I am a BYU alumnus, one of a heartbreaking number who experienced rape while attending BYU. My full experience is below, and I invite you to read it at your discretion. I continue to fight through the triggering emotional battle of staying vulnerable, because I cannot bear to think of others experiencing what I did. I was raped. That is not the direct fault of BYU, and I do not hold anyone responsible for my rape but my rapist. What I do wish was different for me, and countless others, is the way BYU handles reports of sexual assault. Yes, when BYU launches an Honor Code investigation upon a report of sexual assault, against the victim, this creates a rape culture. An environment where victims do not feel safe to report. And when victims are not reporting, sexual assaults will continue to occur, unchecked.
Today, a small group of BYU rape survivors and I continue to hold BYU accountable to their commitment made to uphold all the recommendations put forth in the Advisory Report. This takes an indescribable emotional toll on us. It is so painful to continue to be rejected, silenced, and put down by BYU and others in the community as we advocate for change. We often are triggered, burn out, and need support to keep us going. We turn to you, community members, to offer us that support to keep us going in our goal to make BYU a safer place for those that follow us.
Thank you for offering us that support, for believing our experiences. Thank you for mourning with us when we mourn, comforting us when we stand in need of it, and lifting up our feeble knees when we feel beaten down in our fight. We cannot do this without you.
My experience specifically involved my BYU on-campus ward bishop, and the power an ecclesiastical endorsement has on continuing an education at BYU. In the Advisory Report that BYU’s investigative council presented in October 2016, BYU denies any stewardship over ecclesiastical leaders, while admitting that reported experiences with these leaders was varied, and that “ecclesiastical congregations are such an important part of campus climate.” An ecclesiastical leader (a bishop) can revoke his ecclesiastical endorsement of a student at any time with no explanation. This endorsement trumps any other action taken by the school, and is more powerful than any decision the school makes. Students can be immediately expelled from school and housing by a simple phone call from their bishop to the Honor Code office. This was the reality I found myself in, after I shared with my bishop the horrific details of my kidnapping and rape. My experience of rape did not include any Honor Code violations on my part. By denying any influence or authority over the power wielded by a bishop in controlling the educational future of students at BYU, they are not taking responsibility for the failures and heartache this system has caused. This situation prevents pastoral care at a time that it is most needed in a student’s life. This issue has to be confronted and addressed if true change is going to occur.
Please read my full experience, and find a way to support change at BYU. We cannot let these abuses continue to happen at BYU. The fight is only just beginning. We need your help to sustain the fight. Thank you!
Growing up, I felt like BYU was my destiny. My parents met there, were married in the Provo temple, and I was born just blocks away from campus. All my aunts and uncles were BYU alumni. It was just what we did in our family. When it came time to apply to colleges, I only applied to BYU. No fall back. While all my friends applied for the state university, I trusted that by going to BYU, my goals to avoid alcohol, drugs, general partying, and premarital sex would be supported by a community that was also striving to avoid those things. And for the most part, I was right. I was accepted to BYU, and began the summer semester following my high school graduation. I was nervous, excited…no, THRILLED to enter the world, independent and free! I lived in apartment-style dorms on campus with the most wonderful girls I could imagine. We had fun!
I soon discovered that a boy I knew from home was my neighbor. He had an uncle, Eric (name changed) who lived locally. His uncle was 27, nine years older than me, dressed impressively and had a professional career in Information Technology. Eric drove a flashy motorcycle, new and sporty. He walked me around campus one day and asked me questions about boys, how far I’d gone, and how I felt about my past physical interactions with boys. Being a boy-crazy teenage girl, this was a subject that eclipsed all others in my life. I readily obliged his questions, divulging experiences in my past that were “too far” for my comfort, and sharing my intimate desires to remain chaste and pure before marriage. I recognize now that he was grooming me.
During our conversations, Eric learned of my obsession with music. It was my life. I loved it all and I needed it to bring joy to every moment of my life. This was during the Napster crash, and obtaining the music that lights your soul on fire was difficult on a college budget. One Friday, after I came home from class, Eric was at my dorm and offered to burn me all the CD’s I wanted from his extensive music collection. This was the opportunity of a lifetime! I made sure to verify his roommates would be there, and he assured me that we had plenty of time to make it back before curfew. I hopped on the back of his bike, waved an excited goodbye to my roommates, and set of to Eric’s house.
