Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Elizabeth Smart is Super Smart

Ms. Smart has been getting a lot of press this week for some remarks she made at Johns Hopkins regarding human trafficking. I read many comments and summaries in various places about her remarks which left me feeling a little bit confused about what her actual message was. I was grateful to finally listen to the bulk of her speech this morning and get some clarification.

Before listening I was under the impression that Ms. Smart was fiercely advocating against abstinence education, and that she had cited a particular and terrible incident at church (the gum chewing chastity analogy) as her reason for not running from her captors when she had the chance. She felt worthless and dirty and to blame and therefore did not want to go home. This left me sad and confused.

However, just as the Internet will give you a thousand opinions on even seemingly mundane events, it will also allow you to go to the source. In her speech, Ms. Smart was blunt about what had happened to her. These are facts I have heard before, but coming from her in measured, soft-spoken and perfect diction, her story became very real. She speaks without emotion about her experience, but it is clear that what happened to her for those terrible nine months has given her vast stores of strength.

Here are my take-aways, for what it is worth. Again, my opinion here, though I'm hoping I'm more fairly representing what she was really trying to say rather than cherry-pick what I wanted her to say.

1.  She is advocating for a more balanced approach to sex education. She thinks that we should be more blunt with people at an earlier age about the very real dangers in life. She also indicates that at least some of this training should take place in school. At age 14 she had some skewed idea that sex only happened between people who loved one another; she didn't really understand the ugly side. She is advocating that children should be appropriately educated about dangers that exist.

2.  I don't have any impression that she has rejected the importance of chastity as a law of God. She spoke respectfully of the beliefs she was raised with, and has made the choice to stay active in the Church and even marry in the temple. Rejecting abstinence-only sex education is not the same as rejecting your belief system.

3. The chewing gum analogy was given to her as young teenager; however, she indicated that this teaching came from a teacher at school during abstinence-only sex education. It was Salt Lake City so the odds of that teacher being LDS were probably pretty good, but she did not say the incident happened at church. Yes, you might have had this taught to you at church (I'm sorry), but Ms. Smart seems more critical of the push to water-down school curriculum than values teaching at church. Because of this type of teaching, she did feel like garbage when she was raped; she wondered at times if she would ever be worthy of being loved again. However, even to girls who have not heard the chewing gum analogy, these feelings are often prevalent after being raped, or even being manipulated into having sex. The rapist's whole point is to degrade and assume power; rape is only marginally about sex.

4. Ms. Smart said firmly that her primary reason for not running was fear. After all, her captors had managed to do all this stuff to her, it seemed perfectly logical that they could make good on their threats to further harm her family. She loved her family. She made a decision from the very beginning that she would do whatever they told her if it meant she might one day get away and return to the family she so dearly missed. Fighting them continually or trying to escape might have just gotten her killed, and the world would have lost a very, very bright light. Elizabeth's decision took courage; perhaps even inspiration to make. It was only when a police officer had the idea to interview her alone that she would admit to who she was; she never openly defied her captors in front of them for fear of further harm to those she loved.

5.  My final impression from her remarks is that people should be made to feel valuable regardless of their sexuality or virginity or however you want to term this. Perhaps, just perhaps, if she had felt more confidence in people's willingness to look beyond what had happened to her, she might have had more courage to speak up when she first had a chance.

JoAnna Brooks wrote a piece for Religion Dispatch in which she indicated that the primary reason for Elizabeth not running is that she felt like trash because of what she'd been taught at Church about the importance of chastity. That somehow all LDS people (women) collectively held their breath when others asked why Elizabeth didn't run because we really understood that is was all the fault of our culture. I think this is a rather gross misrepresentation of Ms. Smart's actual remarks, and Brooks opened the forum for plenty of angry people to dismiss God's laws as ridiculous, as if such feeling would somehow have prevented Ms. Smart from ending up in the situation she did. One Internet comment-er indicated that Elizabeth's religious training had forced her to feel like she had sinned and needed to repent. This person trashed religion (and specifically the atonement) for turning victims into sinners. This frustrated me deeply. LDS doctrine on the atonement is clear--it is for everyone. While Ms. Smart was clearly not in need of repentance related to her time in captivity, she was then and now in need of the strengthening and enabling power of Christ to move forward with her life. She is a perfect example of how the atonement heals even the most innocent.

I like Ms. Smart's actual comments very much, and I hope they give many teachers of youth (in and out of the Church) something to think about. I think our children need to be smart; they don't really live in world anymore where we can extol naivete. Innocence is lovely and good; ignorance is not. We should teach our values, but also teach children about their own inherent value. Nemesis, Desmama and I had a conversation not long ago about the problematic use of a scripture found in Mormon. It is used because it indicates "virtue" (one of only a few places that particular word is even found in relation to chastity) is the most precious thing; however, it does so in the context of talking about male warriors raping the women of the opposing side. The wording of the scripture clearly states that the rapists took the virtue of their victims.

We have concluded that we sort of hate this scripture. What the rapists take is their victim's innocence and their virginity. They don't take their virtue. Virtue is a less tangible quality than, in Nem's words, "an intact hymen." Virtue is something that is your own to give away through deliberate acts . . . only one of which might be sex. I am not sorry that the 8th value has been added; but I do wish that it was more clearly defined. This difficult scripture, again as one of very few places "virtue" is used in relation to sexuality, comes up time and time again in talks and in the study YW are meant to do for a virtue value experience. By this scripture's direct reading, it does indicate that Ms. Smart was less than virtuous when she was stripped and thrown down on the floor of a dirty tent, less than five miles from her girlhood bed and treated like garbage. That is a load of hooey. We need to be very careful what we teach our kids.

Her real take home message is that while schools need to work harder to educate, it is familial love and proper teaching about a person's true worth that can save.

1 comment:

heidikins said...

I have read a lot of these types of posts and listened to her original speech...she's amazing. I really think Joanna Brooks was far from the mark in her closing comments. (In general, I don't like most of Ms. Brooks comments, actually.) That being said, I think the original comments from Elizabeth are spot-on-the-mark.

I endured MANY sexual purity object lessons with licked cake and passed around donuts and chewed gum and wood plants with nail holes pounded into them...MANY. Not one. Many.

I think that any rape victim or sexual assault victim feels similar things to what Smart is describing. I think THAT is the point of her speech. The fact that the chewed gum analogy played into her feelings of self worth is something that has been doled out from a lot of religious or conservative venues--and the other rhetoric that does not involve such crass and terrible object lessons--is a very sad sidenote that has been too much discussed in the Bloggernacle. That wasn't the point of her speech, and it's a damn shame that anyone makes it the point because they are missing all the other really great points she is making.

(Also? The chewed gum statement was one of two that got a laugh...which is sickening on so many levels.)