Please note: This post has been corrected. In earlier versions, the second and third paragraph were inadvertently transposed.
As we continue this month to consider images of Mormonism in popular culture, the Juvenile Instructor is pleased to host guest blogger Megan Goodwin. Megan is currently completing her PhD at the University of North Carolina?Chapel Hill. Her research interests include American religions, gender and sexuality, religious language and literature, religious alterity, and contemporary critical thought. Her dissertation, entitled ?Good Fences: American Sexual Exceptionalism and Marginal Religions,? examines three captivity narratives ? Betty Mahmoody?s Not Without My Daughter (1987), Michelle Smith?s Michelle Remembers (1989), and Jon Krakauer?s Under the Banner of Heaven (2003) ? as articulations of American Protestant anxieties about the challenges marginal religions pose to normative masculinity. Please join us in welcoming Megan to the Juvenile Instructor.
Elizabeth Smart made headlines this month when she advocated for human trafficking survivors at a conference hosted by Johns Hopkins University?s Bloomberg School of Public Health. I?ve spent a lot of time thinking about Smart this year ? I made her kidnapping (or rather Jon Krakauer?s treatment of Smart?s captivity in his inexorable Under the Banner of Heaven) the focal point of a national conference paper and a key element of my dissertation chapter on anti-Mormon religious intolerance. But I missed that she?d spoken at this conference until the blogosphere erupted over her alleged condemnation of abstinence-based sex education.
During her 13 minute presentation, Smart recounted the details of her captivity and emphasized the need to teach children that they have intrinsic worth, regardless of how others might abuse or exploit them. She further noted that ?one of the questions that is most commonly asked [of her] is ?well, why didn?t you run away? Why didn?t you yell? Why didn?t you scream???
This question immediately raised the hackles of my inner humorless feminist, who was already riled after a year of teaching Women?s and Gender Studies 101. This question, as Smart notes, is common ? an almost knee-jerk refrain when people feel survivors didn?t resist their own exploitation and abuses enough. (The metrics of ?enough? are usually a bit murky.) This question, as I explained to my students this year, perpetuates rape culture: the popular and often unquestioned conviction that men are naturally sexually aggressive and dominant, while women are the natural targets of that sexual aggression and must resist unwanted overtures. Or to put in simpler terms: women should try to avoid being raped, because, you know, rape happens.
Such an attitude simultaneously exonerates sexual assailants (who are largely though not exclusively men), accepts sexual assault as an inescapable eventuality (which it currently is, for arguably 25% of American women, 10% of American men, and 50% of transgender persons), and places the onus of assault prevention on the survivors of sexual assault (who are largely though not exclusively women). The message is ?women, don?t get raped? rather than ?don?t rape,? and questions about whether a survivor resisted enough or tried to escape or yelled or hid or fought back perpetuate this nonsense. My undergraduates would know better than to ask such a question. I cannot say the same of National Public Radio, The Washington Post, or The Christian Science Monitor.
News sites and blogs alike latched onto a passing comment Smart made about how her religious education about sex affected her mindset during captivity. In a thirteen-minute speech about the importance of teaching children a fundamental sense of self-worth, Smart recalled that
?In school one time, I had a teacher that 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?that?s like getting chewed. And 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?? ?I thought, ?oh my gosh, I?m that chewed up piece of gum!??
In the context of Smart?s speech, the chewed-up gum analogy was one expressing how worthless and dirty she felt after being sexually victimized. The comment comprised 30 seconds of a 13 minute presentation. Smart spent nearly five times as long pleading for compassion toward survivors and education of potential victims. Her emphasis was clearly on the need to teach young people that ?you have value, and you always will have value ? nothing can change that.?
At no time did Smart say that her religious education or affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made her somehow particularly susceptible to sexual exploitation ? though Jon Krakauer did imply as much in Banner (see 2004, pp. 44-53, particularly p. 47). Smart rather drew on an analogy from her childhood to explain her (very common) feelings of self-loathing following sexual exploitation and abuse. Here?s how news sites and blogs responded:
NPR lede: ?Elizabeth Smart?said that abstinence lessons she learned as a child made her feel worthless after being raped by her captor.?
