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.