Elizabeth Smart Is Challenging the Way the Mormon Church Talks About Women and Sex

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Elizabeth Smart addressing an audience.Photo: Jacob Langston/TNS via Getty Images

When we last heard from her, Elizabeth Smart was a budding critic of purity culture, but now it seems her critiques have made their way into her advocacy work in a permanent way. In a new interview with Broadly, the woman who was abducted by kidnappers at age 14 critiques the Mormon church for the way it discusses sex, especially in regards to young girls.

“I think the power of faith is amazing, the hope and the healing that it can bring to people,” she said. “But I also think there’s another side of it that can be potentially very harmful, especially when a lot of religions teach that sexual relations are meant for marriage … It’s so stressed that girls in particular tie their worth to their virginity, or, for lack of a better word, purity.”

She went on to recall the effect the church’s teachings had on her mentality after she’d survived nine months of sexual abuse:

“You’re like this beautiful fence,” she remembers being told in class after she’d returned home. “And you hammer these nails in, and then every time you have sex with someone else, it’s like you’re hammering in another nail. And you can take them out, you can repent of them, but the holes are still there.”
“I just remember thinking, This is terrible. Do they not realize I’m sitting in class? Do they not realize that I’m listening to what they’re saying? Those are terrible analogies. No one should use them, period. Especially for someone who’s been raped, they’ve already felt these feelings of worthlessness, of filth, of just … of just being so crushed, and then to hear a teacher come back and say, ‘Nobody wants you now’ … You just think, I should just die right now.

Overall, she thinks church leaders’ emphasis on purity needs to change — it should be clear to young girls that their self-worth isn’t tied to their virginity or their sexuality. “People need to realize there is nothing that can detract from your worth,” she said. “When it comes to rape and sexual violence and abuse, that can never detract from who you are.”