There has been push back among conservatives within the church (most notably the church’s PR team in their defensive reply to Salt Lake Tribune coverage of the Title IX violations at BYU) about the term rape culture as applied to the issues at BYU.  These concerns stem from a misunderstanding of the term rape culture as well as (ironically) the prevalence of rape culture.

Rape culture is a term coined in the 1970s to explain the prevailing ideas in American society at large that enable rapists.  Those who are pushing back against the term seem to think that the Tribune is using hyperbole or sensationalism in singling out BYU as creating a “rape culture” for women.  This is a strawman argument, and those unfamiliar with the term rape culture should put on the safeties for five minutes and google the term rape culture before they come out firing. Discussing rape culture elevates awareness by educating people on the ways in which our society at large, as well as subcultures like BYU, enable rapists through rape myths, denial or minimization of rape, discouraging reporting and victim blaming.  From an article at Everyday Feminism online magazine:

We know that at its core, our society is not something that outwardly promotes rape, as the phrase could imply. That is, we don’t, after all, “commonly engage” in sexual violence “together as a society.”

To understand rape culture better, first we need to understand that it’s not necessarily a society or group of people that outwardly promotes rape (although it could be).

When we talk about rape culture, we’re discussing something more implicit than that. We’re talking about cultural practices (that, yes, we commonly engage in together as a society) that excuse or otherwise tolerate sexual violence.

First, a few facts.  According to the American Association of Universities, 26% of college attending women and 7% of college attending men are sexually assaulted.  Only between 15.8% and 35% of rapes are reported.  Only 8% of rapes are “stranger” rape.  In 60% of cases, the rapist is known by the victim.  In 32% the rapist is a romantic partner prior to the assault. Between 8 and 2% of rape accusations are false.  Unreported rape (between 84.2% and 65%) is a far bigger problem than false reports of rape, and of course, most rapes that are reported are unproven and often unprosecuted.  The risk of a rapist going free and raping again is far greater than the risk of a false accusation.

While 70-80% of campus rapes involve alcohol, this is simply because alcohol is a ready tool accessible to rapists on most campuses. What are unique tools available to rapists who target BYU students?

  • Honor Code investigations.  The Honor Code requires that students report on other students who violate the code. This makes it incredibly easy for a rapist to retaliate as has occurred in the case of Madi Barney whose rapist’s friend reported her for violating the Honor Code at the time of her rape. Rapists only need to threaten to turn their victims in to the Honor Code office for rule violations to ensure their silence.
  • Feelings of shame and guilt. Because of our focus on chastity, it is easy for rapists to play on the feelings of being dirty or defiled that their act can create in victims. This enables rapists to discourage reporting. Rapists use victim blaming to encourage their victims to take responsibility so that they, the rapists, won’t get caught.
  • Respect for  and female dependence on “priesthood.” I used to work with a horrible man who trolled LDS dating sites because, as he put it, once you told an LDS girl you were a worthy priesthood holder, you could pretty much talk her into anything since Mormon girls are told to honor priesthood authority. While I certainly hoped his view of Mormon culture was off base, I found it very unsettling that he held this view and used it to find easily duped younger sexual partners, luring them with the promise of a temple marriage. Guess what? He wasn’t even LDS.
  • Sexual naivete.  Part of why my co-worker was successful was that the Mormon girls he sought were sexually inexperienced, a fact that he could exploit by getting them to do things they didn’t necessarily understand. Then he could tell them they were already compromised and unclean so they might as well do more because they would have to repent anyway.  So he boasted.
  • Lack of female input in rule-making. Rules are often written from a male perspective, limiting women’s choices to make life easier for men.  Dress code rules for women imply that it’s the responsibility of women to control male sexual response. The focus on women as future wives and mothers (roles in relation to men and family) amplify the pressure associated with sexual purity for women in a way that doesn’t apply to men.
  • Lack of male empathy. Since women are disproportionately victims of rape (nearly 4x as many women as men are raped), and since women are unlikely to disclose their rapes to male friends in the gender segregated cultures that exist within BYU and the church at large, it’s likely that women are far more familiar with the prevalence of rape than men are.  And yet, men are the ones to whom women must go to seek pastoral counsel, even if they don’t understand what happened to them or that they were blameless. It’s easier for men to relate to the fear of false accusation than the fear of violent sexual assault, especially since they hope that rape is preventable if women only follow the rules. It’s no wonder that in a patriarchy like the church, there is a greater fear of false accusations than there is of sexual assault. [2] While following the rules of safe driving may result in fewer accidents, it doesn’t prevent all of them. Trauma can happen to good people, including those who follow the rules. Victims can’t prevent all crimes.

