The culture of shame and the issue of human trafficking are not to be conflated. With the rescue of three ladies in Cleveland, who were taken as girls, there has been a societal struggle to explain how what happened could happen, particularly in the land of the free. Admittedly, there is an effort in the secular press to disassociate itself from the teachings of Scripture, and so the root cause of such stories in its narrative cannot be “evil” or “sin.” If everybody is basically good, all society must do is figure out where “the system” failed and proffer ideas to improve its function. In the midst of the unveiling of the stories of the Cleveland survivors, many in the press have glommed onto the words of Elizabeth Smart delivered at a human trafficking awareness event at Johns Hopkins. Worse, some in the press and blogosphere have attempted to blame slavery on abstinence training in schools and churches and homes. How and why could this happen? And what is really going on and needs to be addressed, both by society and the Church?
In her interview and speech at Johns Hopkins, Elizabeth Smart, a survivor of kidnapping and enslavement, was asked about the psychology of the three survivors in Cleveland. How can this happen? Why wouldn’t they try and escape? What goes through one’s mind when one is enslaved? Miss Smart explained part of the reason why she stayed when she gained some freedom from her captives was based on her upbringing. Miss Smart related that as a child, she had been taught in church and in her home that her virginity was like a piece of chewing gum. Apparently, some in her church and her parents thought the metaphor was a great way to discourage girls from promiscuous behavior. “Once the piece of gum has been chewed,” went the teaching, “no one else is ever going to want to chew it.” I suppose the idea was to keep the “piece of gum” wrapped and in its container until a husband appeared to “open the package.”
Miss Smart related that during her captivity and rape, it dawned on her that she was that piece of chewed chewing gum. It had been so ingrained into her that Miss Smart could never imagine any boy would ever want her. Boys would look at her as damaged goods and, therefore, never think about marrying her. Her parents would be disappointed in her. She knew that those in her church would be saddened at what she had allowed to happen to her. Simply put, Miss Smart was lamenting to the press that part of the reason she stayed even after she had the opportunity escape her captors was her perception of how people would react to what had happened to her. It is, sadly, “blame the victim” in full bloom.
Naturally, some in the press and society have chosen to try and argue that abstinence teaching leads to the possible enslavement of of our girls. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have no interest in comparing the various abstinence programs out there, nor do I have any desire to wade into the “should we teach abstinence in school?” debate other than tangentially. Ideally, abstinence training should simply inform boys and girls the place and value of sexual relations and, again from my perspective as a priest in Christ Church, the consequences of becoming sexually active outside marriage. I am not naive enough to believe that this is how abstinence is taught in most places nor that boys/young men and girls / young ladies will automatically cease to be sexually active as teens because of the emotional and physical scarring that can occur. Neither do I accept the claim that all teenagers have to have sex because of biology or peer pressure or whatever excuse is given. Nor, however, do I believe it is the responsibility of the schools to teach our youth about sex. Unfortunately, too many parents have abrogated that responsibility, and the schools find themselves in the position of having to figure out how and what to teach those whom they are given to educate.
What needs to be remembered is that the slavers are experts in manipulation and psychological warfare. As has been reported in the press, the alleged slaver in Cleveland excelled in breaking down the girls he kidnapped. He would pretend to leave, only to hide quietly waiting to see which girl tried to escape. If a girl tried to escape, he beat her viciously. The end result over time, was that the girls never truly believed they were alone or that escape was possible. Another example of his psychological warfare he seems to have adopted was a modified “bottom bitch.” On the streets, slavers will normally name a girl a bottom bitch, the head girl. It is the job of the bottom to make sure that the other girls are working and making their quotas. The bottoms collect the monies for the slaver, decide who gets what food, and generally rule in the slaver’s name. The alleged slaver adapted this practice in Cleveland. Whichever girl convinced him she loved him the most got the food, got to sleep in the bed with him, and was not beaten or otherwise tortured. Given those two possible outcomes, it is no wonder that the survivors tried to outdo one another convincing the slaver of their love for him. As news comes out, I have no doubt that eventually we will learn that, at some point during their enslavement, the will of the girls to escape was broken and they did whatever was required to survive.
