United States: Elizabeth Smart Speaks Out Against Obsession with Women’s Sexual Purity
Monday, May 20, 2013 2:40 PM

Elizabeth Smart, the American woman who was kidnapped as a teenager in 2002, recently discussed how her religious upbringing informed her reaction to being raped by her kidnapper. Smart explained that she was raised with the understanding that sex outside of marriage makes a woman “impure.” This belief that a woman’s value is defined by the sexual activity she does and does not engage in “made [Smart] feel worthless after her first rape” and “ruined.” Smart suggests that this conception of sexual assault may make it harder for other kidnapping and rape survivors to escape their situations if they feel devalued and judged by society.
This “cultural emphasis on sexual purity” for women makes it even more difficult for survivors of sexual violence to recover from the violation and seek justice. Victim-shaming by the media and others amplifies the survivor’s pain and has led some survivors to suicide. In the aftermath of sexual assault of a woman, the focus often shifts from the perpetrator to the victim, thereby reinforcing the notion that her behavior was somehow at fault. Judging a survivor of sexual assault in this way instead of supporting her detracts from the crucial task of bringing the perpetrator to justice. It shuts down a potential dialogue about why perpetrators assault and how to prevent it, in favor of opening a discussion about the survivor's sexual history.
In describing her feelings following her rape and their connection to the messages regarding sexual activity that she internalized growing up, Smart illustrated the ways in which “purity” culture makes women’s bodies mere objects to be preserved and protected. This emphasis on women’s sexual purity serves to dehumanize women and teaches girls from an early age that self-worth is intertwined with sexual activity. Smart’s open discussion of how her upbringing affected her sense of self-worth following the rape has important implications for what it means to be a woman in America today.