Elasticity, one of the most important properties of a soft material, is difficult to quantify in polymer networks because of the presence of topological molecular defects in these materials. Furthermore, the impact of these defects on bulk elasticity is unknown. We used rheology, disassembly spectrometry, and simulations to measure the shear elastic modulus and count the numbers of topological “loop” defects of various order in a series of polymer hydrogels, and then used these data to evaluate the classical phantom and affine network theories of elasticity. The results led to a real elastic network theory (RENT) that describes how loop defects affect bulk elasticity. Given knowledge of the loop fractions, RENT provides predictions of the shear elastic modulus that are consistent with experimental observations.