By Hannah Wheelwright
Image source here.
Recently, Elizabeth Smart spoke about the effect that certain aspects of teachings about virtue had on her when she was held captive and raped. To quote from the AP Report:
“Rescued kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart said Wednesday she understands why some human trafficking victims don’t run.
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.””
Anyone who has been through the Young Women’s program or knows a woman that has knows that those teachings are all too common. Object lessons have frequently compared women’s virginity (which has been equated with chastity and virtue) to:
- A wooden board. When she has sex, it is as if a nail is driven into the board. She can repent and pull the nail out, but there will always be a hole in the board. What man will want a board that is riddled with even one hole?
- A cupcake. When she has sex, it is as if the cupcake is smashed, or licked and then handed to someone else. What man will want a smashed cupcake or a cupcake that has been licked by someone else?
- A piece of gum. When she has sex, it is as if this piece of gum has been handed around and touched by many different people. What man will want to eat a piece of gum that has touched other people’s hands but his own?
- A flower. When she has sex, it is as if the flower has been passed from person to person, resulting in it being wilted. What man will want a gross wilted flower that has been passed from man to man?
- A gift. When she has sex, it is as if the gift has been unwrapped. What man wants to unwrap a present that has already been unwrapped by another man?
I hope we can all agree that these object lessons are damaging. If we really believe in the Atonement, we have to understand that there is absolutely nothing that makes us beyond saving. Nothing is beyond the power of the Atonement to save. “…the Atonement is available to everyone all the time, no matter how large or small the sin, “on conditions of repentance.” (D&C 18:12)”.
But victims of sexual violence do not need to repent for what was done to them.
“I solemnly testify that when another’s acts of violence, perversion, or incest hurt you terribly, against your will, you are not responsible and you must not feel guilty. You may be left scarred by abuse, but those scars need not be permanent. In the eternal plan, in the Lord’s timetable, those injuries can be made right as you do your part. Here is what you can do now.” –Elder Richard G. Scott
But verses suggesting that virtue can be taken away forcibly are still being used to teach our young women about chastity. These verses imply that women are now devoid of that sacred part of themselves, and they will always be incomplete forever onward. There is no balm in Gilead for their loss. While object lessons can be added by teachers without being included in manuals, these verses are still included in manuals, and they shouldn’t be. Virtue cannot be stolen. Victims of sexual violence did not ask for it. Nothing, in the way one dresses or speaks or acts, is an invitation for sexual assault.
We can teach about the importance of abstinence. We can teach about the importance of the Law of Chastity. And we can teach about the importance of repentance and the Atonement. In fact, Paul Barker at Rational Faiths has asked- why aren’t we teaching more about Christ and the Atonement instead?
Some might ask why we even both to raise a fuss about this. I submit that we should always remember the words of Elder M. Russell Ballard:
“At the heart of the English word atonement is the word one. If all [hu]mankind understood this, there would never be anyone with whom we would not be concerned, regardless of age, race, gender, religion, or social or economic standing. We would strive to emulate the Savior and would never be unkind, indifferent, disrespectful, or insensitive to others.
If we truly understood the Atonement and the eternal value of each soul, we would seek out the wayward boy and girl and every other wayward child of God. We would help them to know of the love Christ has for them.”
May we take these words more seriously as we ponder the effect that our well-intentioned teachings at church have on victims of sexual violence. Considering that one out of every four American women will experience sexual violence before adulthood, and one in three will experience it at some point in her life, this issue is not just on the fringe- it is a daily tragedy that we are allowing to unfold before our eyes. We need to change how we teach chastity so that we do not continually inflict such deep pain on women, such as has been expressed by Elizabeth Smart. It’s not just doctrinally incorrect- it is hurting people. It needs to stop.
For more on how church lessons about chastity can impact sexual violence survivors, read Tinesha’s account of these lessons affected her after she was assaulted. You can also read another Mormon perspective on Elizabeth Smart’s statements here.