Elizabeth Smart Proves that Abstinence Education is the Worst Thing Ever

[TRIGGER WARNING for rape and sexual assault] 

Dirty. Filthy. A chewed piece of gum. These are words used by Elizabeth Smart to describe how she felt after being kidnapped, held captive, and raped for nearly a year back in 2002. These are some of the reasons that kept her from fleeing the moment she got the opportunity. Where would she get such ideas? Abstinence-only education, of course!

Smart says that the abstinence-only education she received in her conservative Salt Lake City, UT schools primed her for the sort of thinking that would set her up to believe that being kidnapped and raped made her as useless as an old piece of gum. Because of this, Smart said during a talk on sex trafficking at Johns Hopkins University that she, “Understands why someone wouldn’t run because of that alone.” Smart went on to talk about how if someone is taught that once their virginity is gone, they have no value, they will see no point in speaking out.

Ten years later, we’re still teaching the same thing. Conservative states are still pushing for abstinence-only education, and religious schools and institutions are still trying to send the very message that Smart received before she was kidnapped and raped. If you have sex, you’re worthless. If you were raped, you really had sex and you’re still worthless, and you’re probably also some sort of temptress jezebel. The message isn’t always so hellfire and brimstone; in fact, it’s often much more insidious. It’s wrapped in big white bows and God’s love and messages of perfect womanhood. But in truth, it’s just as damaging.

When I was a freshman in high school, only a few years after Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped, a woman came to our school to speak to all of the freshman girls. Little, alternative Elfity with her anti-war protests and authority issues knew something was up when it turned out that the talk was organized by a known conservative dean and that the freshman boys were exempt. Little Elfity was right to be concerned. You see, that was the day I was offered a second virginity, even though I was already hanging onto my first arbitrary patriarchal standard of control. I listened to approximately ten minutes of this middle-aged white woman telling her young captive audience about how valuable and wonderful we were just as long as we kept ourselves pure. She was very careful, in the ten minutes before I walked out (with flames on the side of my face, Mrs. White-style), not to mention Jesus. Did I mention that this happened in a 3,000-student school in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the country?

We know that abstinence-only education does more harm than good. We know that it contributes to higher rates of teen pregnancy, infant and mother mortality, and poverty. We know that comprehensive sex education that empowers teens to make their own informed decisions and that includes information on how to access and use reliable birth control and STD prevention allows for the best possible outcomes. They don’t call it Planned Parenthood for nothin’, y’all. Part of comprehensive sex education requires that we tell kids of all genders that they are valuable regardless of their sexual status. Their value doesn’t hinge on the aforementioned standard of patriarchal control.

Abstinence-only education does nothing but send the message that Elizabeth Smart took with her to her captor’s home. It says that anyone who has sex before marriage is dirty, worthless, and has fallen from some arbitrary state of grace probably set up by someone else’s culture. It serves only to reinforce the idea that women belong to men, and more specifically that little girls belong to their daddies, who are the sworn protectors of their daughters’ vaginas. That is, until they transfer ownership of said vagina to their daughter’s husband. This is 2013, and women do not belong to anyone but themselves. Men do not own anyone but themselves, and nobody should be groomed to feel this way. Nobody should be taught to assign value based on something as basic as sex. And yet, here we are.

I know you know this already, but you are not worthless, Elizabeth Smart. You are amazing and wonderful and brave, and it has nothing to do with your sexual status. This is a message that all women and girls should receive, and they shouldn’t have to go through hell to get it.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

6 replies on “Elizabeth Smart Proves that Abstinence Education is the Worst Thing Ever”

“It serves only to reinforce the idea that women belong to men, and more specifically that little girls belong to their daddies, who are the sworn protectors of their daughters’ vaginas.”

This accurately explains some of the really weird discomfort I felt when I got my first boyfriend that my parents were aware of (not allowed to date until your sixteen – I was a curious, secretly defiant child) and I am pretty certain that was part of the reason I quickly broke up with him – though not actually liking him and realizing it may have had something to do with it. I hated mentioning anything to do with him to my dad! It felt weird, like I was breaking a code by growing up and would thus no longer be my father’s daughter anymore. Not to suggest that my dad saw things the way you described them, but I definitely think I got this message from growing up where virginity is such a huge deal. I’ve gotten much more comfortable now in terms of boyfriends and dads coexisting – and the fact that either exists doesn’t alter my relationship with either of them specifically, but yup. Yup. I understand this. Kudos to you on walking out. Love Elizabeth Smart for her guts. And please can we get rid of abstinence only education and start teaching girls and boys about their bodies and protected sex?

I am sooo impressed that she was willing to say that. She comes from a very conservative Mormon community, and I imagine that she knew she’d be upsetting some people when she did. I hope this marks the beginning of the end for abstinence education.

Her statement was so heartbreaking. It’s horrible enough to have to go through what she did, but the psychological burden of feeling like your life has lost all purpose because of something that was done to you is just awful. I’m so glad she’s come out of it as well-adjusted as she has and that she’s willing to speak up.

The purity culture dynamic and the harm it causes, especially to women is something progressive and liberal Christians have been discussing for a bit, though sometimes you feel like you’re screaming into the wind. One of the few Christian bloggers I still read is Rachel Held Evans and she blogged about this very thing and the discussion is….interesting. Thankfully, there are commentators I very much agree with, but there were a couple of times I had to close the browser and walk away. It’s heartening for me that the discussion is happening though even if I feel that change and progress is slow.

Bravo for walking out on that bullshit.

She seems awesome, and I was also glad to see some US Christian feminists agree with her:

Elizabeth Esther:
“by using shame-based messages about sex, purity culture proponents actually expose their daughters to other kinds of danger: learned helplessness and a debilitating despair that prevents them from believing they are inherently valuable, no matter what they do and no matter what happens to them.”

Kristin Howerton:
“It’s also imperative that we teach our kids, and our girls specifically, that THEIR IDENTITY AND WORTH IS NOT TIED TO THEIR VIRGINITY….No woman, ever, is a chewed up piece of gum. No woman is a cup of spit. No woman is a used car or a dirty rag or a used-up piece of duct tape or a plucked rose or a licked cupcake. No matter what she’s done. Didn’t Jesus come to tell us that?”

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