If Ron Howard wants to talk about making movies, or if Paul McCartney wants to tell stories about John Lennon, you not only listen, you take notes. I feel that way about Elizabeth Smart when she talks about rape syndrome. She was a fourteen-year-old when she was kidnapped out of her bedroom and held as a sex slave for nine months by a deranged vagrant. I don’t question her bona fides in the area of what that does to a person. I take notes.
Elizabeth is twenty-five now, and like John Walsh and Sarah Brady, and so many other good people whose lives were forever transformed by the cruelties of fate, she has tried to use her own experience to make a change in the world. She now heads the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, telling her personal story to audiences that often number in the thousands. Her speeches bravely insist that we need to change our “rape culture,” where girls who have sex are considered less valuable than girls who are virgins. In her speeches, Elizabeth says children should be taught they “will always have value and nothing can change that.”
Last spring, Elizabeth, who was raised in a conservative Mormon home, made news when she told an audience at a Johns Hopkins symposium on human trafficking that abstinence only education is a mistake because it shames women. I have no idea how Elizabeth votes, but the religious right has anointed her as one of their own, and she does wear a lot of pearls, so let me quote her verbatim, lest I be accused of putting my liberal spin on conservative Elizabeth’s complaint.
I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking about, well, about abstinence, and she said, “imagine that you’re a stick of gum, and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed, and if you do that lots of times, you’re gonna become an old piece of gum! And who’s going to want you after that?” Well, that’s terrible, but nobody should ever say that, but for me, I felt, 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 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.
Think Progress ran a story on how the abstinence only message Elizabeth had received made her feel “worthless, dirty and filthy”. Gawker went one step further and said the abstinence only “education” Elizabeth had received “kept her from running away” from her kidnapper. Somehow the rabid right managed to turn their stories into: “Sick liberals exploit Elizabeth Smart’s rape and kidnapping to demonize abstinence education.” The mud-slinging began. And Elizabeth’s message was lost.
Did we all read the same quote? Can we at least come to a consensus that what Elizabeth was trying to tell us is: don’t make women feel ashamed for having sex. Can we all agree on that? Because this is Ron Howard talking about camera angles. This is Paul McCartney reminiscing about the first time he and John wrote a song together. Elizabeth Smart says abstinence only programs hurt young women’s self-esteem. We should be taking notes.
I was curious to see how Elizabeth herself would handle the controversy her speech engendered. Would the conservative forces reel her in? Would she walk back her abstinence only critique? I got my answer this week. In an upcoming issue of New Yorker Magazine, Elizabeth Smart is reported to have “clarified” her views on abstinence only programs. (I hate calling it “abstinence only education” since it is exactly the opposite. It’s keeping kids uneducated about their own bodies and about sex.) She didn’t “walk it back”. She painted it in softer colors for the Right, by saying it was one example among many other ways women are shamed for their sexuality. But she did reaffirm her observation that abstinence only is a factor that often contributes to victims of sexual abuse blaming themselves. Elizabeth told Margaret Talbot of the New Yorker:
“I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met who say, ‘When I was your age, I was raped, but it was kind of my fault, because of X, Y, or Z.’ And I just want to pull my hair out.”
So today I would like to take notice of Elizabeth Smart, all grown up and doing her best to make people aware of the “rape culture” in America. I would also like to take notice of her message to stop shaming women for their sexuality. Abstinence only doesn’t lower teen birth rates, but as Elizabeth Smart has attested to, it sure can lower a girl’s self-esteem.
Photo: Elizabeth Smart Foundation Facebook
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle. Follow me on Twitter as @Uncucumbered or friend me on Facebook.