Last week, Elizabeth Smart publicly reflected on her experience of being abducted and repeatedly raped for months at age fourteen:
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."
I applaud Smart's courage in speaking out as an advocate for victims, even if that means criticizing the religion of her childhood, the Mormonism she loves. I hope that people will listen. As Joanna Brooks points out today, damaging messages about female sexuality continue to be a problem in Mormon culture despite the fact that the LDS Church officially teaches that victims of rape and sexual abuse are innocent of any sin.
That message of grace and redemption, I fear, may be more than drowned out by other voices in Mormondom. Kristine Haglund at By Common Consent notes that in the Young Women's Personal Progress program, the very first scripture the girls are asked to memorize for the recently added "Virtue" value is Moroni 9:9, "which describes young women as having lost their virtue by being raped. That scripture reference needs to go, NOW."
And just last month in General Conference, the outgoing Young Women auxiliary president, Elaine Dalton, gave a talk that many listeners found troubling. She said:
Young women, make sure your relationships with others are such that 40 years from now, you will not be embarrassed. No amount of peer pressure, no acceptance, no popularity is worth a compromise. Your influence on the young men will help them remain worthy of their priesthood power, of temple covenants, and of serving a mission. And who knows? Forty years from now, you may even have one of them walk up to you, there in your high school auditorium, and thank you for helping him remain worthy to fulfill his priesthood duty to serve an honorable mission. . . .
Second, be not moved in your desire and commitment to remain virtuous and sexually pure. Cherish virtue. Your personal purity is one of your greatest sources of power. . . .
What is this statement communicating to young women?
- That their worth consists in not tempting young men.
- That they are morally responsible for not only their own sexual agency and decisionmaking but boys' as well.
- That their virginity is a precious commodity and one of their "greatest sources of power."
I am sure that Sister Dalton would be the first to say that someone like Elizabeth Smart is innocent and not to be blamed for any of the terrible things that happened to her. However, it is not a stretch for a teenage girl to hear phrases like "Keep yourselves pure and worthy, and guard that which is 'most dear and precious above all'—your virtue and chastity" or "virtue is the golden key to the temple" and assume that if she is not a capital V she is by extension impure, unworthy, and not precious to God.
If virginity is the cornerstone of female power, as Sister Dalton suggests, then its surrender, whether willingly or by force, is the very definition of disempowerment and devaluation. As Elizabeth Smart put it, who wants a chewed-up piece of gum?
Let this be a wake-up call to every YW leader, every bishop, every parent, to watch our words. Words are powerful, and the messages we send to young women about their sexuality can last a lifetime, and possibly beyond. When Christians attach the language of purity to female sexual sin -- and as this cogent article points out, only to female sexual sin -- the message of Jesus is lost.
It's no longer "neither do I condemn you." It's "you're used up and no longer have any worth."
The photo of Elizabeth Smart is used with permission of Shutterstock.com.