At a recent panel at Johns Hopkins university, Elizabeth Smart asked us all to approach victims of kidnapping and human trafficking with compassion and empathy—imploring us to offer them safety and support, rather than merely gawking at the grisly particulars of their ordeals or getting lost in the callous, irrelevant question of why or when a given person did or didn’t run.
Her comments are especially worthy of our attention right now, given the horrible ordeal that just ended for those three women in Cleveland. It’s worth thinking about why people (mostly men) do these sorts of monstrous things to other people (mostly women), and why victim-blaming (of which the why-didn’t-she-run question is certainly a facet) remains so pervasive.
Smart talked very openly about her experience being kidnapped and held captive for nine months, during which time she was repeatedly raped:
I was raised in a very religious household, one that taught that sex was something special that only happened between a husband and a wife who loved each other. And that’s what I’d been raised [to believe], that’s what I’d always been determined to follow—that when I got married, then and only then would I engage in sex.
And so, for that first rape, I felt crushed: who could want me now? I felt so dirty, and so filthy. I understand—so easily, all too well—why someone wouldn’t run: because of that alone. I mean, if you can imagine the most special thing being taken away from you, and feeling like that—not that that was your only value in life, but…
Can you imagine turning around and going back into society, where you’re no longer of value? Where you’re no longer as good as everybody else?
Smart then immediately, explicitly traced her feelings of shame and worthlessness to abstinence-only education.
I remember in school one time, I had a teacher who was talking about—well, about abstinence. And she said, “Imagine you’re a stick of gum. And when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And then, if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum. And who’s going to want you after that?”
That’s terrible. Nobody should ever say that. But for me, I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed-up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.” And that’s how [easy] it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value.”
There are lots of problems with abstinence-only education. One problem is that it doesn’t seem to work at all. It doesn’t produce teenagers who are more abstinent, but only teenagers who are more ignorant. For another thing, then, children without sexual information are easier targets for sexual predators; how can they know what inappropriate or threatening behavior looks like when they have only the foggiest idea of what safe, healthy, appropriate behavior looks like?
But Smart’s comments also address something bigger than abstinence-only education, bigger than rape culture: the idea that a woman’s value derives from her virginity, from her purity—that whereas a man becomes incrementally more awesome (and thus more valuable) with each sexual conquest, sex renders a woman sluttier (and thus less valuable). This means that a woman’s first sexual experience markedly, massively, irretrievably reduces her value.
Let’s begin by agreeing about how fucked up that concept is.
We construe a woman’s virginity as, in Elizabeth Smart’s words, “the most special thing” she possesses. Smart stops just short of saying that virginity is a woman’s “only value in life.” If a woman isn’t a faultless sexual gatekeeper, then she’s nothing, whatever else she may have going for her. As Jessica Valenti outlined in The Purity Myth, sexual “purity” is held up as the cardinal virtue of female life, over and above actual virtues like kindness, intelligence, creativity, and integrity.
Now, this crap does make some semblance of sense, in an “evolutionary history” kind of way: before the emergence of birth control as a technology and genetics as a science, the only way that a man could guarantee himself children that were biologically his own was to exert total control over his reproductive partner’s sexuality. Even as women achieve greater measures of equality—and even as science strips old gender configurations of all utility—men and women alike continue to believe that female sexuality must be policed, restrained, reigned-in (and worse, that this inequity is somehow the natural order of things).
Peggy Reeves Sanday pinpoints this as the founding cultural myth of victim-blaming and female non-agency, expressed most succinctly in the work R.F. von Krafft Ebing and Havelock Ellis—who, following from Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection, attempted to find a “natural” explanation for rape. “Ellis conceives of human sexual behavior as a game of combat,” Sanday explains. “Playing the role of the hunted animal the female conceals her sexual passion by adopting a demeanor of modesty in order that the male may be more ardent and forceful.”
More specifically (and also more creepily), Ellis argued that female resistance is eventually, inevitably met with “an element of real violence, of undisguised cruelty,” and that this combativeness-unto-violence “[puts] to the test man’s most important quality, force.”
So on Ellis’ account, aggressive coercion is a valid tactic for men perusing sex, and female sexual gatekeeping is a performance: really, she wants it, but it’s her responsibility to withhold it, except that she won’t be able to, because she’ll find the sheer virility of her increasingly coercive paramour to be just that damn irresistible.
This tangled knot of misogynist non-logic helps to explain why we think of sexually active women as less virtuous, and why we think this even when the sex-acts in question occurred against their will—and also, why so many men who rape do not think of themselves as rapists. The cultural script tells us that women are supposed to resist, and that men are supposed to overcome that resistance. Nothing wrong here. Just sex-as-a-zero-sum-game, forever.
Succinctly and without exaggeration, this idea is one of the deepest and most pervasive evils ever to riddle the human psyche. This is what leads us to ask what rape victims were wearing when they were raped. This is what makes it possible to regard “honor killings” with anything other than open horror.
This is also what makes it possible to use a rape as a weapon of war. Rape is self-evidently monstrous in itself, but it couldn’t tear societies apart if the members of those societies refused to shun and despite its victims—if they reserved their disdain for the perpetrators of the crime, rather than those against whom the crime was purpotrated.
I’m not claiming that I know how to untangle this knot, but I do know that we won’t get anywhere while so many of us persist in beliving—obstinately, confrontationally, and against all available evidence—that the whole problem is fictional or long since solved. We need to begin by noticing these malignant assumptions in ourselves, and fighting them whenever they emerge.
I’m not claiming that’s easy. Just that it’s necessary. We stand to make the world an infinitely more humane place, if only we can all see sexual “purity” for the pernicious, corrosive bullshit that it is and supplant it (bit by bit, thought by thought, interaction by interaction) with a better and saner cultural script.