About 10 years ago I was attending BYU-Provo and found myself in a situation where I had accepted an invitation to go to my date’s apartment. We had been on several dates by this time, and I felt like I could trust him. We ended up making out in his room, which I really liked – but as he pressed to go further, I felt more and more uncomfortable. Even though I specifically said the words “no” and “I don’t want to do this” he kept pushing. I felt myself freezing up, not knowing how to get myself out of that situation, and feeling really confused. On the one hand, I really liked him and had feelings for him. On the other hand, I was left wondering if what happened to me that night would be considered “date rape.” I never told anyone about this. The last thing I wanted to do was put my standing at BYU in danger. I knew that if I went and talked about this with my bishop, I might get in trouble for being in this student’s bedroom. I figured that even talking to a BYU counselor might get me into trouble (I wasn’t sure if they would keep my story confidential). The idea of facing church discipline made me nauseous and sparked so much anxiety for me. I couldn’t face the possibility of being expelled, of having my parents or other people find out about what had happened. I know this had a lasting impact on my experience at BYU, my dating life, and now even my marriage. Reading the latest news in the last few days about how BYU deals with these kinds of situations has been extremely difficult. I find myself reliving a lot of those feelings and experiences. I’m enraged and depressed and isolated all over again. Not sure how to handle this…
I can’t begin to express how sorry I am for what happened to you and how helpless, confused and isolated you must have felt. Unfortunately, this type of story is common in my experience working with an LDS clientele, and being a BYU alumni myself.
The solution is simple – yet would require a foundational shift to the core of how we function as a religious society. So, I guess, not simple at all.
In order to truly start to change the rape culture within which we participate as a Mormon community, we would have to take a 180 degree turn from the current practice of correlating human behavior to personal worth. And this practice infiltrates every aspect of our culture. But especially when it comes to sexuality and what is considered sexual sin. The sexual angst that permeates our Mormonism is palpable – as we trumpet incorrect and unachievable messages, misconceptions and myths relating to such topics as: covering women’s bodies in order to avoid men’s sexual arousal – teaching men that they will have a hard time controlling their sexual appetites – avoiding all sexual thought, arousal and self-touch from an early age – holding women responsible for sexual gate-keeping instead of celebrating their capacity for desire and erotic energy – treating pornography or unwanted sexual behavior like an addictive chemical substance – disallowing the exploration and acknowledgment of sexual orientation – punishing sexual acts in ways that other transgressive behavior often does not get punished – exacerbating fear-based sexual education – assuming all marital sex is healthy and non-abusive – and the list goes on…. All of these messages play a role in not having the healthy sexual environment I believe we all want: where personal sexual understanding & ownership, correct boundaries, consent, and accurate accountability can thrive.
So let me just bullet point some quick thoughts:
- Regardless of choices you made that preceded any sexual assault – that does not place you in a relationship of “fault” or “responsibility” for the sexual assault. You may think back and feel badly, confused about or even regret going to a certain party, using certain substances, wearing certain clothing, consenting to certain situations or even some sexual activity… However, NONE of those things are the cause for the sexual assault that occurred. NONE! Until we learn how to completely separate the behavior that preceded sexual assault, from the sexual assault itself, we will continue to exacerbate what is considered “rape culture.” “Breaking the Honor Code,” as it is commonly referred to, does not lead to sexual assault. Sexual assaulters lead to sexual assault.
- To make the disclosure of any type of sexual assault more difficult than it already is within a societal structure (whether that be a university, a police station, a hospital, a family, etc.) is a monumental failure on the part of that institution. Data and research continually educate us on the fact that disclosing a traumatic event – especially when it comes to something as complex, private, uncomfortable, humiliating and often embarrassing as sexual assault – is incredibly difficult. We know that it is tragically common for victims to inappropriately blame themselves in situations of sexual trauma. And we know that when victims are unable to safely disclose, be believed, and have access to supportive resources – the trauma has a much more debilitating effect and for longer periods of time.
- For those that would say, “well, students sign the Honor Code themselves – and should expect to be held accountable in these types of situations” – I would plainly say, NO! There are situations that trump the legalities or implications of any Honor Code signature – particularly a criminal action. We have to have university policies in place that make it as easy as possible for victims to feel safe to disclose trauma, knowing their confidentiality is going to be protected, where mental health services are readily offered, where all will be done to support their ongoing educational, personal and relational goals, and where there will be no negative repercussion or indirect/direct blame for sexual assault. Plain and simple. Nothing else will do.
- Not to mention, that the entire concept of implementing the Honor Code is, in of itself, problematic. At a time when it is developmentally appropriate for young adults to be exploring their ideas, behaviors, values and life directions – to then have their education and social standing in their faith community at stake when they most need guidance and help from trusted adults – there are significant flaws in the results of this type of system. Policing practices instead of supportive practices are engendered. Either students lie or stay silent (as you did) to be self-protective, or they take the risk to be vulnerable in seeking help (with often life-altering, shaming and in of themselves, traumatic disciplinary consequences). Our cultural insistence of continuing to look at LDS disciplinary proceedings through the lens of “courts of love” drastically minimizes the lived experiences of so many of our members. Again, the emphasis is on maintaining certain behavior – instead of mentoring and encouraging the process of growth, failure, critical thinking, and success that are necessary developmental steps at this age.
- This is not something that you should feel pressure to figure out on your own. This is a traumatic event in your life that has impacted you significantly. That’s what traumatic events do. There is nothing inherently wrong with you or broken about you because of this. You are having a normal response to trauma. And now your trauma is being triggered due to the recent media coverage on this topic. And our community system failed you in your time of need. Please find professional help that can aid you in processing the meaning and implications of, not only the sexual assault you experienced, but the 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.
Let’s remember that sexual assault can happen to women and men. And just to repeat one more time, breaking the Honor Code does not lead to sexual assault. Sexual assaulters lead to sexual assault.
I would encourage all parents who have students at BYU to directly contact the university about their concerns in regards to the sexual safety of our students. And to the general public, please consider signing the petition linked to below.
FYI – for those of you still attending BYU, counseling services at BYU are confidential and information will not be shared with parents, ecclesiastical leaders or the Honor Code department unless there is a written consent (release of information) filled out by the student themselves. This is a great resource available to any full-time student.
National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline – 800.656.HOPE (4673)
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at natashaparker.org. She authors the Mormon Therapist Blog, hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine and is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association. She has 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.