The Problem of Purity

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.

In a 2013 speech at Johns Hopkins University, Smart made news by challenging abstinence-only sex education programs. (You can watch a clip of Smart’s talk here, and you can read more about it here.)

“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.

Elizabeth Smart

                   Elizabeth Smart


2 thoughts on “The Problem of Purity

  1. AvatarDarrell Turner

    Jean, I think I understand what you and Elizabeth Smart are saying, but isn’t this an issue that is inherent with language? For example, the concept of truth implies that there is such a thing as a lie. It may damage someone’s self-esteem to say that that person is a liar, but how else can we characterize it?

    A woman who is raped, like Elizabeth Smart, is not “impure” because of her choices. And someone who chooses to do something that is wrong, such as lying, can choose to change his or her behavior. For example, someone who decides to stop lying is no longer a liar.

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    That’s exactly my point – it’s inherent in language. The purity/impurity example was supposed to be one of millions of examples about the nature of language. Sorry I didn’t get the message across clearly! Thanks, Darrell.

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