We wondered, just like everyone else did: why didn’t Elizabeth Smart run? There she was, wandering downtown Salt Lake City, right in our midst, the veiled captive of a madman.
But we also recognized something in that paralysis, that deadly quiet. We recognized something of ourselves.
Now, Elizabeth Smart, continuing her elegant and courageous adult self-realization, tells an audience at a Johns Hopkins University event on human trafficking that a very traditional Mormon culture object lesson on sexual purity contributed decisively to the paralysis that kept her a captive.
She recalls that a teacher once held up a chewed up piece of used chewing gum and compared it to a young woman who lost her virginity. And after surviving sexual assault during her captivity, Smart recalls:
“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 easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value,” Smart said. “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.”
I don’t know much about Mormon religious teachings on sexuality, but I know a lot about Christian teachings on the matter. I know very well the shame of falling from grace, how worthless and dirty I felt. My purity sacrificed, my honor forever stained…why should I expect a decent man to love me? And it wasn’t just my Christian teachers who instilled that sense of shame. My mother taught me from a young age that my privates were dirty and she teased me mercilessly when I began to mature. Her attitude and ridicule reinforced the teachings of my pastor and teachers that the flesh is evil.
Women are also taught that they are to submit to their husbands, sexually and in all other aspects of their lives. It is only recently that laws have been passed to protect women from being raped by their husbands. The concept is still baffling to some. How can a man rape his own property? Women are blamed for their own victimization.
No one deserves rape. No one deserves to be shamed and treated as property. There are so many facets to the problem of sexual abuse. We cannot ignore the fact that religion often plays a role in both creating the problem and in covering it up. The shame instilled in a child when he or she is sexually maturing can create the very monster that we fear. It can also cause an abused child to keep it a secret. Even worse, it can lead to the covering up of the crime itself if and when the abuse comes to light. Many times, the victim is not believed, or is blamed for the abuse. So many of them turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. Often, they continue the cycle by choosing partners who abuse them, because it is all they know or feel they deserve.
I so admire Elizabeth Smart for speaking out on this subject. After all she has been through, she could easily have isolated herself and hidden from the public eye. Instead, she uses her horrific past to help other children who don’t have a voice. She has her own foundation that fights child abuse and exploitation and teaches kids that they have value, no matter what happens to them.