Elizabeth Smart, Human Trafficking, and Purity Culture

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

We’ve spoken in the past about the harmful effects of a shame-based purity culture that treats women (and men) who have had sex before marriage as “damaged goods.”  

Many of us who grew up in the Church sat through at least one or two horrific object lessons reinforcing the idea that premarital sex ruins a person for good. Perhaps everyone in the youth group spat into a cup, or perhaps a rose was trampled and torn to pieces, or perhaps a construction-paper heart was ripped to shreds.  

Kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart recently spoke at a Johns Hopkins University human trafficking forum about her own experience, and said she understood why some victims of trafficking stay with their abusers. 

From the Christian Science Monitor: 

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."

Obviously, there are many other reasons a victim might stay with his or her abuser, and Elizabeth was certainly not placing the blame for her abduction on the purity culture, but before we dismiss those speaking out against these sort of shaming tactics that have become so prevalent in the Church, we must consider the effects the “damaged goods” narrative can have on young hearts and minds. 

I am so grateful to Elizabeth, who has dedicated much of her time to protecting and educating children about violent and sexual crimes through the Elizabeth Smart Foundation and spreading the good word that “ you will always have value and nothing can change that.” 

Talk about a woman of valor! 

So what’s the alternative? How can we teach young people to value the sacredness of sex and the importance of responsibility without resorting to shame-based, fear-based tactics? 

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