When we arrived, I learned Eric’s roommates were all out of town for the weekend. He suggested watching TV, I was reluctant. I was there to burn CDs, and sitting on the couch watching TV with him felt intimate and was not something I wanted to. But I obliged, since he was, after all, allowing me to have all the music I wanted, for free! We finally went down to the basement where his large and impressive collection of computers was set up in a common area. Eric asked me to sit on his lap as I scrolled through MP3s, a request that bothered me. I wasn’t attracted to him. I confided to my journal later “he scares me because he is so old.” I also explained to my journal that I had “NO IDEA that he had feelings for me, or that anything could have happened [like kissing] with him.” I went over with one intention, and that was to burn as many CDs as I could.
From this moment on, my memories become snapshots, short moments filled with fear, vulnerability and panic. Somehow I found myself in Eric’s room, naked and trapped. At this point in my life, I had never been naked in front of a man. I quickly cycled through different scenarios in my mind to explain what was happening and how I was going to be ok. When I would verbally protest the situation I was in and what he was physically forcing me to do, Eric would lash out in loud scathing attacks that cut me down lower than I had ever felt. My whole body would sob, tears running down my face. I’d cry out in strange, hopeless desires to somehow still be accepted by him. He would dismiss me with disgust because of my tears and unwillingness to comply. The moment that destroyed me was when Eric pulled me off the bed, on top of his erect penis, with my elbows pinned behind my back. I fell onto him, as I cried out “No, please no. Please don’t do this to me. I don’t want this.” This was the end of my virginity, my purity, my virtue.
Eric would leave me for periods of time and I would jump up as soon as I heard him walk away, only to discover that the bedroom door was locked from the outside. While he had robbed me of my clothing, leaving me totally exposed, he wore his LDS garments whenever he entered the room to rape me again. I searched for my clothes and could never find them. I stood in his closet and looked at his shirts, but I couldn’t bring myself to put on a single piece of clothing that belonged to him. I looked up at small window in his basement room high near the ceiling, and thought about how I could reach it, if I could get through it, and what I would do once naked and outside.
I don’t remember ever sleeping during the two days and nights I was locked in Eric’s room. He never offered me any food or water. By Sunday afternoon, I was exhausted, starving, and my mouth was parched. He brought me in to his bathroom, where he drew me a warm bath. I was grateful to be clean and warm. But then he began to digitally penetrate me, sweeping his fingers deep inside of me. He washed my body clean, destroying any evidence of his trespasses, then finally returned my clothes. I dressed, we walked upstairs, and he fixed himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Once he finished eating, we got back on his motorcycle and headed back to Provo.
I arrived back at my dorm in a daze. I had no idea what had just happened to me, but it felt awful. I wrote in my journal “He did things I’ve NEVER done before and NEVER planned on doing until I was married,” my handwriting erratic as I shared how upset I felt. I didn’t tell a soul. In my effort to resolve what had happened to me, I called Eric a few days later. I asked him why he did those things to me. I was confused and in great distress. He told me he would not have this conversation over the phone, it needed to be in person. So Eric came to my dorm again and told me if I wanted to talk about it, it would have to be at his place. I was desperate for resolution, to go back in time to before the weekend at his apartment, for him to be the nice older guy who took an interest in my life. So I went back. And it all happened again, just like the weekend before, only I was much more broken and numb. It is embarrassing to this day to admit this part of the story. Why did I go back?
A few weeks went by filled with utter despair. I felt worthless, dirty, used. I told my journal “maybe I do like him, maybe that’s what that weekend means” in my desperate attempt to rationalize what had happened. I fought so hard to remain in control of the events at Eric’s house. I internalized the guilt. I told myself that I had been a willing participant. I cried for hours. I would run laps around the outside of the Marriott Center, listening to the Lifehouse “No Name Face” on repeat, crying to every lyric I felt in my heart. My roommates tell me I lost my spark, my carefree spirit. I stayed home while they went out. I hid in my room, alone. I was no longer worthy of a righteous man, that is what my church lessons as a young woman had taught me. Do you remember the object lesson with the stick of chewing gum? Once chewed, it was disgusting, worthless, trash, certainly not wanted by anyone, not even the person who had chewed it. Your virtue is worth more than your life, they said. In a desperate attempt to resolve my terrible emotions, I sought the counsel of my on-campus ward bishop. I told him the details of my weekend encounters. I am sure my worthless, shameful state was all he could see.
