No, despite what you may have seen absolutely everywhere on the Internet, Elizabeth Smart did not explicitly condemn the whole concept of "abstinence-only sex education" in a speech she made the other day. But she didn't do it any favors, either.
Smart, Utah's most famous kidnap victim turned eloquent advocate for the protection of children, was talking to a gathering at Johns Hopkins University. She frankly raised the question that many people had about her nine-month ordeal, a 14-year-old girl kidnapped from her bed in the middle of the night by a freaky street preacher who claimed her as his second wife and proceeded to rape her repeatedly: Why didn't you kick that greasy pervert right in the immanuels and run like hell?
Smart said she stayed because her captor, the now-imprisoned Brian David Mitchell, said that if she tried to run, or do anything else he didn't like, he would kill her. And her family. And he was just creepy enough to do it, too.
But the topic of the seminar wasn't rich white women who get kidnapped from their plush homes. It was global human trafficking, the kind that turns young women, usually from impoverished countries, into sex slaves at a disgustingly early age. So Smart movingly did what she could to relate her experience to theirs.
Why don't more of those girls run away? Well, Smart suggested, if you haven't been there, it's a question you shouldn't ask. But, because she can identify with those victims better than most folks and because gaining some insight into the question might help the victims of sex trafficking she took a good stab at an answer.
Because they think they are unworthy. They've been raped. Sullied. Made unclean, unholy. Nobody will want you. Nobody will marry you. You are dirt.
It is a cruel thing for anyone to think about themselves, especially innocent victims. And we in the West can comfort ourselves that we aren't the culture that executes women for being the victims of rape, or that condones so-called honor killings, where a women's own family will kill her for the crime of being sexual willingly or otherwise.
But, again, Smart could relate, at least a little. And here's where the Internet early warning radar on the controversial issue of sex education sprang to life
Smart recalled, and condemned, a lesson in abstinence (a word she used once in a 13-minute talk) at school (public or LDS she didn't say) comparing an unmarried person who has had sex to a chewed-up piece of gum. Used up and disgusting. And any young woman who takes that message to heart, she said, risks becoming fully unhinged, even if their only sexual experience is rape.
"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, relating her own ordeal to that of sex slaves around the world. "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."
That's the passage that a flood of commentators seized upon as an attack on abstinence-only education. It particularly resonates coming in the midst of the controversy over making morning-after birth control pills available to females of any age, following the argument that denying Plan B contraception to young women was nothing more than a way to punish them for the crime of being sexual beings.
A smaller number, of equal passion, claim that Smart meant no such thing.
Smart said nothing to denigrate her LDS beliefs or the principle of remaining chaste until marriage. She stressed that her faith and her love of family helped her hold it together, during her captivity and after.
But the point raised by those who now use Smart's experience and her wisdom to attack the concept of abstinence-only sex ed is valid, and it is this:
To use shame, fear and self-revulsion as a tool for spooking young women into chastity is a Brian David Mitchell tactic. And, if that's what abstinence-only sex ed is, then it is as disgusting as he is.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, argues that abstinence makes sense. In moderation.