Back in May, I wrote about an especially sleazy push by liberal pundits to misrepresent Elizabeth Smart as blaming abstinence education for feelings of self-worthlessness she endured during her 2002 kidnapping and rape. Over the weekend, Jean Ann Esselink at the so-called New Civil Rights Movement blog decided to resurrect that lie (complete with clichéd “war on women” hashtag), citing my post in the process
ThinkProgress’s Tara Culp-Ressler also joined the bandwagon, but frankly, aside from characterizing Smart as not “retracting her point about abstinence education” that wasn’t actually her point in the first place, it’s pretty bland. So let’s dig into Esselink’s more combative offering:
If Ron Howard wants to talk about making movies, or if Paul McCartney wants to tell stories about John Lennon, you not only listen, you take notes. I feel that way about Elizabeth Smart when she talks about rape syndrome. She was a fourteen-year-old when she was kidnapped out of her bedroom and held as a sex slave for nine months by a deranged vagrant. I don’t question her bona fides in the area of what that does to a person. I take notes.
Fair enough. But those notes had better be accurate, or you’re going to flunk.
Last spring, Elizabeth, who was raised in a conservative Mormon home, made news when she told an audience at a Johns Hopkins symposium on human trafficking that abstinence only education is a mistake because it shames women. I have no idea how Elizabeth votes, but the religious right has anointed her as one of their own, and she does wear a lot of pearls, so let me quote her verbatim, lest I be accused of putting my liberal spin on conservative Elizabeth’s complaint.
I don’t know if anyone else on the “religious right has anointed her as one of their own,” and Esselink doesn’t back it up with links to anyone other than me, so it bears mentioning that I made a point of stressing that “I do not presume to know [Smart’s] views on the general subject” of sex education.
She goes on to quote the same passage I did previously, in which Smart discussed a teacher who, in the course of discussing abstinence, likened a sexually active girl to an old piece of gum that nobody wants anymore because it’s all chewed up. As I explained at the time, decrying one teacher’s callousness isn’t at all the same as condemning abstinence education.
Nowhere in the speech did Smart say anything a fair-minded reader would rationally construe as condemning abstinence education; in fact, she discussed realizing that her family’s religious views on sex weren’t incompatible with valuing her equally before and after getting rape. The only educational changes she called for were teaching children how to avoid and resist predators at an earlier age – which is ironic, since the latest fad in left-wing feminist circles is shrieking that anyone who says such things is a victim-blaming enabler of “rape culture.” (And yes, I re-watched the whole video just to be sure.)
Somehow the rabid right managed to turn their stories into: “Sick liberals exploit Elizabeth Smart’s rape and kidnapping to demonize abstinence education.” The mud-slinging began. And Elizabeth’s message was lost.
“Somehow,” because apparently the possibility of being fact-checked is too difficult for liberals to process. And “rabid” and “mud-slinging,” because I guess “teaching abstinence helps rapists” isn’t hyperbolic or insulting at all.
Did we all read the same quote?
Yep. But some of us were honest about what it said.
Elizabeth Smart says abstinence only programs hurt young women’s self-esteem.
No she didn’t. She said a bad teacher who presented abstinence badly did. Stop lying.
In an upcoming issue of New Yorker Magazine, Elizabeth Smart is reported to have “clarified” her views on abstinence only programs. (I hate calling it “abstinence only education” since it is exactly the opposite. It’s keeping kids uneducated about their own bodies and about sex.) She didn’t “walk it back”. She painted it in softer colors for the Right, by saying it was one example among many other ways women are shamed for their sexuality. But she did reaffirm her observation that abstinence only is a factor that often contributes to victims of sexual abuse blaming themselves.
