As a teenager, I attended a self-defense class. Our group was made up of Mormon girls between the ages of 12 and 18. The instructor, also a Mormon, chose to end the presentation by telling us “The greater the number of earrings in your ear, the more revealing your clothing, the more you expose yourself to the possibility of sexual assault.” I nodded along with his words; I grew up believing that a woman must dress modestly at all times. I attended a number of lessons in my youth during which the boys – my peers – pointed to the immodest dress of women as a trigger for impure thoughts.
A couple days ago Elizabeth Smart gave an interview during which she pointed to chastity lessons as contributing to her captivity. Smart, who was held captive for eight months by a self-proclaimed prophet, talked about a lesson she had as a teenager in which her virginity was compared to a piece of gum. In Smart’s words
“I remember in school one time I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence, and she said, imagine, you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, 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? Well that’s terrible, nobody should ever say that, but for me, I thought, I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody rechews a piece of gum, you throw it away. That’s how easily it is to feel that you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out?”
Chastity object lessons are very common in within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly referred to as the Mormon Church. Sometimes it is the piece of gum, which, once chewed, nobody else wants to chew. Other times it is the cupcake, which, once licked, is once disgusting to anyone else. Other times it is the rose, which, once passed around and handled by multiple people, turns brown and wilted. There is no un-chewing of the gum, no un-licking of the cupcake, no un-wilting of the rose.
In the book “The Miracle of Forgiveness” the previous Mormon leader, Spencer W Kimball, wrote
“It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.”
Earlier this year, Elaine Dalton, the leader of the Young Women’s program and one of the few females in a visible position of leadership within the Mormon Church, said in a world-wide broadcast to young Mormon girls everywhere
“Cherish virtue. Your personal purity is one of your greatest sources of power.”
This is what chastity is within Mormonism; something that, once it is gone, can never be regained and the loss of which forever diminishes a person’s worth.
In the light of these teachings, I suppose that if I had been assaulted while wearing a tank top or extra earrings, I would have blamed myself for the attack. I would have blamed myself for my tight clothing or my two earrings or for not fighting enough or for not being faithful enough. And so I am grateful to Elizabeth Smart for having the courage to speak out against these harmful lessons.