Sisterhood Blog

Cleveland Kidnapping, Elizabeth Smart and Us

By Sarah Seltzer

  • Print
  • Share Share
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Sexual assault cases don’t occur in a vacuum, even when they are so egregious that they defy the imagination. For example: the recent Cleveland story involving the long-term imprisonment and rape of three local women by an alleged perpetrator who comes across as a complete sadist. Coverage of this story has been rife with speculation, yet there are few answers available — partly due to the survivors’ understandable desire for privacy.

We can’t examine the details yet, obsessing as we so often do. But we can examine ourselves.

As I noted when I wrote about sexual assault in the military (a scandal which continues to evolve), these kinds of crimes occur in a rape culture. Rape culture doesn’t mean only that there’s a high incidence of sexual assault, but also that sex is treated as a commodity, one for women to withhold and men to take, a commodity that also comes to represent women’s entire value and worth. Pure or defiled. Virginal or slutty — so slutty that consent is implied, not sought.

Recently I’ve seen a lot of interesting thinking about the Cleveland kidnapping case and how it relates to larger social issues, from domestic violence to policing to rape culture. Some have noted that Charles Ramsey helped one of the victims even when he thought her plight was a “domestic violence dispute” (and even when having a record himself), indicating that campaigns to raise awareness about domestic violence as a crime, not a private matter, have had some success.

But perhaps the most potent insights into the story came before it even broke — from the lips of escaped kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart. She recently spoke in public about her own rape and kidnapping. Smart explained one of the most paralyzing feelings she experienced during her captivity. This feeling came not from her perpetrator but from her previous exposure to a culture that valued women’s so-called purity above all else, in particular the abstinence education that told her she was a chewed-up piece of gum:

That is what it was for me the first time I was raped. I was raised in a very religious household, one that taught that sex was something special that only happened between a husband and a wife who loved each other… After that first rape, I felt crushed. Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy. I understand so easily all too well why someone wouldn’t run because of that alone.”

Rape culture gives criminals an arsenal of shame and control over their victims beyond just physical intimidation.

Jill Filipovic, writing about this case in the Guardian noted that Smart isn’t just critiquing the abstinence-only, no-sex-until marriage Mormon culture in which she was brought up, but also an entire system of thinking that, until very recently, was the norm and still helps inform and create today’s standards.

A cultural emphasis on sexual purity leads to the kind of judgment that Smart internalized. Surely, purity advocates would say that they don’t intend to hurt victims — that rape isn’t a woman’s fault, that she can still be pure of heart after the assault. But that, too, speaks to the fundamental misogyny of purity culture: a woman who has sex forced upon her may still be “good,” even if her stock has decreased. Women who act on perfectly natural sexual desire, on the other hand, are tainted physically and morally.

This pervasive idea is what leads us to often ask unintentionally victim-blaming questions when a story like the one in Cleveland — and Smart’s in 2004 — breaks. We wonder “Why didn’t she try to run away?” rather than “What kind of message was sent to the man who held her prisoner that he could do this?” or “What as a society are we doing wrong that causes women like Elizabeth Smart to feel worthless when wrong is done to them without their consent?”

Part of the reason our thinking is so limited also arises from a lack of available solutions. Eesha Pandit notes at the Nation that we haven’t even begun to consider all the avenues for helping victims in a manner consistent with their own lives and desires. We’re constrained by a criminal justice system that doesn’t always work. In particular, our police and court system exposes perpetrators to more violence in prison and doesn’t protect undocumented immigrants. This is a very limited avenue for justice. Thinking about Smart’s words and Pandit’s piece, I realized that perpetrators have a whole misogynist culture in their toolboxes, helping them hurt others. That’s why advocates for survivors and victims need a broader way to fight back: more tools and more forms of justice, aid and restitution at our disposal.

Stopping the abuse, trafficking, kidnapping and rape of women unfortunately doesn’t just call for simplistic heroic rescues. It calls for a massive overhaul of how we think about gender, sex and consent.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: sex, rape, kidnapping, consent, Sisterhood, Jewish Women, Elizabeth Smart, Cleveland, Charles Ramsey, Amanda Berry

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.