Elizabeth Smart, chewed gum, roses, cars, and me.

Trigger Warning for Rape, Sexual Assault, and “Slut Shaming”

As you may have seen, this storyabout rescued kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart has been making the rounds on the internet.

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 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.” . . . Smart says children should be educated that “you will always have value and nothing can change that.”

My response to this was, wow. I can’t compare my own story to Smart’s, and can’t imagine what she had to go through. But her words resonate with me, and bring back memories of my own story. When I was a child, I was sexually abused by a relative. These memories were painful growing up, but when I got to high school and started learning about “purity,” the memories went from painful to devastating.

One preacher at camp passed around a rose and had everyone touch it. After this rose had passed through 150 sweaty, grubby hands, it is torn and ugly. The rose did not ask to be handled, but it was and now, as the preacher said, no one would want it.

 

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

One book I read in high school (a book that I’m actually going to be talking about in my upcoming series) talked about a car that someone was test driving. They discussed sexual experiences as letting someone “poke holes” in the seat of your car and “spilling a drink” on it.

Every new sexual experience, when you are not married, puts another ding, another scratch, another scar on who you are. You keep running your car into other people, and then you wonder why no one treats you special. You can’t understand why no one wants to make a major commitment. You are in control of this. You control what kind of condition you are in. If you treat your body like an old clunker, don’t be surprised when everyone wants to take you for a spin, and then go get a new car. You are valuable. Keep yourself new. Keep yourself unused.

Of course a car doesn’t really have control over how it’s treated, and neither did I as a six year old child. But just like the rose analogy, that apparently didn’t matter. It didn’t matter why I was in the “used” condition I was, no one would want me.

These weren’t the only two analogies I’d heard growing up. Sex, growing up, was often described in these violent, one-sided metaphors that objectified at least one sex partner (usually these analogies were subtly or not-so-subtly aimed at women–have you ever heard a man talked about as a precious flower/rose?) and left that objectified partner a hopelessly destroyed mess that no one would ever want to be with.

The abusive partner I met in church when I was 16 had heard these same messages, and he used them. 

“No one else would want you. You aren’t pure. You’re lucky that I’m okay with that.”

“You’re already ruined anyway. You might as well let me.”

“It’s too late. You’re just a statistic anyway.”

He used them to rape me and coerce me into sex, and to keep me from leaving him.

Yet proponents of abstinence-only education continue to use these messages because “just because these messages have been abused doesn’t mean they aren’t useful.”

I’m here to say that these messages aren’t just “being abused.” The messages themselves are abusive. The message itself–”that alone” as Smart says–that any sexual acts (consensual or non-consensual) can make a person unworthy of love or can strip a person of value is abusive.The idea that people become less human because of life experiences is abusive.

Elizabeth Smart is right. We need to teach our children (and remind adults) that no matter what, they are valuable. To teach them otherwise is abusive.

  • http://lostreef.blogspot.com/ Virgil T. Morant

    I think you clearly identify a huge part of the problem with these teachings, when you conclude with how they denigrate human dignity (value). A human being is not a commodity (like a car) or a piece of candy or a plucked bit of of vegetation, and the entirety of a person’s worth is not permanently disfigured by a sexual act. That’s a rather un-Christian idea.

    Car metaphors are popular all around: those who favor having sex before marriage, for instance, will often liken it to test-driving an automobile. As though one’s life partner were a selection made out of a showroom. Any of these comparisons by whoever (and towards whichever purpose) that reduce human beings to mere material are perilous.

    I’m no psychiatrist, but there must be some relationship between this awful attitude towards the human person and the tendency in many circles for loved ones to cover up any sexual offense that has been committed within the community or the family. I mention it not to side-track comments into a tangent, but just to say that I think this kind of nonsense has a great many evil consequences, or at least it contributes to a great many other evils in human relations. Misery flows from treating human beings as something less than human.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      “…there must be some relationship between this awful attitude towards the human person and the tendency in many circles for loved ones to cover up any sexual offense that has been committed within the community or the family.”

      According to some academic research I’ve read for a project recently there is definitely a strong connection between the tendency to objectify people and the tendency to blame victims. I think you bring up a really good point, too, that it’s not just abstinence-only people who are doing this. Both sides have a real problem with objectification.

  • Pingback: “You’ll LOVE chewing one piece of gum every day for your whole life”

  • http://mittenatheist.blogspot.com/ Kari Lynn

    I think the car metaphor is silly and I have decided to make one myself. Here it is:
    Virgins are like the first model of a car. They are new and shiny. However, they don’t have all of the bugs worked out yet. That’s why they release improved models every year, they take what didn’t work before and fix it, so that the new cars perform better for the people who drive them.
    Seriously, I’ve never understood why someone would place huge importance on someone being a virgin when they got married. The first time is awkward and painful, why would you want your wedding night to be associated with pain?


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