Elizabeth Smart & the life-threatening danger of shame-based purity culture

*trigger warning: rape, victim blaming*

I read an interesting line in the New Yorker yesterday, describing an important characteristic about one of the kidnapped girls who was recently rescued in Cleveland:

…she had to never forget who she was, and that who she was mattered..

She had to never forget that who she was mattered.

This line haunts me, especially when juxtaposed against the despair Elizabeth Smart felt after she was kidnapped: 

 …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.”

What is the difference between a kidnapped girl who actively looks for escape and the one who does not? One possible answer: she knows and owns her inherent worth.

I realize there are many contributing factors but we can’t underestimate the importance that a girl believes she is important. She believes she matters. She never forgets who she is and that who she is matters. She has an unshakeable belief that no matter what happens to her in captivity, SHE is always valuable.

When I started writing about the harmful effects of purity culture, I overlooked one of the most terrible, unintended consequences: when you teach young women that her identity and worth is tied to her virginity, you make her more vulnerable to despair if she is raped and thus, reduce her chance of survival.

A despairing rape victim is less likely report her rape. A despairing kidnap victim is less likely to actively seek escape. Because what would be the point? Why would it even be worth screaming about? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.

A girl who is raised in purity culture and then is raped may eventually realize that the parenting methods her parents used essentially conditioned her to be… a victim of non-consensual sex. And why would a purity-culture-girl report her rape when, as Jori’s story shows, she’d just be blamed for it anyway: “This sort of thing doesn’t happen to godly girls,” [her parents] told her. “You put yourself in a situation for this sort of thing to happen.”

Even for girls who are not raped or sexually molested but who grew up hearing the shame-based messages of purity culture, the resulting despair can have long-term negative effects on their married sex lives. I’ve received emails from young women who, because they had so internalized the message that My Worth Can Be Measured By My Virginity, felt horrifically guilty after “losing their virginity” on their wedding night. Some of these women still do not enjoy sex. Others have yet to experience an orgasm.

As one of my own friends said to me: “If you’ve been told your whole life no-no-no about sex, how do you just flip that switch after you’re married to yes-yes-yes?”

Ultimately, purity culture  isn’t about sex, it’s about control. It’s about burrowing inside a woman’s heart and soul and mind to control how she views her body, her worth and whether she is lovable. Of course, this is done with the best intentions: protecting young women from unnecessary heartbreak.

But by using shame-based messages about sex, purity culture proponents actually expose their daughters to other kinds of danger: learned helplessness and a debilitating despair that prevents them from believing they are inherently valuable, no matter what they do and no matter what happens to them.

Believing she is valuable–no matter what–may literally save her life.

  • JessieLeigh

    Until we, as a society, learn to view and honor women as people and not as manifestations of character traits (e.g. purity, chastity, timidity, submissiveness, etc.) OR for physical traits (attractiveness, sexuality, and, yes, modesty), we’ll get nowhere. Worth is grounded so much deeper than any of these things…. maybe that’s what makes it so much harder to acknowledge.

  • dolly llama

    I grew up in the LDS, and Brigham Young once said it is better to come home in a cardboard box than a non-Virgin. He was a prophet to us. There had been a few since then that agreed with him. A lot of Mormons I know where abused as kids but never spoke up because of that quote. It makes sense as to why Elizabeth Smart would feel that way.

    • KatR

      OMG, that make me want to cry. It makes me doubly proud of Elizabeth Smart. She is going to speak healing and freedom for SO many women.

  • http://www.janaleemiller.com/ Jana Miller

    I was amazed that this girl kept fighting after being in captivity for 10 years. Oh my goodness. She’s my hero!! She has nothing to be ashamed of. Thanks for shining a light on purity culture. I believed all that and I’m glad I didn’t have girls because I would have passed it on out of just not realizing the harm it could cause.

  • http://heathershodgepodge@blogspot.com HeathersHodgepodge

    Smart’s reaction closely mirrored my own, which is one of the reasons why I endured my situation for 5 years before breaking my silence. I was too ashamed to admit the full extent of what had been going on, and the response I received on what I did tell confirmed that I was unfit to ever marry. I didn’t even try to date godly guys after that; what would be the purpose? I am so thankful that God loved me, “used chewing gum” and all, and sent me a godly man anyway, who loves me knowing the whole story. It is heartbreaking to think that others have to experience the same thoughts and feelings that I did. Kudos to Smart for speaking out. I hope that her testimony causes well-meaning people to stop and think before they continue to teach shame.

