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.