Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"That's What We Should Be Doing": Elizabeth Smart and the Intrinsic Value of a Person

Elizabeth Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum held last week, sharing the story of her kidnapping ten years ago.  As I'm sure you all know, she was abducted from her family home at knifepoint in the middle of the night, held for nine months, and raped almost daily by her captor. (Here's a link to the raw footage of her 12-minute-long speech.)

I admire Elizabeth Smart greatly. She has overcome the horrific period of her abuse, created a foundation to educate children and support victims of abuse, and has become a vocal activist for education and victim support. In her speech last week, she made some definitive statements that I think are important to highlight, underline, emphasize in any way possible.

One of the questions she is asked most frequently, she said, was "Why didn't you run?" While noting that no one should ask that question of another person because everyone's different and we don't know the circumstances of anyone else's situation, Elizabeth provides two answers for herself. First of all, she simply states, "I was scared. I was petrified." She continues, "I had been told every day while I was kidnapped, if you try to run away…we will kill you and if we don’t kill you, we will kill your family." Staying where she was, doing what her abductors told her to do, she felt she was protecting her family.

Here's her second answer, in her own words:
“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 wife who loved each other...that’s what I’d always been determined to follow, that when I got married then and only then would I engage in sex and so for 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. I mean, if you can imagine the most special thing being taken away from you and feeling like that, not that that was your only value in life, but something that devalued you, can you imagine turning around and going back into society where you’re no longer of value? Where you’re no longer as good as everybody else? 
"I remember in school one time I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence and she said, “Imagine you’re a stick of gum, and when you engage in sex that’s like getting chewed and if you do that lots of times you’re going to become an old piece of gum and who’s going to want you after that?” Well, that’s terrible, nobody should ever say that, but for me, 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, 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."
I was fortunate enough to not get that chewed gum object lesson as a teenager. Nor the other ones I've heard about with licked cupcakes, manhandled donuts, bruised flowers, or nails pounded into a board. They are scare tactics, and no matter how well-intentioned, they are unequivocally wrong and damaging, not to mention the absolute antithesis of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Atonement.  No one should ever get the message that they are of no value because they have been victimized, that their worth was based on something outside of their control, or that they are beyond the reach of redemption.  Ever.

Elizabeth also spoke of how she survived those nine months of continuous abuse. She said she realized on that first day after she'd been raped, that her parents still loved her - that no matter what she had been through, they loved her and would want her back. And then she made this powerful statement of survival:
"Because of that realization, I was able to make the decision that no matter what I had to do, no matter how many personal goals, morals or standards I had to break, I would do it if it meant that I would survive, if it meant that one day I would be reunited with my parents again and that decision saw me through a lot."  
Because of that decision, Elizabeth did survive and was reunited with her family.  Survival was her ultimate goal.  While society has come a long way in how it views and treats victims of sexual abuse, damaging and antiquated ideas that "virginity" = "purity" = "virtue" echo every time someone asks "Why didn't she fight back?  Why didn't she scream?  Why didn't she run?  Was she asking for it?"  Elizabeth survived.  Surviving is not a sin, nor is anything she had to do in order to survive.  Her worth as a person - her virtue, her "morals [and] standards" - was not diminished by what others did to her, or forced her to do.

She closed her speech with a plea for education: "The best thing we can do is educate young people as young as we can reach them…If you’re given choices, if you’re given skills, if you’re given permission to fight back, to know that you are of value and to know that you don’t have to live your life that way. You don’t have to do what other people tell you...you have value and you always will have value, nothing can change that."  "That," Elizabeth concluded, "is what we should be doing."  

Thank you, Elizabeth, for your courage and wisdom.  Your words will change how I talk to my children about sex and abuse, and about their own intrinsic value that nothing - and no one - can take away.

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