Elizabeth Smart decries abstinence-only sex ed, and her message hits home

As a former Catholic school girl whose "sex education" consisted of pro-life scare tactics and virginity worship, I can understand why Smart felt too "dirty" to leave her captors after being raped.

May 8, 2013

Before Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight and Berry's young daughter were discovered in the basement of a Cleveland home on Monday, held captive by a neighborhood man for over 10 years, the nation was captivated by another abducted girl-turned miracle story: the case of Elizabeth Smart.

In 2002, 14-year-old Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom in Salt Lake City. She was found nine months later, only 18 miles from her home, and her captors (who also raped her repeatedly and threatened to kill her) were sentenced to life in prison. 

Today, Smart is working on behalf of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation for abduction awareness, and in light of recent events in Ohio, speaking out against abstinence-only education and its detrimental effects on victims of rape and human trafficking.

During a panel at John Hopkins last week, Smart (now 25 and finishing up a music degree at Brigham Young University) described how intense guilt and shame kept her from escaping her abusers: 

"I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence,” Smart told the panel, “And she said, 'Imagine you’re a stick of gum. When you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?’ Well, that’s terrible. No one should ever say that. But for me, I thought, ‘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 you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value."

I received a similar abstinence-only lecture while attending Catholic school in Texas. As I sat in a gymnasium with 200 other girls between the ages of 12 and 14, a speaker put on a pair of velcro garden gloves ("Barbie and Ken," he called them), slapped his hands together and then pulled them apart with a loud, drawn-out ripping noise.

"That's the sound of your virginity being taken away," he said.

On another occasion, my middle school classmates and I were shown pictures of aborted fetuses, then given white cards that we had to spray to reveal our pink stains of STDs from pre-marital sex.

I got chlymadia on the card, but not in real life. Meanwhile, the abortion scare tactics seemed to have little effect on my peers, as many of them went on to have sex behind the bleachers in high school. 

Unfortunately, this "virgin purity" absurdity is perpetuated by faiths the world over, and causes religious victims of rape and molestation to feel even more worthless than they would already.

After being raised in a Mormon household, Smart attests that she felt "so dirty and filthy" for being forced into pre-marital sex, and understands why victims don't run for "that alone."

However, she also believes that instead of slut-shaming children with creepy used gum and premarital-sex-is-like-being-a-dirty-glass-of-water analogies, they should be taught that "they have value no matter what."

Smart remains a devout Mormon to this day (married to a young man whom she met on a mission, no less) but her strength and courage in denouncing a key component of the religious right proves that she is a true advocate for more comprehensive sex education as well. 

When asked for her thoughts on the Ohio kidnap rescue earlier this week, Smart said that she hopes the three victims will "find their own pathway back to some sense of well-being" and not blame themselves for the abuse that they were forced to endure:

“[Their abductor] has stolen so much from them already, they deserve to be happy," Smart told ABC's Good Morning America, "I would tell them I hope that they realize there is so much ahead of them, that they don’t need to hold on to the past … They don’t need to relive everything that’s happened, because it’s proof, their rescue is proof that there are good people out there."

"It's not their fault," Smart made sure to add, "It's never their fault."

Leah Pickett writes about popular culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @leahkpickett or join the conversation on Facebook