Elizabeth Smart became a household name after she was kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City, UT at the age of 14 and held in captivity for nine months. She was forced into a polygamous marriage, tethered to a metal cable, and raped daily until she was rescued from her captors nine months later. Smart was recovered while she and her kidnappers were walking down a suburban street, leading many Americans who followed her story on the national news to wonder: Why didn’t she just run away as soon as she was brought outside?
Speaking to an audience at Johns Hopkins about issues of human trafficking and sexual violence, Smart recently offered an answer to that question. She explained that some human trafficking victims don’t run away because they feel worthless after being raped, particularly if they have been raised in conservative cultures that push abstinence-only education and emphasize sexual purity:
Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.”
Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.
“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 no longer have worth, you no 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.”
Now in her mid-twenties, Smart runs a foundation to help educate children about sexual crimes. She now believes that children should grow up learning that “you will always have value and nothing can change that.”
Social psychologists and sexual abuse counselors agree that comprehensive sex education can help prevent sexual crimes. Teaching children about their bodies gives them the tools to describe acts of abuse without feeling as embarrassed or uncomfortable, and it also helps elevate their self-confidence and sense of bodily autonomy. A shame-based approach to genitalia and sexuality, on the other hand, sends kids the message that they can’t discuss or ask questions about any of those issues.
Nonethless, abstinence-only education programs have a long history of imparting harmful messages that shame youth about their sexuality instead of teaching them the facts they need to safeguard their health. A high school in West Virginia recently made national headlines after hosting a conservative religious speaker who allegedly told students “if you take birth control, your mother probably hates you” and “I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous.” In Smart’s home state of Utah — which is home to a large religiously conservative Mormon community — sex education is currently mandated, but lawmakers have repeatedly pushed to weaken the state law and reinstate an abstinence-only curriculum.