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She was kidnapped at the age of 14. And this is why she didn't try to escape.

Elizabeth Smart
Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Smart was just 14 years old when she was kidnapped from her own bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2002.

In the nine months that followed, Elizabeth was forced into a ‘polygamous’ marriage and repeatedly raped. She was only freed after she was spotted, walking peacefully along a suburban street with her kidnapper in March 2003.

Elizabeth has now spoken out about the experience. And what she has told the world is giving us an insight into why some women who are kidnapped and essentially kept as sex slaves, decide to stop trying to escape; why they stay – seemingly voluntarily  -with their captors.

Elizabeth says that the reason she didn’t run away? Was abstinence-only education.

Now for us Australians, that might sound a little unusual. But remember that sex education in some parts of the United States, avoids the teaching of safe sex practices and deliberately DOESN’T make condoms available to students.

Instead? Teenagers are taught to avoid sex at all costs. To ignore their hormones. To control themselves.

While speaking at a  forum on human trafficking last week, Elizabeth explained that her abstinence-only education made her feel “so dirty and so filthy” following the rape. Mentioning a teacher who compared sex before marriage to chewing gum, she said:

“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.”

Sex education practices vary from state to state within the USA – but of the 50 states, 26 require that abstinence is “stressed” within sex education curriculums. Additionally, the Guttmacher Institute has reported that “a recent review of 13 commonly used abstinence-only curricula found that 11 had incorrect, misleading or distorted information.”

Students simply aren’t given the information that they need to practice safe sex. And they’re taught that if they do have sex before marriage, that the social – and sometimes spiritual consequences – will be dire.

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And all of this happens despite the fact that the abstinence-only message is regularly proven to be ineffective.

To many on us here in Australia – that seems pretty obvious. They’re teenagers, we laugh. Of course a whole bunch of them are going to have sex. Teenage hormones make that inevitable.

Remember this famous scene from Mean Girls?

So abstinence education is ineffective and can leave young people ill-equipped to make smart decisions about safe sex, leading to a rise in the number of teenage pregnancies. But Elizabeth’s explanation? It shows that abstinence-only isn’t just ineffective – it is potentially dangerous and in her case, it made her so terrified, that it was life threatening.

Elizabeth Smart
Elizabeth tells her story to PEOPLE.

It’s not so much slut-shaming as all-out sex-shaming.

And it makes young people who have done nothing more than give into a pretty natural urge, feel dirty, ashamed, unworthy, damaged and shockingly – responsible – for their own sexual assaults.

Smart has actually started her own foundation – the Elizabeth Smart Foundation – which exists to educate children about crimes of both a violent and sexual nature, and stop victimisation.

During the forum, Smart said that students should be taught the following: “you will always have value and nothing can change that.” She wants kids to have all the facts – so that they’re equipped mentally and emotionally – to deal with sex in all it’s forms and to keep themselves safe.

Bravo to that. Hopefully governments in her country, are listening.

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