Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Virginity and Religious Narratives and Elizabeth Smart

Trigger warning for sexual abuse.

Earlier this week I heard on NPR that the sentencing hearing for Brian David Mitchell, who abducted and sexually abused Elizabeth Smart, is happening this week. From what I've heard, Mitchell needs some serious mental health care, which he won't get. Instead he'll probably spend the rest of his life drifting through the prison system, with many other mentally ill folks who are dysfunctional - and therefore imprisoned - because of their illness and the lack of available care. And of course, because of this dynamic, prison is an even more dangerous and counterproductive place to be for most inmates. So this story disturbs me on that level, and in general I've avoided media coverage of it.

But a quote from this article pulled me up short, and I've been thinking about it pretty much non-stop since I read it. When recounting her experience with Mitchell, Smart says this
I felt that because of what he had done to me, I was marked, I wasn't the same. My personal value had dropped. I was nothing. Another person could never love me. I felt like I had a burden the size of a mountain to carry around with me the rest of my life.
To me, these words are so striking and so tragic because of the cultural and religious narrative they tap into. I don't doubt that part of what's going on here is based on the way Mitchell and his followers treated Smart. She described it as being treated "like an animal." Abusive personalities often use this kind of tactic to erode the self-esteem of their victim to ensure compliance. Clearly that has a profound impact, and probably factored into her feelings about her personal value.

At the same time, I think her response to the abuse is deeply connected to her worldview, and the role that virginity and sexual "purity" play in her religious context. When you grow up in a very conservative religious environment in which your parents try to prevent you from coming into contact with "secular" values, and when sexual purity is emphasized almost above all other values in that context (at least for girls), your sexual status cannot help but hold a central position in your self-conception. Your assessment of your self-worth will unavoidably be tightly connected to it.

This might be all sunshine and rainbows, if we lived in a world where you always have control over your own sexuality. But this view of female worth and sexual purity goes terribly wrong when you find yourself in a situation where somehow your sexual "purity" is forcibly "taken" from you (as if it's a thing you can possess). It doesn't matter that you had nothing to do with it. Even though you never made any choices that led to this ostensibly huge change in your sexual status - you never voluntarily took any action that led to this change - it is still a profound measure of your personal worth. Because the fact remains that the most valuable asset a woman in this context can have is her virginity. Losing it, regardless of how it happens, is an event that takes a woman or girl out of the realm of cleanliness and innocence and intactness, and transitions her into a state of being polluted and damaged. Less valuable. Less desirable. Blameworthy somehow, even though she was unable to control the events that took place.

This is significant for all of us, because conservative religious attitudes toward female sexuality have a considerable impact on our broader cultural views. Read through the abstinence-only sex ed curriculums that are federally funded and utilized in public schools to see how pervasive this is. Female sexual purity is highly valued, and the onus for abstinence falls largely on the girls. Girls who don't abstain until marriage are often portrayed as being dirty or damaged in some way - offering less to their future spouse than if they had abstained. So even if we're not functioning in the very narrow, conservative world that Elizabeth Smart lives in, we've all been exposed to (and to some extent internalized) these same attitudes.

I remember feeling both skeptical and resentful as a kid when discussions of "sexual purity" came up. Because of my abuse, I didn't feel like I fit into the category of "virgin" even at a really young age (9? 10?). Yet I also felt like that had nothing to do with me as a person. I was pretty contrary and constantly questioned what I heard at church, but I was still a very young person immersed in a world where apparently everyone else believed this stuff and didn't question it. This can leave you in a strange position where you have these conflicting thoughts and feelings that you're trying to sort out, but the fact that everyone around you seems to accept these sometimes harmful and frequently contradictory things as truth can make you feel like you're either defective or crazy. So, accepting that sexual purity was the most central element of female virtue (and what made a woman valuable) while also thinking of myself as a person who could be a good person, and who was valuable, presented a bit of a conflict for me.

On the one hand I didn't believe that I was responsible for my abuse in any way, but it was still this shameful thing that I had to hide (for the sake of others) and that fundamentally changed me as a person. Ironically, it also made me feel like I was immune to all the talk about sexual purity. If I wanted to sleep with my high school boyfriend, why shouldn't I? That ship had already sailed, so to speak.

In fact, I think I actually became sexually active at a younger age than I probably would have because it was almost a way of reclaiming my sexual identity. All my life my sexuality had been defined by the abuse, and my abusers. Embarking on my own sexual relationship was a way to stake out my autonomy and take control of my own life. So this compromise slowly emerged between this worldview that I had been so surrounded by and my own view that struggled to integrate it all and make sense of my own experiences.

In my early teens I concluded that being sexually active had nothing to do with personal virtue or worth. For one thing, I didn't believe I was personally worth less because of my "lack" of sexual "purity." Then there was the fact that the adult males in my world (two of them) who behaved in a sexually inappropriate way were still highly valued and held up as role models. So my initial response was to separate the two and dismiss all the hype about sexual purity, or at least conclude that it didn't apply to me.

Over the next few years, of course, I had to continue to refine that view to include the fact that you can inflict great harm on others sexually. First there was the obvious fact that one ought not to fuck around with one's defenseless 6 year-old niece or granddaughter that had to be accounted for. But this also included the degree of vulnerability and emotional connection that generally accompanies sexual intimacy in a reciprocal, consenting relationship, and the harm you can do to others because of it. Unfortunately, my earlier splintering of sexuality from morality allowed me to be less than careful with the feelings of my first few sexual partners, but these early experiences are part of what shaped my understanding of the moral responsibility that comes with sexual activity.

