The latest article from the Salt Lake Tribune about sexual assault and the Honor Code was disturbing, to say the least. BYU is my alma mater, and I have a brother, sisters, and in-laws currently attending there. How could my university, led by good, well-intentioned people, be getting this issue so wrong?
During my mission, I was sexually assaulted by a companion. My reaction was of shock and disbelief, combined with embarrassment and shame. After I was transferred and a couple months had passed, I told my mission president what had happened. He confronted my companion, who denied everything. I got the feeling that my MP believed me, because why would I make it up, but he decided not to discipline my companion based solely on my word. He told me that even though these types of cases were supposed to be reported to the area presidency, after praying about it, he had decided not to report it because he knew they would likely send both of us home. I was shocked, because why would I be punished, I had done nothing wrong to deserve a dishonorable release. I hadn’t broken any rules. He said it was because that was how they dealt with all homosexual activity, regardless of fault or intention. So my companion got away with sexual assault, and we were both able to finish our missions and return home with honor. (In fairness, I have no idea if this really was the policy of the area presidency, or what official guidance the Church provides to its mission presidents and area leaders).
I’m not sure what else my MP could have done. It didn’t occur to me to report it to law enforcement, and doing so probably wouldn’t have done any good. I am very grateful that I was not sent home early in disgrace for being the victim of sexual assault. My mission president understood how the system worked and what it meant for victims, and chose not to report it up his chain of command. If I’d had a more by-the-book president, my life might have turned out very differently. But that allowed a predator to remain in the mission. After that, this particular missionary was always placed with bigger, stronger missionaries who could defend themselves from an attack better than I was able to. A lot of BYU student ward bishops probably make similar decisions of whether to refer a student to the Honor Code office or just handle the matter themselves.
In President Worthen’s interview announcing a review of BYU’s Honor Code and Title IX processes, he described the Honor Code as an essential tool to promoting a safe campus environment and contributing to student well-being. BYU administration probably views the Honor Code as the primary mechanism to protect students against all kinds of dangers and harms, whether spiritual, physical, or criminal. If students would only avoid alcohol and drugs, abide by the curfew, avoid sexual contact, stay out of bedrooms of members of the opposite sex, etc., then sexual assault would almost never happen. The HC Office no doubt sees its mission in part as protecting students through Honor Code enforcement. By being strict with students and enforcing high standards, they are ensuring greater Honor Code compliance and helping students avoid risky situations.
The Honor Code can even be seen as a type of reverse engineering from tragic cases. I imagine an Honor Code drafting committee looking at cases of sexual assault and asking, what did the victims do to put themselves in danger? What were they wearing? What did they do to lead on the perpetrator? Then you just make rules against those things, and as long as future students don’t break the Honor Code, they will be safe.
The Missionary Handbook also seems intended to give missionaries rules that will keep them safe from harm, and was also probably reverse engineered from tragic cases. If I remember correctly, this was even explicit in some cases, where a rule was preceded with the statement, “In order to avoid false accusations of impropriety, …” During the mission, I liked to imagine hypothetical scenarios that led to the creation of different mission rules. What must have happened for the Church to institute the rule of missionaries not being able to meet with a member of the opposite sex without another adult of their same sex present? How about the rule that companions must sleep in the same room but not the same bed? Rules about staying together, not leaving areas without permission, not swimming or playing full-court basketball, all likely have stories behind them. Leaders explicitly warn missionaries against breaking the rules, and not just for purely naturalistic safety reasons. God’s protection, we were warned, may not extend to a missionary who breaks the rules and offends the Spirit.
An Honor-Code-as-Crime-Prevention approach not only potentially discourages victims from reporting sexual assaults, it also distracts from the investigation of the crime by focusing on the victim’s conduct. It places responsibility for crime prevention on potential victims rather than on perpetrators and the university. It leads people to doubt victims’ stories, because people who break the Honor Code cannot be trusted. By assigning victims blame in their assault, it adds to their trauma and sends the psychologically damaging message that they deserved to be raped. It is based on a just-world hypothesis
, in which we want to believe that bad things generally do not happen to good people who follow the rules; to believe otherwise is to admit to ourselves that we too might be victimized.
I have some hope for BYU’s internal review of its Honor Code and Title IX procedures. I think they really do want to protect their students and expel sexual predators. I could see them putting in place some kind of amnesty policy with sexual assault reports, or at least doing away with automatic referrals to the HC Office. The BYU Counseling Center enjoys a great reputation for helping students with a variety of issues with professionalism and confidentiality. Maybe they could take over the Title IX office. I worry, however, that as long as BYU views the Honor Code as the primary mechanism to protect students and keep them out of danger, they will fall short of that goal. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and by pretending otherwise, we are actually making the situation worse.
This is really well expressed.
I know that the prohibition on football for missionaries came from injuries. Yet we recognize that injuries occur without fault (like when I had a companion hit by a car). I think we need to expand that, and you make an excellent case in this essay.
Thank-you for sharing your experience. Everything in the post is good food for thought.
Thanks to the missionary and his mission president for doing the best they could in a difficult situation.
I would have pushed the matter further, even if it meant my coming home. And then I would have pushed even harder after that.
