On the surface, the idea of “waiting until marriage” or choosing to wait for the partner you are going to spend the rest of your life with sounds noble. And those who pursue this way of life may do so with the best of intentions. But what about those chose choice is forcefully and horrifically taken away from them?
When we look at the reality of purity culture and the general message around “abstinence only” education, it sadly is not equipped to give young people the tools they need to navigate their sexual lives in a way that is empowering. Around the united states today, only 22 out of 50 states require public schools to teach comprehensive sex education, and only 13 of those require the information to be medically accurate.
The rest of the states push abstinence only. And it should not come as a surprise that those states have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. We need to undergo and massive change in our nation’s sex education. But aside from just the knowledge part of sexuality, we need to see much more awareness and information about rape, sexual assault, abuse, and consent. The very name “purity culture” immediately gives the impression that women’s bodies and their value is determined by their sexuality, which is absolutely wrong and damaging.
Most people are familiar with Elizabeth Smart, the former kidnap and sexual abuse victim who was taken from her family and home in Salt Late City at the age of 14. For 9 months she was help captive by a man who abused her and forcefully married her in an illegitimate polygamous wedding ceremony, before she was found and rescued.
Throughout the months that followed and the intense media scrutiny, Elizabeth shared her experience and talked about how she was dedicated her life to helping other kidnap victims. She gave speeches and appearances at notable institutions, where she also began to extrapolate the way the religious culture she was brought up in prevented her from doing more to escape her situation.
For context, Elizabeth was kidnapped and kept in a compound not far from her family home, in the mountainous area behind it. Her kidnappers would walk into the main town area with her in disguise, which is how she eventually got rescued because an onlooker recognized her perpetrator form the evening news. Many media commentators and interviewers asked Elizabeth why she didn’t run, scream, or do “more” to escape from her abusers and kidnappers. She has been speaking out about sexual abuse and control, and how growing up in a conservative religious culture did not equip her with enough knowledge to know the full extent of crimes being committed against her or how she should stand up for herself.
Now aged 29 and married with a daughter of her own, Elizabeth is on a mission to dismantle harmful ideals perpetuated by purity culture and how certain religious circles are doing a disservice to youth. In a recent interview with Vice’s Broadly channel, she explained how her own strict Mormon upbringing instilled in her a desire to “wait until marriage before I had sex”.
“Well, then I was kidnapped and I was raped, and one of the first thoughts I had was, No one is ever going to want to marry me now: I’m worthless, I’m filthy, I’m dirty. I think every rape survivor feels those same feelings, but having that with the pressure of faith compounded on top—it was almost crippling,” she explained to Broadly journalist Molly Oswaks.
In fact, Elizabeth is not just speaking out about her own experience, she is taking on the Mormon purity culture as a whole for its sexist teachings about women’s bodies and sexuality. While she credits her personal faith as something that helped her endure her 9 month ordeal, she realizes now there are aspects of the religion that need to be changed.
“There’s another side of it that can be potentially very harmful, especially when a lot of religions teach that sexual relations are meant for marriage… It’s so stressed that girls in particular tie their worth to their virginity, or, for lack of a better word, purity,” she explains.
The common metaphor she recalls is how a girl that has lost her virginity is likened to a chewed piece of gum that no one wants to “chew” any longer. After being rescued and returning to school, she remembers sitting in class hearing these kinds of metaphors being spoken and feeling awful, because there was no dialog about how a victim of abuse or rape is supposed to deal with their experiences in the context of purity teachings.
Another metaphor described a girl as a “beautiful fence” and every time you have sex is like hammering a nail in. You can always take the nails out, but “the holes are still there”. Wow…
“I just remember thinking, This is terrible. Do they not realize I’m sitting in class? Do they not realize that I’m listening to what they’re saying? Those are terrible analogies. No one should use them, period. Especially for someone who’s been raped, they’ve already felt these feelings of worthlessness, of filth, of just being so crushed, and then to hear a teacher come back and say, ‘Nobody wants you now’… You just think, I should just die right now,” she recalls.
Elizabeth wants to see a dramatic change in the language being used because although she doesn’t think every teacher uses these kinds of analogies and metaphors with malicious intent, it leaves victims and survivors of sexual abuse like her feeling isolated.
“The way we talk about [sex and abstinence] needs to change. People need to realize there is nothing that can detract from your worth. When it comes to rape and sexual violence and abuse, that can never detract from who you are,” she said.
Known for her powerful voice and advocacy, Elizabeth has not abandoned her Mormon faith and believes she can be more effective for girls and women from within. Aside from her public speaking engagements, she is a correspondent for a show called ‘Crime Watch Daily’ where, in one episode, she interviewed two college girls who were raped at Utah’s Brigham Young University, run by the Mormon church.
The two girls were punished for violating the honor code, a school mandate which says students must not have sex, and made to feel as if their ordeals were nothing compared to adhering to the sexually pure culture that is paramount. Elizabeth shared how these rules can be problematic, in the greater context of rape and sexual abuse, especially on college campuses across America which is an epidemic.
“I do think there are situations that happen that are outside of a person’s control. And because of the honor code, [these rape victims] are scared to come forward because it can jeopardize their status at school… Plus, then it goes back to the religious stigma, because BYU is a church-owned school,” she said.
When asked about the recent Brock Turner rape case, the Stanford student who was convicted of raping an unconscious female student then only required to serve 3 months out of an appalling 6 month sentence, Elizabeth said “It makes me so mad.”
“It just makes me so angry. I guess it’s a good thing I’m not a judge, because I don’t think any of them would ever see the light of day. It broke my heart, made me angry, made me sick,” she added, regarding the now-viral letter written anonymously by Brock Turner’s victim.
Now that she has a young daughter of her own, Elizabeth knows she wants to instill in her the kinds of teachings she never got to have growing up.
“I’m not going to hide anything from her. Of course, I want to maintain and protect her innocence as long as possible, but with that being said, I think it’s a disservice to not talk to children [about sex]…I don’t want her to be scared; I want her to be prepared, and to know that she has options, and if she wants to talk about what happened to me, that’s fine. I’ll be happy to talk about it with her,” she explained.
We need a major revolution in the United States when it comes to sex education. It’s not just within the Mormon church, either. You may remember a documentary from 2005 titled ‘The Education of Shelby Knox’ about a high school teen growing up in a conservative Evangelical community, determined to change the sex education curriculum once she learned the abysmal statistics related to abstinence only education.
The 15 year old (at the time) discovers that her home town of Lubbock, Texas, has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STDs in the nation and is shocked that schools and churches are still insisting on teaching kids not to have sex without arming them with more comprehensive education. Today, Shelby lives in New York, is no longer a conservative (duh!) and is an intersectional feminist organizer, speaking out about issues such as sexual assault, reproductive rights, and of course the need for better health and sex education in schools.
It’s important to see a generation of young women understanding the need for comprehensive sex education. Within this, there must be space to talk about rape culture, why the idea of “purity” being assigned to sexual behavior can be problematic and dismissive, and how truly protecting young people involves information, not just religious mandates.
We hope to see Elizabeth impact many people with her speeches and appearances, being an advocate for other victims who need her voice to speak for them. You can read the full interview with Broadly here. To get an overview of what we are up against in the sex ed curriculum across the United States, watch John Oliver’s brilliant “Last Week Tonight” investigation: