Kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart’s remarks about her religious upbringing have been widely reported to be a criticism of abstinence-only sex ed, but a full review of the speech she delivered last week, now online on a local news station’s website, reveals that Smart blamed the conservative cultural emphasis on sexual purity as a reason why many sexually abused captives feel too traumatized to escape their kidnappers.
Smart spoke candidly Wednesday about how the lessons of her conservative Mormon upbringing left her feeling “dirty and filthy” and of no value to society after she was raped at the hands of her captors as a 14-year-old.
“I’ll never forget how I felt lying there on the ground,” Smart said at a human trafficking and sexual violence conference at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore last week. “I felt like my soul had been crushed. I felt like I wasn’t even human anymore. How could anybody love me, or want me or care about me? I felt like life had no more meaning to it, and that was only the beginning of my nine months of captivity.”
Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home in June 2002 by a drifter named Brian David Mitchell, who held the teenage girl hostage for nine months with the help of his wife, Wanda Barzee. Mitchell claimed that Smart was his “second wife” and raped her repeatedly until she was found by police in March 2003.
Citing her own experience, Smart, now an advocate for missing and exploited children, described why so many kidnappees, especially those who have been sexually abused, don’t attempt to escape their captors:
“I think it goes even beyond fear, for so many children, especially in sex trafficking. It’s feelings of self-worth. It’s feeling like, ‘Who would ever want me now? I’m worthless.’
That is what it was for me the first time I was raped. I was raised in a very religious household, one that taught that sex was something special that only happened between a husband and a wife who loved each other. And that’s how I’d been raised, that’s what I’d always been determined to follow: that when I got married, then and only then would I engage in sex.
After that first rape, I felt crushed. Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand so easily all too well why someone wouldn’t run because of that alone.”
Smart said she was raised to believe that her virginity was “the most special thing” and described how her childhood self viewed her rape as something that “devalued” her. “Can you imagine turning around and going back into a society where you’re no longer of value?” she asked the audience. “Where you’re no longer as good as everybody else?”
Years of abstinence-only sex education fueled her sense of unworthiness after she was raped, Smart said as she recalled a teacher who 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 easily it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value,” she 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.”
“That’s terrible,” Smart said as she remembered her teacher’s words. “Nobody should ever say that.”
The best thing we can do to prevent children from becoming a victim to sexual abuse, trafficking or kidnapping, Smart explained, is to teach them from an early age that they are worthy of love regardless of what happens to them. “You have value,” she said. “You will always have value and nothing can change that.”
Elizabeth Smart before her kidnapping in 2002.