Elizabeth Smart says abstinence-only education made her feel like a chewed-up piece of gum

Elizabeth SmartJust when I thought couldn’t get any more outraged about abstinence-only education, Elizabeth Smart brings up another of its terrible side-effects. Speaking at forum on human trafficking recently, Smart, who was kidnapped when she was 14 and raped and held for nine months by her captor, explained that she could understand why a human trafficking victim may not try to escape.

Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.”

Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and 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 easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value,” Smart 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.”

The chewed-up piece of gum is a common trope of abstinence-only education. Sometimes there’s some variation on the gum lesson: Maybe instead of being a piece of gum, you’re a passed-around peppermint patty or a piece of with the student’s ripped off arm hairs or a rose missing its petals. But the message is the same: You’re used up and no longer have any worth and no one will love you anymore. 

As Lori wrote last week, sex education–and the messages we get about sexuality early on in life–are connected to so many of the feminist issues we write about: “Reproductive health, fighting sexual assault, building consent culture, battling gender essentialism.” And this is yet another example: Abstinence-only education contributes to the shame many rape survivors feel.

As Jessica argues in The Purity Myth, we are teaching young women “that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain ‘pure.'” This is one of the things that happens when they believe it.

H/T @wentrogue

Image via.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/stellaquinn/ Stella Quinn

    Fun fact: The chewed gum lesson is a very popular Mormon Sunday school lesson. Her religion contributed heavily to the anti-woman worldview she had ingested, and had Mormonism not told her that she was as disposable as a stick of gum, she may have been able to end her ordeal sooner.

    • http://feministing.com/members/hprynne/ Jocelyn Hall

      I like reading people’s comments, especially when there is a polarization of ideas or a debate situation going on, because it’s an opportunity to witness diversity of thought—a spectrum of varying arguments, points of views, value systems, convictions. I think it’s enlightening and enriching to remain philosophically open to all sides of an argument first before selecting one’s own stance, and that only after careful study of the facts/issues should one make a firm decision about his/her personal beliefs regarding the matter. And if you don’t really know what you’re talking about and you don’t have your facts straight, you shouldn’t make bold assertions and declare them to be fact, especially when those assertions are accusations pointed at a specific group of people or belief system. When you assert non-truths as facts it inevitably leads to unjust prejudices, not to mention it makes you look ignorant.

      Though I value and enjoy reading others’ differing views, I never take the time to comment/respond myself, even if I carry a strongly opposing opinion—I prefer the silent observer role to the loud-mouthed preacher one. But your comment bothered me so much that I went out of my way to create an account here just so I could refute your statement of “fact”. It’s one thing to express an opinion, however extreme it may be—but it’s another thing entirely to make false statements and label them as fact.

      Now at this point just let me say that I agree with the writer of the article that “abstinence-only” sex education is a completely deficient approach for so many reasons. Also I believe it was absolutely wrong for Smart’s school teacher to present students with that chewing gum analogy. Communicating a message to kids that once virginity is lost, you’re “used-up”, worthless, disposable and unlovable is terribly wrong and can lead to very dangerous psychological consequences for them, as Smart has pointed out. I think that sensibility is ridiculous and infuriating.

      But Stella. You present as fact that “the chewed gum lesson is a very popular Mormon Sunday school lesson.” No, actually, it is not: fact. It is not a Mormon Sunday school lesson. It is not part of their Sunday school curriculum, it is not in any Sunday school lesson manual. It is decisively not part of any Mormon doctrine or ideology, and if this notion was taught in a Mormon Sunday school class I guarantee you that the church leaders and almost all of the church members would have a problem with it. I’m sure that some Mormons as individuals buy into the “chewing gum lesson” mentality (just as some Catholics probably do and some Protestants), but that line of thinking is completely out of harmony with true Mormon teachings. You insist Mormonism “told her that she was as disposable as a stick of gum.” Actually, Mormons believe and teach the exact opposite—that all human beings are of infinite and divine worth regardless of their lifestyle or choices, a worth that remains constant despite sexual transgression.

      Also you should note that Elizabeth Smart said she was taught the chewing gum analogy by her public school teacher, NOT her religion. So where exactly are you getting your “facts”? Seriously I’d like to know… because the things you declare to be fact are not just inaccurate and off-base, but the exact antithesis of the truth regarding the matter, and it’s not fair to Mormons to be misrepresented in this way. I hope that in the future you will take care to not assert fact and assign blame when you have no real knowledge on the subject. If you dislike Mormons or their beliefs that is by all means your prerogative, but it sounds like you don’t even know what their beliefs actually ARE, and you shouldn’t spread lies about them.