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

Elizabeth Smart, chewed gum, roses, cars, and me. May 7, 2013

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.


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