Without clarifying the strange details I shared with him, he began the repentance process with me, compounding the shame and guilt I had already convinced myself were valid. He told me to stop taking the sacrament and to begin reading the book “The Miracle of Forgiveness” by Spencer W. Kimball. The last thing my bishop made clear to me before I left his office: if I were to become pregnant as a result of this experience, I could no longer remain at BYU. This was a horrible blow! All my life I planned on a full BYU experience, including a degree, possibly a husband, and a career. I made no other plans. Suddenly, this all could be taken away from me because of something that was done TO me, something I didn’t want to happen. That didn’t feel right. And I was heartbroken. My body was a ticking time bomb, was I pregnant? Would I be forced to leave behind the only plan for my future I had ever considered? Was I carrying a child of a man who had been unimaginably cruel to me, trespassing my very body? This wasn’t what I had imagined life would be like. For weeks, I poured over the book my bishop had given me. I ached to find comfort in its pages. Instead, I found the following passages:
“President David O. McKay has pleaded: Your virtue is worth more than your life. Please, young folk, preserve your virtue even if you lose your lives.” – Prophet Spencer W. Kimball, LDS Prophet, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 63
“It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.” – Prophet Spencer W. Kimball, LDS Prophet, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 196
I was still alive… After losing my “virtue” in a violent, humiliating manner, I saw myself differently. I carried feelings of worthlessness with me, for years. I devalued myself, since I was now “damaged, disgusting, no longer pure.” A year after my rape, I was dating a boy who would eventually become my ex-husband. I had shared with him my experiences of rape. One evening, in a moment of intimacy, I expressed to him my feelings of worthlessness, that it didn’t matter how far we went, I was already used, broken, soiled and worthless. There was nothing left for me to save. These feelings filled my core, defined who I was. Years later, he told me that he believed me that night, he took my feelings of worthlessness as fact, and treated me as one would treat someone with such little worth. Because I, the woman, swung the gate wide open to him, he took full advantage of me. To this day, he blames me for our sexual relations before our marriage, as I was the one who “allowed” things to happen.
My interaction with my bishop, his threat of expulsion, felt wrong. It did not feel like what was best for me, but instead what was best for the image of BYU and the LDS Church. Luckily, within a few weeks of visiting with my bishop, I turned to my parents. My father asked the right questions and immediately told me “you’ve been raped.” This was the first time that word had entered my thoughts. And it hurt. I didn’t want to be a victim of rape. My father called my bishop, clarified the details of my experience, and asked him why he was asking me to repent for being raped. My bishop stopped disciplining me, and thankfully I was never kicked out of school. Time has healed many scars resulting from my sexual assault. For years, I had to have my clothes looped around my leg or my arm at all times during sex.
What hasn’t healed is the broken trust in ecclesiastical leaders. Four years ago, I watched as another priesthood holder was called to serve in the Young Men’s organization mere weeks after both he and I personally explained to our bishop graphic instances of predatory sexual acts he had committed against young girls, including 16 year old Chinese exchange students. I couldn’t fathom how my bishop could make such a dangerous decision! Immediately, all those feelings surrounding my visit with my BYU bishop came flooding back: immense betrayal, mistrust, and an overwhelming realization that I was not safe in an organization where there are no protections against decisions made by those in leadership positions that put vulnerable individuals at risk.
Today, in light of the attention this issue is finally receiving in regards to handling sexual assault, I have several thoughts at how we as a culture can change this story from constantly repeating itself.
First, be a community that talks about sex in a healthy and supportive way. Educate our youth and adults about what healthy sexual relationships look like, what consent means and feels like, how to say no and what red flags to look for to identify potential sexual predators.
Second, we must stop shaming victims. Always place the blame solely upon the perpetrator, in ALL instances. Stop telling girls that they have any sort of control over the thoughts of young men. Teach young men that it is their responsibility to control their thoughts and actions, at all times. No more chewing gum analogies, no more “modest is hottest,” no more telling girls they are “too pretty” or “too busty.” This sends the message that there is something inherently sinful with us, our bodies and our appearance. There is nothing wrong with us! We are beautiful! We are pure and of divine worth!
Perhaps the most important message of all, STOP unnecessary harm by linking virtue with virginity. Whether intentional or not, the message it sends is that without your virginity intact, you are undesirable, worthless, soiled and used. Author of The Mormon Therapist Blog, Natasha Helfler Parker, explained it this way. There is an “underlying systemic failure of our Mormon culture’s insistence that your value as a woman had something to do with your ability to be a sexual gate-keeper and somehow adept at avoiding sexual assault. This is a failure indeed.”
And if you are ever privileged to be that safe person that a sexual assault victim trusts enough to tell, start by believing! It is you who will set the tone for the remainder of their experience. Remind them it’s not their fault. Express empathy, and ask them how you can help. This is your chance to be the change.