Elizabeth Smart and the Ideal Survivor

It’s been an especially hard few weeks for victims of sexual violence. On the other hand, the internet’s biggest jerks are having a blast, taking a cue from their President and mocking survivors of sexual violence.

I want to address a particular argument I see in criticisms of sexual violence survivors. I first noticed in in response to Gamergate–a campaign of harassment, including doxing, rape threats, and murder threats, of women involved in video gaming. It dramatically impacted the real lives of women who developed, played, and offered criticism of games, so much so that game critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel an appearance at the University of Utah because of threats against her life–threats that the university, unfortunately, refused to address by banning guns at her talk (which they are able to legally do).

The argument invokes the figure of Elizabeth Smart, a young woman who was kidnapped at age 14 from her Salt Lake City home and raped and kept as a prisoner for nine months by a local couple convinced that their actions were ordained by God. Smart was brought into public by the couple, and, eventually, she was recognized just 18 miles from her home. The trauma is unthinkable, but Smart has emerged as an advocate for missing persons and victims of sexual violence; she speaks eloquently about her mission and is critical of the way that her own religious background–Mormon–contributes to the culture of shame that silences victims of abuse. She is a lovely person–an ideal victim. Her kidnappers and rapist are clearly bad guys–strangers who nab sleeping children from their beds. Her parents didn’t expose her to risk of sexual assault by bringing bad people into her life. She survived, she says, by knowing that her parents loved her. She preaches the power of the individual to overcome seemingly impossible things. She is white, blonde, and beautiful.

She has also become the model of how sexual assault survivors are supposed to handle their assaults. Critics of Christine Blasey Ford point to Smart and say, “Look what Elizabeth Smart went through, and she’s fine, so why is Ford complaining about something so much less traumatic thirty years later?”

Some of the people making this argument are likely just internet trolls. Others, though, are articulating a hierarchy of victimhood: some victims matter more than others. People who are younger, people who are hurt by strangers, people who are white, people who are attractive, people who don’t “politicize” their experience–these are the ones we need to take seriously. Everyone else isn’t deserving of our empathy because they should have known better, should have done better, should have fought harder, should have spoken up sooner (or not at all).  Even Smart is regularly asked why she didn’t try to run away–as if her captors weren’t holding a knife to her throat. Smart explains that she didn’t have confidence that anyone would believe a child’s word over an adult’s. She hadn’t been taught the difference between rape and consent, and all the abstinence-only education she’d received told her that girls who had sex were degraded. Those chains weren’t put on her by her kidnappers but by the broader purity culture. Even now, the fact that people ask this question, shows that we don’t really trust survivors, even the most “pleasing” ones.

See the source imageAbove, Elizabeth Smart, all grown up and successful.

If a beautiful white child snatched from her home by religious nutjobs searching for underage brides to build their religious empire don’t have 100% of our empathy, we know that we don’t really care to believe women.

And this matters tremendously. We frequently label child victims of sexual abuse as “promiscuous”; we interpret what we call overt signs of sexuality as “promiscuity” rather than as signs of abuse. A girl is brought to the doctor’s office with a sexually transmitted infection, and we don’t check to notice that she’s been brought in repeatedly–an indicator that she might be being trafficked. We see that the pregnant fifteen year-old girl in the neighborhood has gotten married, but we don’t want to know that her new husband is the 30-year-old man who has been abusing her for a year; some of us would rather have her married to her abuser than a single mother, though we’ll judge her the rest of her life either way. We label our aunt who refuses to come to Thanksgiving as “difficult” or even accuse her of trying to divide the family because that is easier than admitting that no one protected her from our grandfather. We call the child abuse hotline to report a teen we know being sexually abused by a family member in the home, and the state of Kansas tells us that they won’t investigate because they have too many other kids to look after; this one is already 17, and by the time they get to her case, she’ll be 18, and then what was abuse will be seen by the state as consensual.*

When misogynists invoke Elizabeth Smart, they are trying to argue that they would care about victims if those victims overcame their trauma in a particularly American way: through optimism, hard work, and never letting the bastards keep you down. The baloney concepts of “resilience” and “grit” are supposed to help us survive cancer** and the Holocaust***, but all they really do is tell us people’s problems are their own–and, in the process, let us off the hook for our role in the structures that hurt women, children, and other victims of sexual violence.



*Yeah, true story. Thanks, Governor Brownback, for the budget cuts that literally endanger the lives of children.

**No, they don’t. They just don’t, so stop telling people with cancer to “fight” it, as if the difference between living through cancer and not weren’t mostly due to health care access.

***Also a terrible claim. Lots of people who were strong and determined died in the Holocaust.


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