It's no surprise to me that Elizabeth Smart's denouncement of the harmful impact of abstinence-only sex education occurred at a panel about fighting sex trafficking. The messages she received from her Mormon education, which made her feel such deep shame after being raped, mirror the messages pimps use to keep prostituted girls under their control. It's the old trope that you are "used," "spoiled," "ruined" and "worthless." Last week, the courageous Ms. Smart explained that her education had actually hindered her ability to escape. Shame is the abuser's most powerful tool.
Unfortunately, girls who have been living under the control of a pimp have an even harder time than Elizabeth Smart reintegrating into society, winning back their lives and eradicating shame because our culture still struggles (or fails) to see these girls as true victims.
In the last three years, while making the documentary 10,000 Men about the sex trade in the United States, I have interviewed many girls who have been raped and then forced into prostitution. All feel deep shame, all came out feeling traumatized and worthless, all have struggled with their mental and physical health and all are at varying stages of recovery.
One victim we followed, Danielle, was forced into prostitution at the age of 17. She describes her daily life at that time: "It was like being raped over and over, 50 to 100 times a day." During filming she asked my co-director, John-Keith Wasson, point blank, "Would you date a girl who has had sex with 10,000 men?"
Danielle escaped from the sex trade after two years, and her pimp has since died. Despite years of therapy, marriage and two children, she still feels somehow "tainted" by her experience. In a short follow-up interview I did with Danielle last week, she explained that she struggles with this feeling every day. Her pimp may be dead, but she knows there are others out there and that brings back the shame and fear all over again. As a society, we must change the culture around rape, sex and prostitution. As Sgt. Daniel Steele of the FBI Innocence Lost task force told us, "We all have to stop the shaming." If we do not, then those on the other side of tyranny and abuse will continue to suffer further.
I bet Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard felt a roller coaster of emotions when they heard about Amanda Berry's rescue yesterday. I know I did. Let's not forget the thousands of other American girls who are out there working as sex slaves. They need help. They need men to think before they buy them and before they rape them, and they need all of us to think before we shame them.