So...what if I had grown up in a world where, rather than placing this huge value on virginity and "purity," and tying these especially to female morality, there had been open and honest conversations about sexual intimacy and why it can be so dangerous and so rewarding, and how that gives it special moral weight that other social interactions don't share? Not because it has something to do with your personal worth or cleanliness or lovability. Not because your partner's body is your possession and any sexual contact they might have had with others is some kind of violation of your property rights. Simply because sexuality is often a locus of intense emotion and vulnerability (and sometimes very clouded judgment) that can result in a special kind of pain inflicted on others if one is not careful. For that matter, what if my abusers had grown up in a world like this? And what if Elizabeth Smart had grown up in a world like this?

I don't know much about her recovery process, but I would bet that it's involved a lot of unlearning things she had internalized about female sexuality and personal worth. Unless she has somehow been convinced that her case involves a special exemption from the rule, a part of her recovery will require an uncoupling of the ideal of the "sexually pure" female body from her conception of female virtue, or her sense of what a morally worthy person looks like. And I would bet that this is a pretty hard transition to make for somebody from her background.

So this is one reason I don't want my girls going to my parents' church or involved in any sex-ed program that emphasizes abstinence. Not because abstinence is bad, or because waiting until you've grown up a bit to engage in sexual relationships isn't a wise thing to do. Rather, it's because the ends don't justify the means. Planting irrational fears in young people's heads, and trying to manipulate them, and teaching them to value themselves in counterproductive ways cannot end well. It just can't. And beyond that, it's simply not true that a woman's value is connected to her sexual history. And the quicker we get rid of our religious and cultural obsession with virginity, the better.


  1. Interesting post. I think I probably agree with most of what you wrote, but we part ways as it relates to male sexuality. You correctly pointed out that there seems to be a greater emphasis on "purity" and girls, but I think that's because it is considered an "acceptable" topic of conversation.

    Most "purity" rituals, at least from a fundamentalist Christian perspective, seem to center around the father/daughter dynamic...which probably says a lot in and of itself. There are plenty of things you can do with this that's very much sunshine and roses. Who wouldn't like a dance/party and the attendant idealized ideas of family?

    The primary focus for "purity" as it concerns male sexuality in religion is on masturbation....and...well...what kind of party are you going to have for that? It's not considered an "acceptable" topic of public conversation, but that doesn't mean there isn't a great deal of pressure, guilt, and otherwise unhealthy beliefs about sexuality that arise from this. I'd venture a guess that these sorts of beliefs/teachings can have a pretty big impact on what men believe about themselves in both their daily lives and their "salvation."

    I don't think the messaging as it relates to male sexuality is any less destructive to one's self worth. I'd venture a guess that part of the reason why the focus isn't as much on virginity when it applies to males is because they're just so darn glad these boys aren't masturbating. In their world view that would be worse.

  2. That's an interesting point. I wonder why all the paranoia around masturbating? I've never really understood that. Then again, I don't remember much talk about masturbation in the church I grew up in.

  3. e.s.m.r.a.5/27/2011

    So, you were abused, and that gave you a right to mistreat your high school boyfriend? Interesting feminist perspective on display here.

  4. Good grief! Way to totally miss the point.

  5. Anonymous5/27/2011

    Very mature, esmra.

    I grew up LDS, and during that whole time period when they had just found Elizabeth again, I had this sickening feeling as the public tried to get info about her and the family tried to keep her out of public scrutiny. I feel like so much of the curiosity is fueled by a sense that she's irrevocably changed, and damaged, and we want to see it for our own eyes. I don't know how much of that comes from religious beliefs about virginity, but I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to that perspective.

  6. Rachel-I'm not surprised b/c in their view good girls don't do that and they'd never discuss it in mixed company.

  7. I really like this post as you delve into a lot of issues that are seldom discussed about sexuality. I completely agree that we should NOT be putting fear and lies into children's minds and manipulating them. I like what you said about realizing your own truths about sexual activity and the moral responsibility that comes with it. I sort of came to those same truths through very similar experiences.
    But I must say that if only female purity and virginity is presumed to be emphasized, that is a wrong perception. There is a HUGE double standard and so much hypocrisy in both secular and religious societies when it comes to male and female sexuality. But I have found that men who are truly following Christian principles believe that males should be just as sexually pure as females and that virginity for men is just as highly valued. But these men are few and rare indeed. I can only wish we lived in a society where the double-standard and hypocrisy did not exist!
    As for Elizabeth Smart, she seems like a strong and intelligent young woman who has conquered those self-limiting thoughts and will live a happy successful life.

  8. I think churches that take this conservative line about female sexuality don't feel like they need to address this issue. They live in this state of denial where unpleasant things are just blocked out. Rape and child sexual abuse are too unpleasant to be acknowledged.

  9. Meg'n5/29/2011

    To me this is what's truly wrong with abstinence sex-ed. The pregnancy and std issues are important, but the underlying view of women and female sexuality is the biggest problem.

  10. Anonymous5/30/2011

    I don't know. I think she could have had this response based on the abusive treatment alone. This response could follow from just physical or emotional abuse.

  11. I remember when everyone was trying to get pictures of the woman whose father locked her up all those years and fathered a bunch of kids with her. I think it's natural to want to see the victims to see if that kind of abuse changes the person, and to reassure ourselves somehow that this couldn't happen to us. Or freak ourselves out that it could, maybe.

  12. I think that the obsession with virginity only extends to a certain point, at which age the person then becomes undesirable. It seems like being a virgin in teens, 20s is acceptable but what about after? When a person reaches the 40s, they are then labeled as unsociable, weird, as if there is something wrong with them.

    The other problem I've noticed with societies obsession with virginity is that with asexuals (people who don't experience sexual attraction) they are told that they are broken. Some asexuals are virgins but are then shamed for not wanting to have sex.

    So society says that you should want to have sex but shouldn't give in to human nature until the "proper time".