Saturday, May 11, 2013

Don't Believe Everything You Read in the Deseret News

Okay, by now we've all read the piece by the DesNews blogger, Andrea Whatcott, entitled "Don't Believe Everything You Read in the News."  In it, she takes most of the mainstream media to task for misinterpreting Elizabeth Smart's recent remarks at Johns Hopkins for their own political ends.  I had several problems with her post that basically boil down to this: I think it's disingenuous.

First of all, I agree with her on this point--you should definitely watch Smart's full remarks, not just read the coverage on them.  Here they are.  Really, go ahead, the video is only twelve minutes long.  Smart's main themes are:
1.  A retelling of the story of her own kidnapping, repeated rape, captivity, and rescue.
2.  An exploration of why she didn't run, and therefore why other victims of trafficking and kidnap might not run:
     a.  Because she was afraid that her captors would hurt or kill her or her family.
     b.  Because she felt that her life was worthless since she had been raped, and no one would ever want her or love her again.
3.  A charge to teach our children more about trafficking and kidnapping, and prepare them with the skills to fight back.  She didn't go into this very much, except to say that we should teach our children that they are of worth, and that it is worth it to fight back or run, because their lives are still of value.  This seems to tie directly into her previous point.

Smart spends a great deal of time on these last two points, so for Whatcott to insist "that's not what Smart focused on" is false.  In fact, Whatcott (or her editor) went back and edited (the editorial note says "updated and expanded") her own Deseret News piece so that it mostly discusses the same themes that all the other mainstream media sources discuss--Smart's feelings that she was "worthless," "dirty," "filthy" and "a chewed-up piece of gum" following her rape--feelings which stemmed not only from the horrors of her rape, but, by her own direct admission, from teachings she had absorbed from her own "very religious upbringing" that because the "most special thing" had been taken away from her, "Who would ever want me now? I'm worthless...I understand, all too well, why someone wouldn't run, because of that alone."

Whatcott claims, "Smart was raped. She felt worthless because of it. I don’t think she would have felt less worthless if her school teacher hadn’t taught that abstinence before marriage is ideal, or if her parents hadn’t taught her the sacredness of intimacy."  Not only is this false--Smart herself cites these two teachings as things that contributed to her feelings of horror and worthlessness--but it's also a straw man.  None of the articles Whatcott cites are claiming that there's anything wrong with teaching kids that waiting for marriage to have sex is ideal.  What they are objecting to--and what I think any thinking person MUST object to--is a certain way of teaching chastity and abstinence that has arisen in conservative Christian cultures--including our own--and that does great damage to people like Elizabeth Smart.  It does damage to the shockingly high number of people (women especially) who are the victims of sexual abuse, incest, and sexual assault in its various forms.  When we teach our youth about sex in a way that emphasizes purity and virginity, which, once lost, can never be regained, we do a disservice to rape victims and to those who have voluntarily had sex--we cast them as tainted, as worth less than their peers, as chewed gum that no one will re-chew.

Departing Young Women General President Elaine Dalton gave a talk at the last General Conference which, in reference to Mormon's account of his people raping, mutilating, murdering, and eating the bodies of captured Lamanite women, said, "Mormon...lamented that the women were robbed of that which was most dear and precious above all—their virtue and chastity." (Talk about taking his words out of context! (She's done it before)) When we teach our daughters that their virginity is the thing that is "most dear and precious above all," and then they lose that most precious thing--by force or by choice--is it any wonder that they feel worthless and irreparably damaged?  In Smart's words, "I mean, if you can imagine the most special thing being taken away from you, and feeling like that...was something that devalued you.  Can you imagine turning around and going back into society where you are no longer of value, where you are no longer as good as everybody else?"

So yes, the chewed gum analogy wasn't the only thing Smart said.  But she wouldn't have said it if it wasn't important, and it was a particularly vivid example of the main thrust of her remarks.  So many media outlets picked it up and ran it, not because they're trying to tear down the church or they hate chastity--but because the way we teach chastity damages people, and it is a very real problem in our community and in others.  The way we teach chastity needs to change.  It wasn't every other media outlet in the country that missed the point, it was Whatcott.

It's possible to correct this problem, but not if we bury our heads in the sand and ask everyone to "move along, nothing to see here!"  The "All is well in Zion" attitude of the Deseret News in general and Ms. Whatcott most recently, the inability to acknowledge that we have a problem, are, I believe, an impediment to the good that could be done by the changes that need to be made.

Other writers have noted some of the ways we could do a better job.  Nate Oman writes that we should decouple chastity from virginity, noting memorably that "Generally, if people keep the law of chastity their entire lives, they will naturally be virgins on their wedding nights. That, however, is not the point of chastity any more than the avoidance of coffee stains on your desk is the point of the Word of Wisdom." (I recommend his full essay here).  Kristine Haglund has noted that we could stop teaching the Young Women that verse in Moroni as if it had anything at all to do with virtue.  Matt Chandler, referring to a variant of the "chewed gum" analogy, involving a wilted rose that has been touched by everyone and therefore "lost" its purity, has beautifully declared "Jesus wants the rose!"  Sarah Hanks has a few ideas for better object lessons to use in talking about sex.  And Richard Beck has explored the Christian purity culture and offered us a new paradigm.

These are the messages we should be giving our youth.  We should teach in love, not in shame.  We should be sensitive to the feelings of victims of abuse.  We should stop teaching our girls that their value lies in their virginity--not because we believe chastity is unimportant, but because we know that our girls are more important than their hymens.


  1. A very good post. I happened upon your blog from a friend and am enjoying it so much. Thank you for writing. I love sharing and receiving others insights from thoughtful reading of the scriptures but I have few resources. I appreciate being able to read some of your thoughts.

