Written by Jill Filipovic
When Elizabeth Smart was 14, she was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, and held for nine months. Her kidnapping and rescue made national headlines, and lurid details of Smart’s ordeal trickled into news stories. But rather than letting the media set her narrative, Smart showed up years after the kidnapping ready to speak on her own terms. She went to Congress to support the implementation of the AMBER alert system and stronger laws against sexual predators. And she speaks regularly about sexual violence and sexual exploitation of children, trying to reduce shame and stigma by sharing her own story.
One of your goals is to reduce shame around sexual violence. How can we make that happen?
I know rape is a nasty word that nobody wants to say. But talking about it is the first step. We need to create communities where women, children, and men who have been sexually abused can come forward and their communities will be open enough to receive them, will not treat them any differently, will give them the help that they need and will stop the perpetrator. Right now it’s so easy for these crimes to happen. We look at media and women are sexualized, but beyond that there’s so much pressure to be perfect, to have perfect teeth and perfect hair and the perfect body, and then on top of that you’re carrying around this heavy burden of having this image of perfection and on the inside feeling like you’re crumbling because of something that happened to you. That’s not OK. We need to bring this topic into the light because it happens everywhere, in every walk of life. People need to talk about it. I know it’s not fun. But it is so important.
Has it been hard for you to talk about it?
I was a very shy girl. When I was raped, I hadn’t hit puberty yet, and I hit puberty while I was with my captors. I was very insecure about my body and about what was happening to me. I felt cheapened. When I was rescued, I felt like everyone in the world knew what had happened to me. There wasn’t a hole dark enough to hide everything that had transpired during the nine months that I was kidnapped. I wanted to hide from that, I wanted to forget that, I wanted it to go away. And as time passed, I realized it wasn’t going to.
I realized that if I wanted to see a change, then I needed to be the one to step forward and talk about it. Hopefully by talking about it and accepting it, that would help other women talk about it — not accept it as OK, but accepting that it’s unacceptable. Accept that it did happen, but we’re not going to let it happen to anybody else. This is heinous behavior that cannot be tolerated, because I’m too special to allow that to happen to me, and you’re too special to allow that to happen to you, as is every other young girl, every woman, every child, and every person out there.
I speak to many different groups and organizations, and I don’t think there’s been a single time I’ve told my story and haven’t had a woman approach me and tell me about how she was also abused or raped.
Your story made international news when you were taken and when you were rescued. Today, one of the biggest stories in the news is again about kidnapping, but in Nigeria. How does it make you feel when you read about other girls who have been abducted, even under different circumstances?
It makes me sick. It makes me sick to think that there are humans out there who are that vile and that wicked who could take these sweet innocent girls who are only trying to better themselves, and they’re destroying that. It makes me… [she tears up]. I get very passionate and emotional. It makes me so angry, and it makes me want to speak out even more. I know there’s a lot of media awareness about it right now, and we can’t let that die. I’m praying that they are safely returned home, but even if that happens, it cannot stop just at that. This goes on everywhere. This is a global issue. I want those girls to know that although these men — I don’t even want to call them men, I don’t want to acknowledge what they are — they’ve take so much away already, but I want to tell the girls not to let them take any more. They are powerful and they are strong and they have immense value, and none of those things can ever be taken away from them.
You’ve spoken about how emphasis on virginity can make it harder for rape victims to be open with their stories. Do you think that religion-based purity culture is bad for women?
I am a very religious person, and I hold my religion very dear to me. It’s carried me through a lot. It’s made me who I am today. But there is a mentality that if you are raped or if something does happen to you that you’re somehow cheapened, that you’re not quite as good as everyone else, and that’s wrong. That needs to change, because so many girls are innocent victims. Right now, we know that 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before they’re 18 and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before they’re 18. That’s wrong. We are all children of God and we all have value, and we all have something to offer and something to share, and that’s what makes us so special — we all are different.
What do you want Cosmopolitan.com readers to know about sexual violence?
I want them to know that no matter what happens, there are things no one can ever take away from you: The love inside of you. Your faith, whatever it may be. And your worth. Nobody can take that. Another human cannot take your worth away from you. That is something you are born with and you will die with.
For those girls who have been abused, you are not alone. I was abused. Many women are abused. Chances are you know someone who was sexually abused. She may not talk about it, but you do know somebody who has been sexually abused. It doesn’t need to define who you are. It doesn’t need to ruin the rest of your life. You can be happy again. It won’t be easy. And everyone’s road to happiness and healing is going to be different. I wish there was a one-size-fits-all, but I think we all saw when those little bubble shirts came out that is not true — one size does not fit all. But find that path, because life is so worth living.
So many people have been touched by your story. What do people not know about you?
I have two dogs and I love them — Archibald and Angus. Angus is a little border terrier and Archie is a little mutt, part bulldog and part something else. I love spending time with my family and my husband, but one of my favorite things is being outside with my dogs.
For information on how to book Elizabeth Smart for your next event, visit PremiereSpeakers.com/Elizabeth_Smart.
To order a signed copy of Elizabeth Smart's book, My Story, visit premierecollectibles.com/my-story-elizabeth-smart/