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Chewed Gum and Purity Martyrs

May 19, 2013

“[My teacher] said imagine you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed and then if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who’s going to want you after that?”

“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 know longer have worth, you know 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.”

Elizabeth Smart

A month ago, Elizabeth Smart, a Salt Lake City woman who was held captive for nine months and repeatedly raped, gave a speech about human trafficking.  In this speech, she talked about her education about sexual purity increased the shame she experienced after her rape, to the point where she felt that her life had no value or worth as a human being.  These comments have taken a greater significance over the last week because of the escape and rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina de Jesus, and Michelle Knight.  All three of these women lived in a horrific captivity the likes of which we cannot even imagine for ten years.

With these comments, many people have criticized the purity culture for the way it harms victims of rape and abuse, and for good reason.  It is important to think about the messages that we send to victims of rape and sexual abuse, intended or unintended.  It is especially important because, according to some statistics, one out of four women will be raped at some point in her lifetime, which means that many of the young girls or women listening to talks about sex and “purity” are future rape victims.  This brings me to the topic of this post, St. Maria Goretti.

The story of St. Maria Goretti is the story of an unfortunate young girl, about 12, who was assaulted at knife point by a 17 year old.  He came up to her with a knife and demanded that she sleep with him.  She refused, and he tried to force himself on her but she resisted.  He stabbed her 14 times.  She lingered for a time in terrible suffering, but was able to receive the last sacraments and to forgive her attacker as well as pray for his conversion.  Her attacker later converted, and was present at her canonization.

My problem with St. Maria Goretti is not with her specifically, but with the way she is portrayed as a “martyr for purity.”  This is problematic for more than one reason.

1 The desire to avoid rape is wrongly viewed as proof of chastity. 

In one episode of Rick Steve’s Europe, detailing the Netherlands, he describes the Red Light district of Amsterdam.  He talks about how each prostitute’s room comes equipped with a panic button that links directly to the local police station, just in case the liaison takes a dangerous turn.

No one wants to be raped.  Not even whores want to be raped. Unfortunately our society has often embraced the view that only virgins desire to escape rape, and if a woman has had sex with anyone, she is willing to have sex with everyone.  This is one reason why the sexual history of a rape victim would take on a huge importance during a rape trial.  Think about this for a second.  When a an elderly woman is the victim of mugging, does the defense attorney talk about the old woman’s habit of walking alone at night?  When a homeowner is burgled, does the defense attorney talk about the homeowner’s history of leaving the door unlocked?  And yet, when a woman with an active sexual history seeks justice for rape, her sexual history is seen as evidence that she must have consented.

St. Maria Goretti’s desire to avoid being raped does not prove her chastity; merely it proves her sanity.

2 The implication that rape damages a woman’s purity is problematic at best. 

I was raised to believe that virginity was something that you gave away, not something that anyone could take from you by force.  Whether or not a woman chooses to engage in sex before marriage, the choice to engage in sex for the first time (or any time thereafter for that matter) is hers, and hers alone.  The act of rape or molestation is not the fault of the woman and does not violate the woman’s value or personal integrity.

Elizabeth Smart was unfortunately led to believe otherwise, and she clearly suffered greatly for it.  She believed that her life had no value after being raped, that she was worthless, that there was no point of even being rescued.  It is also worth pointing out that these feelings are common among rape and molestation victims.  One piece of advice given to rape victims is not to take a shower after being raped, because it could wash away critical evidence.  And yet, some women after being raped find that they feel as though they must shower.  Why is that?  They hope that they can wash away the experience, and they feel dirty and cheap as a result of these acts of violence against them.  These victims do not need these feelings to be reenforced, what they need is for these wrong feelings to be challenged.

Unfortunately, the story of St. Maria Goretti, as it is commonly told, does not challenge these feelings and beliefs, but rather strengthens them.  The story refers to her maintenance of “virginal purity” at the cost of her life, implying not too subtlety that women who have been raped are not pure.

One writer wrote that while rape is not a sin, rape does defile a person in the way that desecrating the tabernacle defiles a church or chapel.  This is still problematic.  After all, if rape defiles a person, then why does physical violence not defile a person?  Imagine if St. Maria Goretti, by some miracle, had survived her attack.  Does anyone believe that she would not have been physically, psychologically, or spiritually scarred?  She was stabbed 14 times!  That would have been impossible.   My point is that, if this is the definition of violation, then we should admit that St. Maria Goretti ultimately failed to prevent her violation.

For readers who believe that rape is a violation and that stabbing is not, or that rape causes spiritual violation and that stabbing does not,  why do you think so?  “Do not fear the dagger that can harm your body, rather fear the penis that has the power to destroy your body and send your soul into Gehenna!”  Interesting metaphysics, I must admit.

3 The Harm of Conflicting or Unintended Messages

Many Catholics who support this portrayal of St. Maria Goretti argue that the Church does not teach that rape victims are guilty of sin, and they are correct in this assertion.  However, they do not take into account the idea of unintended messages and the potential for misunderstandings with rape victims.

Many Catholics who defend the traditional portrayal of St. Maria Goretti are well aware of the problem of unintended messages in other scenarios, particularly in regards to the liturgy.  One such example is the proper reception of communion.  In the United States, it is permissible to receive communion standing and in the hand, as opposed to kneeling and on the tongue.  They worry that this leads Catholics to disbelieve in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, which is the official Church’s teaching.  The same concern can be applied to the portrayal of St. Maria Goretti as a purity martyr.  The portrayal of St. Maria Goretti as a purity martyr creates confusion and can undermine official Church teaching, as well as cause genuine pain to victims of rape and abuse.

None of this is to take away from the courage and the generosity of St. Maria Goretti, or to say that she does not deserve to be a saint.  However, we must think carefully about rape and victims of sexual abuse, and provide them genuine assistance and care, not promote dangerous and unhealthy thoughts and attitudes.

St. Maria Goretti, pray for Amanda Berry, Gina deJesus, and Michelle Knight. 



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  1. Absolutely–the way Chastity is taught makes a huge, huge difference. That is true of most valuable principles–there is a Loving, Wonderful aspect then ignorant or shamed teachers
    miss the mark. May Amanda, Gina, Michelle, and others like Elizabeth continue to experience Healing.

  2. St. Maria Goretti is a martyr of purity for two reasons: first, Allesandro made a number of non-violent advances on her previously, all of which she rejected. She was killed in hatred by Allesandro- a hate that had built up in reaction to her chastity.

    Second, although it would not have been impure for St. Maria to not resist physically (refusal to consent is sufficient to protect purity), her decision to fight back, at risk of her own life, still exemplifies a particularly heroic chastity. This is obvious if we think of what she was shouting at her attacker: “No! No, Allesandro! It is a sin. God forbids it. You will go to hell, Allesandro. You will go to hell if you do it!” It is amazing that, under such duress, the well-being of her neighbor’s soul even crossed her mind. This was a consequence of her zeal for purity.

    To draw an analogy, St. Maximilian Kolbe is a martyr of Charity because he chose to be executed in place of another prisoner at Auschwitz. The large number of prisoners who chose to protect their own safety were not guilty of being uncharitable, however. Still, St. Maximilian’s act was clearly one of Charity.

    By the same token, rape victims are never guilty of impurity by the fact of being raped. But acts of resistance, if undertaken with supernatural virtue, can occasion martyrdom. Her words to her attacker- both pure and supernatural to the utmost- are evidence that she was not merely resisting a violent crime- she died while fighting against sin. That makes her a martyr.

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