The new interview’s subscriber-only, but here’s the entire paragraph Esselink offers just a snippet of:
The speech received considerable media attention. The Washington Post summed up Smart’s comments with the headline “MORMON TEACHING ON SEX STOPPED ME FROM ESCAPING KIDNAPPERS.” Smart told me that she wanted to clarify her point. She had been lamenting that victims of sexual abuse often feel that they are “no longer as good as everybody else.” Nobody should have the power to take away another person’s self-worth, Smart told me. But abstinence education was hardly the only way that victims of sexual assault could be shamed. A girl could be humiliated through social media — Smart and I talked about the incident last year in Steubenville, Ohio, in which high-school students recorded an assault with cell-phone cameras and mocked the victim on Twitter. Smart told me, “I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met who say, ‘When I was your age, I was raped, but it was kind of my fault, because of X, Y, or Z.’ And I just want to pull my hair out.” Autumn Hanna VandeHei, an organizer of the Johns Hopkins conference, told me in an e-mail that when Smart was invited to participate she “initially didn’t understand how she could be helpful.” But when VandeHei told Smart “how many of these girls are judged after coming out of trafficking for not leaving their pimps/captors – for not running away – she became very indignant, and was passionate and defensive on behalf of the trafficking survivors.”
So once more we see the sentiment attributed to her, but her actual words don’t go nearly that far. Again, Smart’s original speech made clear that a traditional, religious outlook on morality and valuing rape victims were not mutually exclusive – “just because all these things had happened to me, that wouldn’t change their love.” If anything, the piece goes on to strengthen that point:
She remembered how her mother had consoled her after a popular girl at school invited others to a party right in front of her. Her mother had said, “There are only two opinions of you that really matter. One is God’s. And the other is mine. And don’t you know I will always love you, no matter what?” Smart decided that she’d endure whatever it took in order to see her family again […]
Someone in Salt Lake City who knows the Smarts told me, “They are a prominent Mormon family, and a very tight one. Her family and her community folded her right back in” […]
Kristine Haglund, the editor of a journal about Mormonism, told me […] “She had this terrible experience, and one that had weird and creepy Mormon overtones. Yet she still believes. She’s entirely faithful. And while she’s not part of the feminist ferment in Mormonism, and I doubt she’d call herself a feminist, she is strong in a way that feminists can admire. She emerged strong and whole, a modern woman able to address questions of sexuality directly and confidently.”
In a last bid to give her revisionism a veneer of substance, Esselink links to a 2011 Slate piece allegedly showing that teen pregnancy is “significantly higher” in abstinence-only states. But Mary Anne Mosack of the National Abstinence Education Association responds that the study Slate cites is severely flawed – it fails to account for “numerous [other] factors contributing to high teen birth rates,” “make[s] the erroneous conclusion that these laws accurately reflect what is actually being taught in schools,” and “make[s] no mention of the percentage of students in a state who actually received abstinence classes,” which is significant because “contraceptive-based programs have been implemented in every state regardless of the law”:
Even the very anti-abstinence Guttmacher Institute concluded that only 25% of schools across the country were receiving abstinence education during the decade examined in this study. In actual practice, no state can be categorized as “abstinence-only.”
Beyond that, we have plenty of peer-reviewed evidence that says just the opposite:
- The Heritage Foundation found that “17 of the 22 studies” they examined in 2010 “reported statistically significant positive results, such as delayed sexual initiation and reduced levels of early sexual activity, among youths who have received abstinence education.”
- A 2010 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found abstinence-only education was more effective than both “safe sex” education and “comprehensive” education.
- In 2012, researchers from Montclair State University found that “abstinence from sexual activity until marriage is the best way to avoid teen pregnancy, disease, and possible negative emotional consequences, and is the best way to help students focus on academic and other future-oriented goals.”
- In 2000, the Medical Institute for Sexual Health reviewed the literature up to that time and found that “programs that exclusively teach abstinence can positively impact sexual behavior.”
- Heritage Community Services documents the effectiveness of its abstinence program.
- And the National Abstinence Education Association provides further evidence that teaching abstinence works.
Like a fisherman’s guppy that grows into a shark in the retelling, Esselink’s caricature gets increasingly egregious throughout the post, ending as “Elizabeth Smart and her plea to end abstinence only programs.” We all agree that rape victims should never be shamed, but it seems our opponents disagree on the shamefulness of rank dishonesty.