Christian Science Monitor lede: ?Elizabeth Smart spoke about why kidnap and rape victims might not run, during a Johns Hopkins University human trafficking forum.?
Slate: ?Elizabeth Smart Says Pro-Abstinence Sex Ed Harms Victims of Rape?
Religion Dispatches headline: ?Traditional Mormon Sexual Purity Lesson Contributed to Captivity, Elizabeth Smart Tells University Audience? and the headline for the follow-up piece, ?Did Mormon Morality Teachings Really Make it Harder for Elizabeth Smart to Run??
And the worst of a bad bunch ? the Washington Post article?s headline: ?Elizabeth Smart: Mormon teaching on sex stopped me from escaping kidnappers.?
As a gender theorist, I am exhausted and infuriated by the inescapability of ?why didn?t you run?? (or fight back, or scream, or, or, or). To her credit, Smart both unapologetically answered and then rejected the premise of this question. Smart explained that she didn?t try to escape because she was afraid for her own safety and the safety of her family. She unabashedly defended her decisions not to fight back or to speak out even when initially questioned by police. ?I did what I felt I had to,? Smart emphasized. She closed her presentation by insisting that we should not ask why some survivors of sexual exploitation don?t?or can?t?run, or scream, or otherwise resist their assailants. ?We don?t know why they didn?t run. We don?t know the circumstances. And we?re all so different. We really don?t have a right to ask that question,? Smart admonished.
While as a gender theorist I?m frustrated with the persistence of this question?and with the poor listening skills of her popular press chroniclers?as a religious studies scholar, I?m fascinated and troubled by the impulse to locate Smart?s lack of resistance in her Mormon identity or education. (I?m equally fascinated and troubled by the liberal impulse to locate women?s oppression in capital-R Religion rather than broad systemic inequalities, but that?s for another time.) My current project thinks through Americans? tendency to imagine that women are somehow especially vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation on the nation?s religious margins. This tendency?this habit of intolerance, as Cristine HJ might say?is by no means new (see Sarah Barringer Gordon?s excellent The Mormon Question and Terryl Givens? seminal The Viper on the Hearth) nor uniquely deployed against Mormonisms (see David Brion Davis and Lorne Dawson, among others). Comparisons of gendered inequality and sexual exploitation of women and children among Mormonisms, Islam(s), and new religious movements are common, and authors who work on these subjects often focus on the titillating and horrific. Indeed, we seem to assume we that we ?know? what goes on in minority religious communities ? tales like Elizabeth Smart?s only serve to confirm our well-founded suspicions.
But as sociologist Mary de Young notes, ?sexual trauma tales can sustain the status quo by simply reiterating, without critique, the dominant cultural discourse about sex and gender? (1996, 111). She explains:
For all their horror, [such stories] are conservative and preservative. Their depiction of female victimization and helplessness so resoundingly resonates with dominant cultural ideologies that the stories, themselves, are pitiable yet provocative tales about the inevitability of sexual violence in the lives of females. As hegemonic tales, they offer no solutions, map out no trajectory for social change. They can only be listened to, not acted upon. (de Young 1996, 116)
This is to say that the question of why Elizabeth Smart didn?t run?and the popular media?s willingness to attribute that alleged failure to her religious training?matters, because it tells us something about the way Americans think about gender, sex, and minority religions. If we are truly invested in preventing the sexual coercion and exploitation of women, we need to think harder about the questions we?re asking.
Religious intolerance does not exist in a vacuum ? it capitalizes upon and exploits other systemic inequalities. Elizabeth Smart is right to insist upon her inherent worth as a human being, regardless of her sexual ?purity.? We must not content ourselves, however, with facile and out-of-context appropriations of an activist?s words for our own agendas, no matter how admirable those agendas might be. Rather, we should question (and resist?) those quiet inner voices making us wonder if she could have fought harder had she not been raised Mormon.