The Damaging Effects of Shame-Based Sex Education: Lessons From Elizabeth Smart

Article By: Kristen Howerton

A couple months ago, several Christian bloggers created a conversation about the potentially harmful aspects of idolizing virginity & purity. While I think that abstinence is a great goal for kids (& 1 I will encourage for my own), I also believe that it is vitally important that we not use shame in an attempt to scare our children into complying w/our own sexual ethics. While I think it’s great to explain the benefits of abstinence, I do believe that Christians have begun to rely too heavily on a shame-based rhetoric that motivates teens into compliance for fear of being “dirty” or undesirable.

The reality is that many kids will become sexually active in their teen years. According to research, 80% of them. It’s imperative that, while highlighting the benefits of abstinence, we also educate on sexuality & birth control & abuse & consent. It’s also imperative that we teach our kids, & our girls specifically, that THEIR IDENTITY & WORTH IS NOT TIED TO THEIR VIRGINITY. This is such a dangerous message & is so psychologically damaging. I cannot tell you how many women I have counseled who became sexually active in their teen years & consequently felt like they were damaged goods. And for women who were sexually abused, the broken sense of self is even more compounded by hearing, over & over, that “purity” is the marker of a girl’s worth.

Today, Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped, raped & held captive for nearly a year, spoke about the way these messages discouraged her from running from her captors. She spoke from her own experience at a recent forum on human trafficking at Johns Hopkins University. She describes the feelings of shame she felt after her rape:

I’ll never forget how I felt lying there on the ground. I felt like my soul had been crushed. I felt like I wasn’t even human anymore. How could anyone ever love me or care for me after this? I felt like life had no more meaning to it. And that was only the beginning.

She further explained how she had no concept that sex could occur outside of marriage:

I was raised in a religious household where I was taught that sex only happened between a married man & a woman. After that rape, I felt so dirty…can you imagine going back into a society where you are no longer of value? Where you are no longer as good as anybody else?

Raised in a religious household, Elizabeth recounted a school teacher who urged students against premarital sex & compared women who had sex before their wedding nights to chewing gum:

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. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.

Elizabeth went on to advise that we focus on teaching children their inherent value.

“The best thing we can do is educate young people as young as we can reach them,” she said. Survivors of rape need “permission to fight back,” & that requires them “to know you are of value.”

While most teens will not be faced w/an abduction situation, Elizabeth’s experience is a startling example of the way this kind of religious rhetoric significantly alters a young woman’s confidence & self-worth. We cannot continue to send the message to our young girls that being sexually active is some kind of black stain on their personhood. We do not need to make teenagers feel worthless when they have sex — or, in the case of too many teenagers, when they are assaulted against their will. As Carolyn Custis James said:

…a message of purity & abstinence, as important as this is for young women (young men too) comes too late for huge #s of young American girls, including those in church pews. It is utterly devastating to the 1-in-4 girls who is sexually abused before she reaches her 18th birthday. We live in a world where by the age of 18 an estimated 70% of girls have had sex at least once & not always by choice, where globally countless women & girls are in the grips of sex traffickers, where an appalling 48 women are raped every hour in the Congo, where w/in our own borders sexual freedom has opened the door for young women to be as sexually promiscuous as men, & where some girls w/the very best of intentions succumb to temptation. I grieve all of this, but do not for a 2nd imagine that any of this means a woman has less to offer a husband or that in any sense it diminishes her worth.

No woman, ever, is a chewed up piece of gum. No woman is a cup of spit. No woman is a used car or a dirty rag or a used-up piece of duct tape or a plucked rose or a licked cupcake. No matter what she’s done. Didn’t Jesus come to tell us that? We can do better.

View full article at:

2 thoughts on “The Damaging Effects of Shame-Based Sex Education: Lessons From Elizabeth Smart

  1. insanitybytes22 June 26, 2015 / 11:14 am

    Great article. Thanks for linking to it. That is a huge issue, it actually drives people away faith, makes them feel unworthy. Also it exposes a great deal of hypocrisy within the church and makes people distrustful. Hypocrisy kills respect. Alas, these issues have been going on for centuries. I’m always reminded of Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter. One would think we would have learned by now that shaming doesn’t work, that it just creates more collateral damage.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s