The same is likely true of Miss Smart in her experience. Her slavers had total control over her. They controlled where she slept; when she had to wake up (sleep deprivation is an effective form of torture); what, if anything, she ate; whether she bathed; whether she was groomed (brushed hair/teeth); and the kinds of sex she we forced to perform. Very quickly they would have learned her attitudes about everything. They would withhold those things she valued mostly or punished using those things she most feared to elicit the responsive behavior they desired. If she would have ever let slip the “chewed gum” analogy of her upbringing, we can be sure they would have reminded her that she was “chewed gum” every day of her life from that point forward. The purpose of which would have been to take away her will to escape.
Does abstinence teaching create boys and girls who are more easily enslaved? Absolutely not. Slavery knows no racial, socio-economic, educational, or even physical bounds. Children of means and children of poverty; individuals from privilege and individuals from working class; those that are educated and those lack formal education; individuals from all races; individuals of all body types--all have been discovered to have survived slavery. All slavers care about is the exploitation of others for their own gain. If they or their customers have a particular appetite, they will do whatever they can to meet that demand or appetite. Period. It is true, however, that slavers can use the shame felt by those whom they have victimized to dehumanize victim’s even in the victim’s own eyes. And it is only at this point that the two issue cross.
The Church needs to be clear that we are not in the business of shame. Our Lord Christ came not to condemn nor to shame but to redeem. Redeem. Examples like that used in Miss Smart’s youth are, I believe, misguided and open to all kinds of abuse, and not just abuse at the hands of slavers. Our youth make tons of mistakes and sin often against God; just as do the adults in their lives. Miss Smart’s words and experience should cause us to think about how we should teach abstinence. We do not ever want our daughters in the Church thinking that they are pieces of chewed gum; nor do we ever want our sons to see or think of daughters as anyone other than beloved of redeemed by our Lord Christ (and, let’s be honest, the Church needs to teach boys to value their own sexual purity as much as it does girls, but that is a sermon for another day). The more time we spend preaching and teaching and living in light of His redemptive efforts, the more honor and glory and, probably, more disciples, we will bring to Him.
The story of redemption also is important to those who have survived enslavement, and so the Church needs to be focused better on it, if it is to help society confront this evil. I intentionally try to use the word survivor rather than victim because I want men and women and boys and girls to know that they have accomplished something to be admired. In the face of unspeakable horrors, or in the face of a total lack of freedom, they found a way to persevere and to survive. Most likely, as in the case of Miss Smart or the girls in Cleveland, they eventually found the strength to reach out to the world around them, knowing the dangers that their respective slavers posed. That is a courage to be admired. It is a courage that was exhibited in the face of potential death. The professionals in the world around us will teach coping skills, and rightfully so, in light of what survivors have experienced. But the Church has better message! The Church serves a Lord who offers healing!
So much of our Gospel narrative centers around the idea of enslavement to sin, and rightfully so. And, over and over, God has used the story of physical enslavement and His actions to free His people to teach us how He freed us from the most insidious bondage. We need to recapture that understanding of ourselves. We need to re-understand the freedom which He proclaimed and His willingness to redeem all who would come to Him. Shaming us was not a part of His work. In fact, He condescended to bear our shame and our guilt that we might be truly freed! We need to become that place of healing, that place of radical grace, so that the Miss Smart’s of the world and the Cleveland girls of the world think of God as the Healer and of us as His hospital. We need to be so engaged in proclaiming that redemptive Gospel so that survivors turn without a second thought to the Church and to the Lord, seeking healing and grace.
Sadly, too many survivors tell us that they felt no one cared, that they were not missed, and that they were not loved or missed. The idea that someone cared for them, the idea that someone died for them, the idea that someone could love them was unfathomable. Shaming has because such a part of society and the Church that we do not even notice its presence any more. And our acceptance of its presence has tattered Her wedding dress and muted Her message. In some respects, our attitudes toward shame have caused us to mirror what survivors feel inside. I often wonder how the woman caught in adultery would fare in the Church today. To be sure, there are pockets where she would be told to repent, that her sins are forgiven, and to go and sin no more. But how many Church’s would offer survivors and their families anything but shame? How many members would remember that they, too, like those survivors of human trafficking, were once themselves enslaved to sin until they met the Lord Christ? Until we become more aware of the freedom and redemption He has worked in our own lives, we will be only a tattered reflection of the people He has called us to be for His name’s sake. Perhaps, perhaps in light of Miss Smart’s testimony, some in the Church will begin to reflect upon their message. Maybe, just maybe, some in the Church will begin to proclaim the redemption He offers and nail the shame with Him on the cross.