Elizabeth Smart, a kidnapping and sexual assault victim who has devoted her adult life to combating human trafficking, made national headlines earlier this year when she voiced a critique about abstinence-only education. Emphasizing purity ultimately makes rape victims feel worthless, Smart pointed out, and that’s why she felt “dirty and filthy” after she was sexually assaulted.
Smart’s statements were so newsworthy largely because of her background. Raised by a devout Mormon family in Salt Lake City, Smart grew up within a conservative religious community and was taught that sex should be reserved for marriage. And predictably, social conservatives were quick to go on the defensive after the news spread, claiming that her statements about sex ed were misconstrued by the liberal media.
Rather than retracting her point about abstinence education, however, Smart has taken steps to expand upon the issues at the heart of her statement about purity culture. In an interview in the upcoming issue of the New Yorker, Smart explains that abstinence-only education is one piece of a bigger puzzle. She notes that’s just one of the multiple factors that contribute to a society in which rape victims are shamed instead of supported:
Smart told me that she wanted to clarify her point. She had been lamenting that victims of sexual abuse often feel that they are “no longer as good as everybody else.” Nobody should have the power to take away another person’s self-worth, Smart told me. But abstinence education was hardly the only way that victims of sexual assault could be shamed. A girl could be humiliated through social media — Smart and I talked about the incident last year in Steubenville, Ohio, in which high-school students recorded an assault with cell-phone cameras and mocked the victim on Twitter. Smart told me, “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.”
Ultimately, she’s describing rape culture — the term for a set of attitudes that assume rape is inevitable, consent is invisible, and victims are to blame for the crimes perpetrated against them because they “asked for it.” Thanks to high-profile rape cases like Steubenville and Maryville, rape culture is becoming a more mainstream concept. But it’s still constantly reinforced, particularly through the media.
Since Smart is currently speaking to the press to promote her upcoming book “My Story,” which details her journey from a victim to an advocate, she’s had a lot of recent opportunities to speak out about rape culture. When she talks about what motivated her to write a memoir, she typically brings up many of the deeply-ingrained societal issues that continue to plague survivors of sexual assault. She wants to help teach society to treat rape victims with compassion.
“After being raped, I felt completely worthless. I didn’t even feel like I was human anymore,” Smart told NPR in an interview earlier this week. “And it is just so important to let these survivors know that they are not any less of a person. You don’t love them any less. And that to pretend like it never happened, or to pretend like rape doesn’t exist or that it only happens in the wrong parts of town — you’re doing that survivor a disservice.”
The New Yorker article on Smart notes that “her goal as a public figure is to make ‘talking about rape and abuse not such a taboo.’” While that may seem like a typical low-impact public awareness effort, that type of education campaign around sexual assault is sorely needed. Research has found that the majority of Americans don’t talk about sexual violence, despite the fact that it’s a hugely widespread issue. Most adolescents grow up without learning anything about rape or consent. Many rapists report that they don’t believe they actually did anything wrong. College campuses have swept rape under the rug for years.
All of those dynamics are related to rape culture, too. Rape culture is all about downplaying, erasing, and stigmatizing sexual assault — after all, if victims assume it was all their fault, they’ll be dissuaded from coming forward. When Smart tells victims that it’s okay to talk about what happened to them, and they shouldn’t believe the messages telling them they’re worthless or they deserved it, she’s working to dismantle that.
At the end of the day, Smart knows that what she’s doing is important because she is constantly approached by survivors after she makes public appearances. “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken and not had someone come up to me and say, ‘I was raped and I’ve never been able to tell my story’ or ‘I’ve been through some kind of abuse,’” Smart explained to a local news affiliate this week. “Every time I speak that happens to me, and that really helped me decide to write my book and to include everything that I included in it.”