  • http://twitter.com/mchellepeterson Michelle Peterson

    While I did not grow up in an overly religious home, I do remember one thing that my grandmother said when I was about seven years old that stuck with me. She showed me pictures of her wedding day and said, “Do you know what it means to wear a white wedding dress? It means you have saved yourself for something special, for your husband. You’ll wear a white wedding dress, won’t you?” What she didn’t know when she said that to me was that my cousin, her grandson, who was eight years older than me, had at that time been sexually molesting and raping me for three years and would continue for another three after that.

    Her words, while loving and well intended, caused me instant shame in that moment. That shame lingered for years as I became sexually active as a teenager because, as far as I was concerned, I was already a lost cause and wouldn’t have a white wedding dress in my future. There was a part of me as a child that believed my body did not belong to me. If anything, it belonged to him since he’d had the most access to it. Often he would take advantage of me while the rest of my family lay asleep in their beds in the rooms next door. I never screamed. I was too afraid I would get in trouble.

    • Marie

      Oh my God…I am so sorry, Michelle.

    • http://twitter.com/poseamonkey CeeBee

      Thank you for sharing your difficult story, I hope it encourages someone to speak out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christy-Chomer-Karnatz/611216017 Christy Chomer Karnatz

    This piece captures me more than anything else you’ve written. This also holds true for young girls either willingly or unwillingly brought into the sex/ sex slave industry on so many levels. If they were brought up in an environment where the purity culture thrived, how does escape even seem desirable. It is a no win situation. Shame and shame from both angles. I am sooooo glad you are addressing this issue fiercely and passionately and not backing down. I’m with you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1117814643 Esther Bautista

    Hey Elizabeth, I wanted to post on a different article but not sure if the comments were closed. I wanted to know what Don Miller wrote about that was offensive. Can you do an article on the subtle messages or not so subtle messages you received in the cult culture? In my own life I have grown up with a learned helplessness that I have broken free from at 41! I seem to have a thing or issue with male authority and I can not see it. I can’t understand it maybe because I am too close to the issue. I am not sure where it comes from. I can only describe it as the feeling that “I’m a bad little girl”. I have internalized many shame messages. I am rambling here but its very important to me. Why would a man speak for his wife? I was very offended because to me it said that he doesn’t view her as her own person. ???

  • LizC

    I’m so glad that the few people who taught me about this seem to have gotten it right. The message to me as a teen was that if you form an emotional attachment to someone, having sex will make that attachment much, much stronger, which will make breaking that bond very difficult, not for your future spouse, but for you. I am so glad the emphasis was not on how someone else would see you. Once, I do remember a weird skit where people spit in a cup and the last person was asked to drink it, (response:ew, gross; well that’s what having multiple partners is like) but thankfully I didn’t internalize that. It is true that I felt guilty for my choices when I met my husband, but never for things that happened outside of my control. You are dead on with this, as usual. Thank you!

  • http://www.mamabean.ca Mama Bean

    There is another way to fulfill those good intentions: we can protect women from heartbreak by teaching them so much self-respect and so much self-responsibility that they make the good choices we’re so concerned for them to make… /sigh.

  • Alex

    I was raped at 13 years old and shared what happened with my sister; she had to convince me I was raped. I didn’t scream, I wasn’t beaten. My rape was so very different from what the movies portray- no ski masks or dark alleys. No biting and kicking. Just feeble protests of a teenage girl that were ignored. I still have a hard time, 13 years later, when telling others I was raped. Maybe I just didn’t say “no” loud enough to this 25 year old man. Or perhaps my attempts to leave were not forceful enough. I should have been clearer. I don’t really talk about it because I still feel that this was my fault. This has been reinforced countless times, that I am to blame.

    Still not sure which is worse:

    My pastor asking me, “Was there any part of you that wanted this? That was curious? Is that why you didn’t try harder to stop it?”

    Or the look on my mother’s face, as I laid, exposed, on a table for a doctor to examine when she said “The doctor says you aren’t a virgin. Your hymen was already broken.”

    Looking back this is almost laughable. Really? I could have accidentally torn that at many different junctures in my life (I did gymnastics for many years). I had never had sex before. I had only kissed one boy before the rape, an innocent kiss.

    Maybe we should make a pamphlet for all clergy and parents to read of what NOT to say to a recently raped child.

    My virginity was so prized that my mother was horrified that it was gone. And once it was, I was already damaged goods. I shared my body freely in high school as a result. I was already blemished. Tarnished gold. A flawed diamond.