  2. Thank you for making this VERY important point! The chewed gum analogy is one of the most horrible and disgusting things ever! The other analogy that was used when I was young was the plate of brownies passed around the class and one with a bite taken out of it. Who would want a brownie with a bit taken out of it? Yes, what a horrible way to make a girl feel worthless AND a complete ignorance of the atonement of Jesus Christ! Another thing -- I have never heard of a boy talking about chewed gum or bitten brownies discussed in their priesthood classes. And my last point, Elizabeth's virginity wasn't stolen. She was raped, she did not give herself freely. So in my mind, when she gave herself freely to the man she loved, at that time she gave her most precious. Rape does not count. Sorry for my rant and free wheeling thought but this just reaches my heart in such a deep way -- I had to comment.

  3. I was not taught the 'bubble-gum' lesson. I was taught I was amazing, incredible, and the most valuable thing in this world to my parents. I was taught that no matter what ever I did, or whatever happened to me I was still a precious daughter of God. Truly I was treasured and explicitly taught that if any guy ever tried to harm me in any way that my papa was willing to fight for my honor and that I was never to think that I was at fault. From the time I was a little girl my dad would give me these talks (which I thought were bizarre because who really goes around hurting little girls). When I was 16 I found myself in a situation where I was violated. Luckily it was not severe (compared to what has happened to other people) but it left me feeling worthless, ashamed, guilty and violated. I did not tell my dad. I should have, but I felt so trashy that I couldn't bare the shame of it all even though intellectually I KNEW I was not at fault and that those feelings were irrational. Gratefully my supportive healthy upbringing allowed me to quickly (like in two weeks) lose those feelings and see thing as they really were and to move past the experience. If the situation had been more serious I know I would have taken longer to recover. I am just telling you this to point out that even if everyone had of taught Elizabeth the most Christlike way possible about intimacy, rape, and virtue, she likely would have still felt afraid, worthless, ashamed and guilty after being abused and raped. The nature of the crime is so appalling that it is no wonder she was so afraid and confused no matter her 'lessons'. The fact that she seems so with it and well adjusted now seems to suggest that her parents must have done some things right in raising her. She is an inspiration. Her points are well said and ever parent needs to get insight from her.

    1. Thank you! A voice of reason in this mud slinging campaign to demonize a religious organization that teaches love, forgiveness and acceptance. I was molested for years as a child and felt nothing but acceptance by church leaders when I finally decided to discuss what happened to me. We were taught to protect our virtue, NOT beat ourselves up for something so completely beyond our control as rape.

    2. Naomi, I'm so glad you learned good lessons about sexuality and had a supportive upbringing. I did too, mostly, and I feel blessed.
      I've no doubt that rape on its own is traumatizing, even without terrible object lessons about chastity. I just see no reason to add to that trauma by teaching chastity poorly.
      Posie, I don't know where that accusation came from. As you'll see from perusing my blog, I'm a faithful and active church member and I'm not slinging mud. I am, however, calling out an attitude I find harmful and a particular article I thought was poorly written. I'm so glad that you found peace and acceptance from church leaders--that's such a blessing. I want more girls to feel that same love and acceptance that you felt.

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  4. Smart's feelings that she was "worthless," "dirty," "filthy" and "a chewed-up piece of gum" following her rape--feelings which stemmed not only from the horrors of her rape, but, by her own direct admission, from teachings she had absorbed from her own "very religious upbringing" that because the "most special thing" had been taken away from her, "Who would ever want me now? I'm worthless...I understand, all too well, why someone wouldn't run, because of that alone."

    But this is not because of teachings from her religious upbringing - women who are raped of every religion and culture feel this. This is even common among women who weren't virgins at all. Among atheists who never believed at all-- For centuries this has been the case. You could verify this simply by asking any rape counselor. Any at all. You can't blame this on religion any more than you can blame it on the painting of the Rape of the Sabine women or the media for the 'culture' that shows rape victims all suffer the same way. For you to focus on this is as disingenuous as you claim Deseret New's reporting was.

  5. Noelle, as I pointed out, Smart directly links these teachings to her feelings of worthlessness. She specifically and repeatedly mentions this. I'm sure that atheist women who are raped are also traumatized. I'm not saying rape is okay as long as you never learned about chastity. I'm saying that Smart specifically and repeatedly links her feelings of worthlessness to some bizarre lessons she had about sex.
    As for the Sabine women...I have no idea what that even has to do with this.

  6. I have to agree with Noelle in that these feelings are a bi-product of rape regardless of ones religious or moral background. Which is why rape is so destructive and used so vilely in war. It is one thing to give intimacy freely (even to many), it is another to have it taken. While Smart may have referenced her religious upbringing as the source of these feelings, ask any victim of sexual abuse or assault and they will tell you of similar feelings. Maybe other's not of Smarts religious background don't have such graphic and destructive analogies to dwell on, but the feelings of worthlessness and dirtiness seem to be universal despite age, marital status, level of sexual experience, etc. While I agree it would be wise to change the direction from which we approach chastity and virtue, we must also provide resources to help all victims of rape/sexual abuse move forward to healing.

  7. As a women's therapist for 16 years, a rape and domestic violence counselor, I agree with you that the way sexual abuse is talked about in the family and in the religious community also matters. Yes, many victims feel dirty and blame themselves after any unconsented-to sexual act. But when the concept of physical virginity is over-emphasized, with analogies that frame physical sex as going from purity to impurity, it creates a harsh climate for recovery. It also adds to the culture of "Sex is dirty. Save it for the person you marry."