Rape culture, as has been noted on Feminism and Religion in multiple articles (see Carol Christ’s post this week), permeates every aspect of our society, every aspect of our lives. Something that I believe warrants serious attention is Elizabeth Smart’s recent comment about abstinence only education. In her talk at John Hopkins University about her own harrowing ordeal, she well demonstrates the many ways rape culture plays itself out in our society and also shares why we must continue to explore options beyond abstinence only education.
As you may recall, Elizabeth Smart’s name became well known across the US when she was abducted at the age of 14 and then found alive 9 months later. During her captivity Smart was forced into a polygamous marriage and repeatedly raped (rape culture). When she was found walking down the street with her captors, many wondered why she hadn’t tried to escape or ask for help (rape culture). According to Smart, the question she is asked most often is “Why didn’t you run? Why didn’t you scream?” (rape culture). Smart responded to that question during her talk and her answer included abstinence only education (rape culture).
The regrettably well known comparison made between a person having sex with a piece of chewing gum weighed heavily on Smart. She explained that she was raised in a strict Mormon household and that she believes that sex is something to be shared between persons who are married. However, she also stated that in school she learned that to have sex outside of marriage is to become a used up piece of chewing gum that no body wants, something to be thrown away. According to Smart, the first time she was raped she wondered “who would ever want me now? I’m worthless.” “I felt like my soul had been crushed. I felt like I wasn’t even human anymore. How could anybody love me, or want me, or care about me? I felt like life had no more meaning to it.”
Listening to Smart’s testimony is heartbreaking. Women and girls who experience sexual assault not only suffer wounding from the act itself, but also double victimization, the assault and wounding perpetrated by the rape culture. As Smart states, abstinence only education can participate in the wounding process and leave women and girls who are sexually victimized feeling sullied and that they no longer have value.
Smart is not alone in her experience. Countless victims of sexual assault discuss having similar feelings and many elements of rape culture perpetuate this. Abstinence only education should be recognized as one of these elements. Beyond the fact that statistics demonstrate that programs teaching abstinence only are not effective, identifying a person’s worth as connected to her sexuality is damaging, and utilizing chewing gum as an analogy for a sexually active person is destructive.
I believe that celibacy can be empowering when one chooses that path. I believe that sex is something to be celebrated between persons who love each other. As a mother to a daughter, I now question many ideas related to sexual liberation (something for an upcoming post). But I do not believe that we should teach our youth that if they choose to have sex they are worthless, throw away persons. This is harmful to everyone, and especially those who suffer sexual victimization.
Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is a Feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist. She was recently appointed Dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Ursuline College and is Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. In addition, Gina has taught at multiple universities including Claremont Graduate University, Loyola Marymount University, John Carroll University and Notre Dame College. Gina has authored multiple articles and the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence, and is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the forthcoming anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.
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