Thursday, May 9, 2013

Abstinence-only sex education teaches rape victims they're worthless, dirty, filthy

Remember Elizabeth Smart?  Kidnapped from her home when she was just 14, forced into a polygamous 'marriage,' chained up and raped for nine months?

It was very good news when she was discovered and returned to her family, and, thankfully, it didn't take ten years or more, as it did with those three young women recently rescued in Cleveland (originally 14, 16, and 20 when they were abducted).

But there's better news than that, since Elizabeth Smart is really making something of her life, as she runs a foundation which helps educate children about sex crimes. And she knows what she's talking about, wouldn't you say?

From Think Progress:
She explained that some human trafficking victims don’t run away because they feel worthless after being raped, particularly if they have been raised in conservative cultures that push abstinence-only education and emphasize sexual purity:
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.”

Now in her mid-twenties, Smart runs a foundation to help educate children about sexual crimes. She now believes that children should grow up learning that “you will always have value and nothing can change that.”

Social psychologists and sexual abuse counselors agree that comprehensive sex education can help prevent sexual crimes. Teaching children about their bodies gives them the tools to describe acts of abuse without feeling as embarrassed or uncomfortable, and it also helps elevate their self-confidence and sense of bodily autonomy. A shame-based approach to genitalia and sexuality, on the other hand, sends kids the message that they can’t discuss or ask questions about any of those issues.

There are a couple of things I want to add about this. The first is that many religious groups and right-wing political figures are still pushing a shame-based approach to sex education. They're still pushing abstinence-only sex education, despite abundant evidence that it doesn't work. Many even refuse to let their daughters get a vaccination which can protect them from cancer, just because sex is all about shame with them.

Well, here's one more reason to oppose that primitive, superstitious approach. If, the gods forbid, your daughter gets abducted, she needs to know that being a victim doesn't make her worthless. It's the rapist who's worthless, not the victim. It's the rapist who should feel intense shame, not the victim. Your daughters need to know that.

And they need to know that consensual sex isn't shameful to either party. It might not be the smart thing to do, depending on the circumstances, but it's not dirty, it's not filthy, it's not shameful. Teaching kids to be smart will be a whole lot more effective than teaching them to hate themselves.

But the other reason I wanted to post this is because it's good news, don't you think? Elizabeth Smart hasn't forgotten her ordeal, but she seems to be a real survivor, doesn't she? She's making something of her life. She can be very proud of that.

I read these news stories, and I'm always happy when abducted women are recovered alive,... but I can't actually be happy when I think of how they must have suffered. And I know that experiences like that don't just go away. Even Elizabeth Smart is famous for having been a victim. How would that make you feel?

But what does make me happy is to see her rise above that. She's using her personal experience, tragic as it was, to make the world a better place. She's 25 now, she's been to college, she got married, and she's running the Elizabeth Smart Foundation to help others.

That is good news, don't you think?

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