News & Politics

Thanks to Abstinence Teacher, Elizabeth Smart Felt 'I'm That Chewed Up Piece of Gum'

Kidnapped at age 14, Elizabeth Smart now says that abstinence teaching made her feel dirty after she was raped.

Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at age 14 and held for nine months under brutal circumstances—but also brought out in public on more than one occasion. Why didn't she run?

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Smart said she "felt so dirty and so filthy" after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn't run "because of that alone."

Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to 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," Smart said. "Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value."

How's that for damage from abstinence-only teaching? It's particularly striking that Smart felt such an intense sense of shame and loss of self given that she has shown so much strength and poise since being freed. While Smart has a more dramatic story than your average raped teenager, she's certainly far from the only one to have received such a message; Tara Culp-Ressler writes:

Nonethless, abstinence-only education programs have a long history of imparting harmful messages that shame youth about their sexuality instead of teaching them the facts they need to safeguard their health. A high school in West Virginia recently made national headlines after hosting a conservative religious speaker who allegedlytold students "if you take birth control, your mother probably hates you" and "I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous."

As for Smart today, she believes children should be told that "you will always have value and nothing can change that." That shouldn't be mutually exclusive with abstinence-only education, but unfortunately, there are abstinence-only teachers out there who are more invested in telling girls they're worthless.

Laura Clawson is the Labor editor at Daily Kos Labor, and a contributing editor at Daily Kos.