One hallmark of rape culture is the existence of rape myths.  See how many of these are familiar from the back and forth commentary regarding the Title IX stories.  These are just a few common rape myths.  Some have a unique BYU twist:

  • Rape is just sex out of control.  Rape is a violent crime in which sex is the weapon.  Dominating and overpowering another person is what excites the rapist, not the act of sex alone.
  • If you don’t fight, it’s not rape.  A rape is a rape, no matter how the victim responds.  People respond differently for various reasons. Some people fight; some freeze up; some try to talk their way out of danger. Just as there is no single normal response to being mugged, there is no single normal response to being raped. When the Miracle of Forgiveness says that you should fight to the death rather than be raped, this makes every rape survivor suspect.  If a victim lives to file a report, they didn’t do all in their power to avoid the rape. Ergo, if you survived, you weren’t raped. That’s a teaching I never want my daughter to hear.
  • If there’s no weapon, it’s not rape.  Sex is the weapon.  The perpetrator usually possesses greater strength or uses other tools to incapacitate or manipulate the victim into a vulnerable position.  The majority of rapists are known to their victims.
  • Victims should act in a certain way.  The search for the perfect victim is the easiest way to dismiss rape accusations and to discourage reporting.  Requirements of rape victims include narrowly acceptable ranges for behavior and dress for the victim to avoid being blamed in the investigative process.
  • Women often make false accusations of rape to avoid getting in trouble for chastity violations. According to the FBI, only 2% of rape allegations are untrue.  Given the difficulty of reporting and proving rape, and the prevalence of victim blaming, there aren’t many incentives for false allegations.  A person would have to be a very vindictive sexual partner to falsely accuse someone of rape.  Since chastity violations are self-reported, using an accusation of rape to get out of trouble is like burning down your house to get out of doing homework.  This myth is particularly galling when you phrase it another way, a way that reveals the misogyny behind the sentiment: “She wanted it.” This is a myth rapists desperately want others to believe.
  • Amnesty for Honor Code violations would make false accusations of rape a “get out of jail free card” for BYU students, particularly women.  OK, so this theory depends on an assumption that people who are in trouble for any type of violation at all, drinking, being in the room of someone of the opposite sex, being in someone’s apartment after hours, would use an accusation of rape against another person in order to dodge accountability. This is not the same thing as regret for consensual sex (the myth above). This is assuming that someone who did something that didn’t harm another person would then do something that does harm another person to avoid getting in trouble for the harmless violation. Is it possible? If so, we are creating some pretty horrible human beings with our culture of Honor Code policing.[1] But why report on any specific individual in that case? Why wouldn’t this mythical Honor Code evader simply make up a stranger rather than naming an assailant? Worst case in the amnesty situation is that someone gets away with a victimless Honor Code violation like curfew breaking or drinking. On the other hand, if there is a named assailant, there’s more going on than simple honor code evasion. Deal with the rape accusation as a rape investigation without the muddy waters of an Honor Code investigation. If the alleged assailant is exonerated, at least the academic threat posed by the Honor Code won’t jeopardize the integrity of the investigation.
  • You should forgive your rapist.  When bishops and others focus on the need for the victim to forgive their attacker, they may be enabling future rape. Several victims at BYU reported being told that prosecuting their rapist would ruin his life and that it isn’t being forgiving. This downplays the importance for the victim to reclaim his or her power, an important part of the healing process.  It also enables future rape by preventing prosecution. Forgiving shouldn’t mean enabling or excusing, not if we are serious about protecting people from rape. Rapists don’t go all Jean Valjean and treat this gift of forgiveness like the Bishop’s candlesticks. They punch the air and go on to rape again.
  • Following the honor code prevents rape. While it certainly eliminates many of the aspects of rape culture that are common on other campuses, rapists will find other tools in the existing culture, like those above, and use those to manipulate victims.
  • Victims put themselves in bad situations which is why they were raped.  Rapists know very well how to manipulate victims using trust to get them into a vulnerable position in which they can be overpowered. The Honor Code is like a playbook for a rapist: trick her into breaking curfew, find a reason why she has to be in your room or hers (a sick roommate or wanting to talk alone about something important), etc.
  • If a girl lets a boy go too far, he can’t stop himself.  This is insulting to men and a dangerous victim-blaming belief.  Both men and women are individually responsible for their actions. No means no.  See the tea analogy.
  • Rape is rare.  In my experience, rape among Mormon women is no more rare than it is among women in general.  I had many roommates at BYU and mission companions who were survivors of rape or incest, although I was not.  (I did have a few near misses, but not at BYU).  Although 1 in 4 or 5 women are raped, that doesn’t mean that 1 in 5 men are rapists.  In fact, rapes and attempted rapes are committed by a relatively small percentage of men, ballparked at around 6%.  That’s one reason it’s so important to take rape seriously and to prosecute rapists.  There are fewer of them than there are victims.

