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.