Elizabeth Smart is an American activist and contributor for ABC News. At the age of 14 she was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, and forced into a sexual relationship with her kidnapper. Nine months later she was rescued.
“Abstinence only” is a form of sex education that emphasizes waiting until marriage for sex. Abstinence was an important principle in Smart’s Mormon upbringing, and she says it was a factor – a negative one – in her captivity.
What’s especially interesting to me is the language factor – and I’ll get to that in a moment.
“I felt so dirty and filthy,” Smart said in her talk at Johns Hopkins. She remembered a religion teacher who used an analogy with 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 no longer have worth, you no longer have value.”
A postmodern theorist would say that purity contains within it the concept of impurity: Neither term makes sense without the other. If you teach young people to value the state of purity, you’re also implanting the idea that it is possible to be impure – with devastating consequences to a teenager’s confidence and self-worth.
Thankfully, few young people endure the trauma that characterized Smart’s captivity. But sexual abuse of children is an all-too-common phenomenon (some experts say that one in four girls is victimized). I think Smart has a point: Setting up a pure/impure dichotomy may not be an effective way to discuss sex with young people.
As I said in an earlier post, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our ongoing struggle with language. Elizabeth Smart’s story is a powerful example of a principle that’s easily forgotten: The hidden layers of meaning in a word can undermine our most sincere efforts to make this world a better place for everyone.