How Slut-Shaming Empowers Sexual Abusers

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When I was 16, I went to a weekend “abstinence” retreat. Around 30 highschoolers, supervised by college kids and adults, spent a weekend in a hunting lodge in Paint Rock, Alabama, learning about why God wants us to wait until marriage. I met two future boyfriends there. My sister met the boy who would impregnate her before she finished high school.

One of the hands-on learning activities involved each of us getting a piece of tape, and pressing the sticky sides of our tape together, pulling them apart, and then doing that with the next participant. This represented how sex binds two people together. But as we stuck and unstuck, our pieces got less and less sticky, representing how sex gets less and less effective as a binding agent as you tear away from your first partner and bond with new ones.

ThinkProgress is reporting an interesting point on teaching abstinence that Elizabeth Smart recently made. Smart was “kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City, UT at the age of 14 and held in captivity for nine months. She was forced into a polygamous marriage, tethered to a metal cable, and raped daily until she was rescued from her captors nine months later.

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.’

ThinkProgress uses Smart’s comments to make a case for comprehensive sex ed:

Social psychologists and sexual abuse counselors agree that comprehensive sex education can help prevent sexual crimes. Teaching children about their bodies gives them the tools to describe acts of abuse without feeling as embarrassed or uncomfortable, and it also helps elevate their self-confidence and sense of bodily autonomy. A shame-based approach to genitalia and sexuality, on the other hand, sends kids the message that they can’t discuss or ask questions about any of those issues.

Elizabeth felt a sense of shame, and that she’d lost some of her value, after her sexual abuse. This made her more reticent to escape. I think it makes sense that this feeling of shame and loss would prevent other victims from coming forward to report abuse.

But I don’t think a class in school is the best way to help kids avoid shame and fear around sex. I have two memories from my sex ed class. The first is a poster, indelibly inked upon my brain, with hand-drawn panels showing exactly how anal sex is more likely to result in the transmission of HIV. If you’ve never seen a drawing of an anal tear with semen in it, well, you haven’t taken sex ed at Sparkman High circa 2006. The second is a fellow classmate talking before class about another classmate who had slept over, saying he “left shit stains on my sheets.” The stainer in question was someone I would regularly see walking the halls, and who I would forever associate with this statement. I just could not, at 16 years old, imagine 1. Having sex 2. Having sex with someone who did not WIPE HIS BUTT SUFFICIENTLY 3. Having sex with someone who did not wipe very well, and TELLING ANYONE ABOUT IT.

I get why people, mostly liberals, say we need comprehensive sex ed. They rightly point out that there are kids whose parents are either not willing or able to talk about sex at all, or who actually misinform their children. But trying to meet everyone’s needs in one catch-all, government-run class is bound to upset people and cannot really make up for a lack of parental involvement. Parents play an incredibly important role in helping kids form their opinions on sex. Nothing in the classroom can replace what happens, or doesn’t happen, at home.

And I totally get why people, mostly conservatives, don’t support comprehensive sex ed. They, understandably, want parents, and not the state, to shape their kids’ knowledge of and views on sex. But if conservatives want the responsibility for informing their kids about sex and shaping their views, they need to take this responsibility seriously.

They can certainly send their kids to abstinence retreats, but that should be at the beginning, not the end, of the conversation. Elizabeth Smart’s observation reveals that parents must, if for reasons of safety alone, tell their kids that they’re not pieces of tape or gum, to be used one time and then thrown away. They must tell them that they have value way beyond what they choose to do or not do with their genitals, and especially beyond what others might choose for them.

It’s a parent’s responsibility to help ensure his or her kids grow up without shame and fear around sex, both because they should feel comfortable reporting abuse and because feeling shame and fear around sex is a far less pleasant way to live. And has to start with parents overcoming their own shame and fear around sex, and putting in the hard work to be sure their kids never develop it.

Conservatives, if you’re not going to support sex education, that means you need to be willing and able to educate your kids about sex yourself. Are you ready?