Not sure when you went on your mission but my wife’s two uncles received significantly different instruction concerning hazing or anything like it over the last 10 years as they served as Mission Presidents. They indicated any hazing, if not reported, would lead to their dismissal and being sent home. They also commented the rules they were given were much stricter then the rules their father had when he served as a Mission President in the 70’s.
In our Ward we have had significant discussions in the Priest quorum concerning any form of hazing and the missionary being sent home.
It is unfortunate when a crime (or sin) occurs with no witnesses (or other substantial evidence). Absent the criminal’s voluntary confession, there is no basis for action against the alleged perpetrator — this rule protects all of us. My thanks comment in no. 3 above was premised on the unfortunate fact of no witnesses.
There was a witness–the victim.
Well, the victim is one witness. Don’t we usually like to have two or three witnesses before condemning an alleged perpetrator?
With all the rules missionaries have, it makes think of the BYU honor code office sexual assault issue going on right now. If something bad happens, look for the “cause” and forbid it and then “problem solved.” Taken to far as an institution or as parents, it limits growth and experience and has us rely too much on “the arm of the flesh”. Sometime stuff just happens.
I thought this essay brings up some good questions. It does seem like the honor code and missionary handbook do a pretty good job of protecting students in most cases. If they have the unintended side-effect of silencing victims, that can probably be addressed by simply giving a free pass to victims who may have violated the honor code. After all, why should they be punished MORE than they already have if they have put themselves in harm’s way by disobeying the honor code? If the honor code was meant to protect them from the thing that happened, why should we compound the harm by disciplining them? It’s letter-of-the-law type thinking which has no understanding of why the honor code exists in the first place. It’s not a test of obedience, its a protection.
The issue of accusation is a tricky one. Many perpetrators are allowed to continue because they know that accusations against them will remain unproven. But sometimes there are false accusations, and these can absolutely destroy lives. In the end, we have to rely on “two or three witnesses,” or one witness and some kind of physical evidence. For better or worse, I think that’s the only way these things can be handled.
I haven’t been to BYU but i do know about the HC. However, this is about abuse and the way the church sees abuse or not! And not, seems to be the way the church tries to see abuse – if we don’t talk about it then it didn’t happen and they don’t deal with it even when they know about it. My situation was different, but the church leaders did their best to ignore the situation until it involved Police and Social Services and they had no choice but to deal with it. Then it went all the way up to the highest level and the church lawyers got involved and the Bishop was told what he could and couldn’t say. However, the abuse hadn’t been reported to that particular Bishop in the beginning although he did know.
As for those who have not suffered abuse, you live a bubble, and you have no idea what it feels like to be a victim.
How often is there 2 or 3 witnesses for a sexual assault? Unless it is a sexual assault in company, then would we need another 2 pr 3 witnesses?
Two or three witnesses? Would you like to live under Sharia law? I thought we were netter than countries living under Islamic rule who deen a woman cannot accuse a man of rape without the corroboration of at least tow adult males. Shall we start stoning women as well?
As another commenter pointed out the obvious there usually are not multiple witnesses in rape cases although there are frequently multiple perps. Unless a victim is stabbed or beaten severely physical evidence only inidicates contact. I don’t under why we refuse to believe victims other than patriarchy.
Missions do leave one in a vulnerable position. A friend of mine arrived on his first day to be locked in a closet by 3 missionaries who went out to celebrate the last day on the mission for one or more of them. (This was in the 80s). He didn’t report it because of the humiliation of the experience and the concern that since they were going home anyway, no appropriate action would have been taken anyway.
I will have to have a talk with my children who go on missions. They may be in places where they can’t get the keys, be blocked from using the phone, do not know where the police station is, are unable to communicate using foreign languages, etc.
The correct answer for this case was that the victim should have had a medical examination to document injuries and collect evidence immediately. But, that is not what happened for a number of reasons. Reasons we all can educate our children about. I know I would rather have my son home after being victimized in such a manner than to have to continue his mission seeing the assailant for the duration with a mission president who was not able to keep him safe from future contact with the assailant.
I know of one male (not related to the LDS church in any way) in the news that was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting other males because the victims did go to the Emergency room and were examined. They woke up not sure why they had slept so heavily and were suspicious. In that case, the justice system to deliver punishment (though he was released a couple of years early for prison overcrowding).
I was date raped by my companion in 2016.
He wasn’t converted to the Church and didn’t even know what personal revelation was. What he did know, was how to get other disobedient missionaries to help keep me quite.
I’m a 1st generation convert and am very active in the only Church, but I’m struggling to heal. My companion was evil. Because of my time with him I returned home with Abinadi like honor, but I also have PTSD.
When I finally felt safe enough to do so I told my priesthood leaders and the church begin an investigation. Unfortunately, with there being no remaining physical evidence there’s really nothing they can do unless my former companion or his cronies confess.
With that said, if it’s at all possible I would love to get in touch with the man behind this story. I am desperate to learn what he has learned that has helped him to heal. I need all the help I can get!
He nailed the initial emotions that I myself felt, “Shock and disbelief, combined with embarrassment and shame.”