her with the images of the missing girl, because she didn’t look and act like someone who was being held captive.

Smart is now a sexual violence prevention advocate, and recently spoke at Johns Hopkins, where she offered insight not only into her own reactions in captivity, but into what exactly we often teach girls and women about their sexuality. Having been raised in a culture that prized sexual purity and taught abstinence-only sex education, she said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” having been raped, that she didn’t even want to run. She felt she had no one to run to – her purity had been put on such a high pedestal, that she felt worthless as a person, and as a woman, when it was violently taken from her. Imagine feeling that your family does not want you home, safe, and with them, because someone violated you — that the place, which should offer comfort and hope, could reject you for something you had no control over.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away” Smart said, referring to what a school teacher once taught her class, in which premarital sex was equated with chewing gum. You know, like the whole why-buy-the-cow-when-you-can-get-the-milk-for-free thing, because marriage is just buying people so you can f*ck them. Sanctity of marriage! Quick, protect it!

“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,” continued Smart. Even social psychologists and sexual abuse counselors will tell you that a comprehensive sex education (ie. giving people the knowledge they need to make informed decisions for themselves) can help prevent sexual crimes. Even something as simple as teaching kids how to accurately define their genitalia.

Because abstinence-only education programs historically go hand-in-hand with slut-shaming, while failing to teach about preventing STD’s. Let’s be clear: if you don’t want to have sex, don’t. If you do, go nuts. Abstinence is an option for everyone, but it is not the only option. It’s no coincidence that its teaching is connected to a mentality that takes slut shaming to the level where a 14-year-old girl sees herself as so worthless after being raped, that she sees no point in getting out of a violently abusive situation. Moreover, prizing female sexual purity above all other aspects of being, I don’t know, A PERSON, inevitably creates a power structure in which a woman’s autonomy can be snuffed out with a single rumor, let alone rape.

Which, really, is the most jarring thing we can take away from Elizabeth Smart’s horror story, like we could from Steubenville, and like we could from Savannah Dietrich, and countless others:  slut shaming is inseparable from violence. It does more than hurt feelings, it perpetuates a culture in which women are at higher risk of sexual assault, and often assigned the blame instead of their violent attackers who chose to act as they did.

Victims of sexual assault did not choose to be attacked. And every time we glorify the sexual purity of a girl, which is a personal and intimate thing, every time we shame girls who don’t match virginal standards that diminish their value as an intelligent, independent human and instead assign their worth to their vagina, we are also encouraging the destruction of their lives at the hand of a sexual assailant.