Earlier this year, kidnapping and rape survivor Elizabeth Smart called for an end to abstinence-only education because it makes rape victims feel dirty and filthy. She went on to explain how feeling filthy prevented her from screaming, even when her captor dragged her out in plain sight. She remembered a teacher who used chewing gum as a metaphor for sexual purity and impurity, and thought, “oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.”
In the same local Salt Lake City news report linked above, Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City, said, “There is an enormous amount of judgment in our society against victims of rape. I think there is largely a cultural message for women still even in this day that you are responsible for being pure and taking care of yourself sexually.”
You see this attitude in videos like the one below, produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints:
I do not have a problem with young people sticking to their convictions. I also think it is healthy and positive for young people to discuss these issues and to feel good about sharing their decisions.
I do, however, have a problem with how the message is presented. The term “sexual purity” implies a flip side to that coin: sexual impurity. In essence, anyone who deviates from the values and behaviors portrayed in the video would be tainted in some way–unclean, impure, dirty.
Even the emphasis on “choice” is problematic. One undercurrent of the video is that sex is simply a matter of controlling one’s urges. However, as a survivor of childhood incest, sexual molestation and rape, I tend to feel bitter watching videos like this. Must be nice to have had that choice. Must be nice to feel pure. Must be nice to know you are not impure, I think. Not all of us have had that privilege. My privilege to “choose” was stolen from me when I was still trotting off to elementary school with my homemade book bag, and possibly even earlier.
The young people in this video seem blissfully unaware of the fact that many, many people have that privilege stolen from them, which is why, if I am honest, I envy their wide-eyed innocence. It is really sort of beautiful.
One of the most confusing aspects of childhood sexual abuse is how the body may respond to the stimulus the way it was designed to do. Survivors wind up ashamed: If it felt good, I must have wanted it. Later on, consensual pleasures generate confusion and shame, too, because they trigger body memories of the earlier abuse.
When I stumbled on the video above while searching through Mormon Messages for Youth videos, I broke down and cried. Was I ever pure? Was I always tainted? And then I caught myself: Why am I even asking the question?
It doesn’t matter if you know the messages and underlying values are wrong. You still absorb them. You still carry them with you.
Department of Human Services in the state of Iowa investigated my family on a few occasions, and my hospital charts from 1990 note that DHS and pretty much the whole team of neurologists, doctors, and psychologists suspected sexual abuse and other “family secrets”; however, because I refused to disclose any abuse, they couldn’t do anything to help. However, their suspicions didn’t stop them from prescribing goals such as “being kinder to my [abusive] father,” as though I was the problem.
Reading my charts raised the question: Why do intervention agencies assume a child will–or even can–come forward? I understand they must be wary of planting ideas in a child’s head, but the assumption that victims will come forward in a society where sexual abuse victims are “dirty” and “impure” strikes me as ignorant at best and complicity in the abuse at worst. I put them strictly on the complicity side of the equation. I am angry at DHS for doing nothing. I am angry at DHS for sending an investigator to my home and interviewing me in front of my suspected abuser, as if I would speak up in that circumstance. I am angry at the psychologists for seeing every single sign and doing nothing to make me feel safe coming forward.
All of this ties into the notion of truth because, many times, outsiders perceive survivors’ confusion, fear, and sexual behaviors as evidence they enjoyed the abuse, wanted the abuse, or were never abused at all. For example, many survivors feel such intense shame about being “tainted” that they never speak a word of what happened until decades later. Then, they endure accusations of lying. Some survivors go on to “re-enact” their abuse with inappropriate or abusive partners. Surely, the video does not intend to make sexual abuse and rape survivors feel triggered, but that is the result of the pure/impure dichotomy and the notion that everyone always possesses agency and choice. A more nuanced message would make a world of difference in the lives of survivors out there, and I am glad Elizabeth Smart started the conversation.