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‘I just froze’: Elizabeth Smart steps up advocacy following assault on plane

She launches new defense program after feeling disappointed she didn’t do more

Elizabeth Smart talks with members of the media in Holladay on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. Smart discussed a July 19 sexual assault incident on an airplane and her new self-defense program.
Elizabeth Smart talks with members of the media in Holladay on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. Smart discussed a July 19 sexual assault incident on an airplane and her new self-defense program.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Elizabeth Smart said she couldn’t believe it was happening to her again.

“It wasn’t like an accident or anything. He was definitely, like, doing it on purpose,” she told the Deseret News on Friday.

Smart, who famously survived nine months of captivity and repeated sexual assaults after being abducted from the bedroom of her Federal Heights home in the middle of the night in 2002 when she was 14, said she was sexually assaulted again while flying home from a speaking engagement last summer.

She had been upgraded to first class and had fallen asleep as soon as she sat in her seat next to the window. She awoke to a man sitting in the aisle seat next to her who was rubbing her inner thigh with his hand.

Because of how wide the first-class seats are, Smart said the man’s efforts to touch her were no accident.

She jerked awake, but the man made no attempt to apologize or say anything at all.

“He left his hand on my leg and kept looking at me,” she recalled,

Smart finally had to grab the man’s hand and move it off of her leg.

Smart said she was shocked and angry.

“Are you kidding me? Again? Is there some kind of message or signal I’m sending off that says ‘I’m a good target, I’m a good victim?’ Well, it’s happened twice now while I’ve been asleep, I guess I shouldn’t sleep anymore. I don’t know,” she said she thought to herself in disbelief.

But later, after she had time to think about what had happened, Smart’s mood changed to disappointment.

She said she was disappointed in herself because she froze. She didn't scream. She didn't immediately tell the airline what had happened

“It made me think, ‘Well, why didn’t I do something? Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I just, I don’t know, hammer fist him to the neck or something?’ I don’t know. Why didn’t I do something?’”

Smart, now 32, who established her own foundation after being rescued in 2002 and has been publicly speaking for over a decade about safety for women, said she was frustrated that her natural response was to freeze.

“As a survivor, as an advocate, I spend a lot of my time speaking. I’ve been to I don’t even know how many conferences talking about safety, talking about prevention, talking about setting boundaries, how important the word ‘no’ is, and I just froze. I just froze. I did not know what to do,” she said.

“Wait a second, I am Elizabeth Smart. I should know what to do,” she said, shaking her head.

After she got home, Smart told her husband what had happened. Her husband arranged to have a friend, who had participated in MMA fighting, give her some self-defense tips.

It was at that moment that Smart realized she needed to do more with her foundation to help women.

“I guess what it comes down to is there’s a pretty big difference between talking about things and actually doing things. And that experience ended up shaking me into saying, ‘Well, I’m not doing enough then,”’ she said.

Because of her recent experience, Smart, with the help of her husband, started a program called Smart Defense in Salt Lake City. Smart Defense is a program that law enforcers and MMA fighters helped put together to not only teach self-defense to girls and women, but to empower them so that their natural response to a unwanted situation isn’t freezing, Smart said. A new series of classes was scheduled to begin Friday.

Smart said her new program is meant to be regularly evolve to meet the needs of women. She hopes those who sign up will continue to stay engaged with the program even after completing the self-defense classes, and keep an open dialogue going,

“Because I’ve been through self defense programs and I walked away, and I clearly didn’t remember a whole lot,” she said.

As more women sign up for the classes, more will be added.

As for the unknown man on the plane who touched her, Smart said both Delta Airlines and the FBI have been investigating. Smart said FBI agents told her they will take their investigation as far as they can. As of Friday, no one had been arrested or charged.

The FBI has declined to comment about any investigation.