    But I found a husband who made me feel valued and cherished despite my sordid sexual past. Who never made a big deal of the number of men I slept with before I met him. Who gave his grace freely and mirrored Christ’s love for the church so wonderfully. He didn’t flinch. He validated my rape story, clenched fists in fury over what had been done to me years before, the man taking advantage of a child. And who didn’t care about my escapades afterwards- only that I had accepted Christ and that I was forgiven. He was a virgin. And he loved this damaged woman despite the fact that I wasn’t.

    Where is the grace for these girls? The ones who are raped, and even the ones who aren’t… Can’t we love, can’t we forgive? How many Christian girls get abortions because they can’t face the shame of having their sin so exposed for 9 months? I know one too many personally.

    I’ll step down from my soap box now.

    • http://thechuppies.com/ Kara @ The Chuppies

      Oh Alex…I’m so sorry…
      And I’m so thankful for your husband’s response…loving you as God does, giving grace, seeing you as whole and forgiven (though most of what you shared above was not yours to ask forgiveness for) and valuable (not based on your outward actions, or appearance, or past, but as a child of God, a creation woven together, in love, by our Creator).
      It’s beautiful to see this kind of 1 Cor. love…from God…from both of you…

    • Kristy Mcpherson

      Thank you for sharing Alex. I was one of those Christian girls that decided to have two abortions all the while masquerading as a leader in my church. I lost all self-respect and lived a double life because I had already messed up. Funny thing…or not so funny…as some of you have pointed out…the purity culture is mainly focused toward women. Misogyny at its best.
      EE~are you in the process of writing a book? If not, how can we support you in that endeavor. You bring such insight and an edge that is vital to postmodern Jesus groupies! I’m deeply grateful.

      • Anonymous

        yes! I am writing a book! It’s called “Girl at the End of the World” and it’s being released March 2014! :)

    • dolly llama

      BAMM!!! I love it when someone tells it like it is!!!!!

      I completely agree with you that church leaders need to be educated on what NOT to do. They should be harm- “LESS” rather than help- “FULL”!

  • Jessa

    Thank you for this, Elizabeth. I’m sitting here weeping through it. I was one who gave up, who stopped fighting. I didn’t want to make it home, because home was just as bad. I begged for death, but they wouldn’t kill me. Thank you for telling women like me we still have value.

  • Sylvan

    Thankfully, I was never raped, though I was brought up in a cult that pushed purity and shaming. As a kid, I tortured myself mentally over the “sin” of masturbation. When I got a uti, I decided that it was God’s way of punishing me, and so I just suffered through it. This happened several times over the years. The pain was something I felt I had to go through. I had no self-worth, and when I got married at 18, I allowed my husband to use me sexually whenever, however he wanted. I thought I had to submit to him.
    It’s taken years of therapy, and 75+ pounds gained and lost, but I have finally come to realize and *feel* my self-worth. If I have a daughter, I never want her to go through what I did. I want a childhood for her that is free of shame and guilt and “purity”.

  • Victoria 1

    “Ultimately, purity culture isn’t about sex, it’s about control. It’s about burrowing inside a woman’s heart and soul and mind to control how she views her body, her worth and whether she is lovable. Of course, this is done with the best intentions: protecting young women from unnecessary heartbreak.”

    I’m sorry, but I don’t believe the “best intention” stuff. It’s about control, pure and simple. Control of women. If there was any true belief about protection people from heartbreak, boys would be getting the ‘used chewing gum’ talks as well.

  • http://suburbintwasteland.blogspot.com/ Suburbint

    So well written, and the connections that you make here need to be hammered into the heads of all those “well meaning” parents/authority figures who teach girls that their worth as women is entirely wrapped up in the state of their hymens.

    Such a high premium was placed on her sexual purity, when my mother was persuaded by my father –coerced is probably a better word — to become involved physically while they were dating, even though her hymen was still intact, she married him out of obligation a mere four months after their first date. She felt that she had no choice, that she was now “second hand goods,” and endured twenty-eight years of a horrifically emotionally and sexually abusive marriage as a result. The thought or desire to remarry has never come up with her, all because she believed that she had crossed a line that had to stay crossed, trading decades of self-worth and happiness to “pay” for one unfortunate choice in dating partner.

    On the other hand, my husband (who was a virgin when we began dating) could have cared less that I was not only not a virgin, but had been in several sexual relationships, one of which made me the mother of a four-year old. He recognized my value as lying outside my vagina, and we teach our daughters (and son!) that what matters is not what they do, but why they do it, and they know that they have the power to make choices about what happens or doesn’t happen with their bodies. We also teach them what to do if someone doesn’t respect their choices, and are as confident as a parent can be that our children will come to us if sexually assaulted.