Sarah Westerberg, the Title IX coordinator for BYU has allegedly quoted rape myths throughout the unfolding story as reported by various news sources.  Multiple victims quoted her as stating that most rape accusations are false, designed by women to avoid getting in trouble for chastity violations, although she has denied this claim.  She stated that BYU had never had a “successful rape,” implying that rape is when a stranger jumps out from behind a bush and rapes you rather than the far more common instances of acquaintance rape. Her actions in sharing rape victims’ information with the Honor Code office, hint that she bought into the rape myth that victims created the circumstances that led to their rapes and that rape is preventable if you follow the rules. She also stated to a group of students at a BYU rape awareness meeting that BYU made “no apologies” for the chilling effect that reporting victims of rape to the Honor Code office has.

BYU is responding by appointing a committee to address these issues. The individuals selected for this committee are cause for optimism. Rape culture can only be eliminated when we realize that it’s not a tacit approval of rape, but an underlying assumption that rape isn’t happening or not very often anyway, or that victims are to blame, or that rapes are preventable if you only follow the rules. Rape culture is the false sense of security that leads to more rapes happening.

21 And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well. . . 2 Nephi 28:21

Part of eliminating rape culture is eliminating the myths that allow us to ignore reality.  While it may be gratifying to imagine we are safe, it’s far more healthy to deal with the root causes our culture that enable rapists to manipulate victims and get away with it.

I’d go back to the list of tools rapists can and do use and eliminate those.

  • We really need to stop encouraging tattling for non-academic violations and victimless Honor Code violations, full stop. Call me cynical, but I don’t see Gladys Kravitz as a candidate for future godhood.  People should self-report by seeking counseling as needed.
  • We need to hear more talks about dropping the veneer of perfection as well as the notion that sexual transgressions make a person damaged goods for life.  Elizabeth Smart has been a great spokesperson for this. I hope we are listening. We absolutely need to stop having our YW recite the scripture in Moroni 9:9 that implies that their virtue can be taken from them and is not in their power to retain.
  • Perhaps encouraging more YW to go on missions will establish better equality between men and women and less vulnerability to those who would use their priesthood to dominate or control women.  We need to instill spiritual confidence and independent thinking in our women if we want them to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the men.
  • I certainly wouldn’t recommend that the church take up the mantle of teaching sex education, but I have been frequently shocked by the sexual naivete among young women I have known in the church.
  • Committees in church leadership need to have more diverse female representation, and there should not be a committee that sets rules for women that doesn’t include their input.
  • There needs to be an alternative for women to speak with a woman leader privately rather than always with a male leader.  Women should be able to provide pastoral care to other women when requested. Forcing victims of sexual assault to seek assistance from a male leader is a real game of roulette.

This is not a comprehensive list of suggestions.  If you were asked to weigh in for the newly formed committee, what would you suggest?


[1] My own experience was that young men used Honor Code reporting as a hostile environment weapon against women they found attractive.

[2] Somehow, we’ve deemed it reasonable for 3 men to show up at a woman’s home (to prevent false accusations), without regard to how strange it feels to the woman in question.