What BYU’s Honor Code Office Doesn’t Understand About Trauma is Endangering Victims

What BYU’s Honor Code Office Doesn’t Understand About Trauma is Endangering Victims April 21, 2016
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By now, I’m guessing you’ve heard about BYU’s track record of using Title IX investigations about alleged instances of sexual assault as an opportunity to investigate the alleged victim for any potential honor code violation, a track record that may not only discourage victims from coming forward but may even, in one extreme case, interfere with a criminal case. For their part, BYU and the Honor Code Office are firmly denying that they would ever punish someone for being assaulted.

the current policies reflect a deep misunderstanding of sexual assault and enable poorly-trained individuals to punish victims whom they don’t believe.

As a former student and former faculty member, I have never experienced any problems with the Honor Code Office (though it helps that I was even more straight-laced than your average BYU student). And when they say they’d never punish someone for being a victim of assault, I’m positive they mean it – but I’m equally positive that the current policies reflect a deep misunderstanding of sexual assault and enable poorly-trained individuals to punish victims whom they don’t believe.

Without the proper training, trauma is very easy to misinterpret. Here are just a few ways a lack of expertise could backfire:

1. A victim could be required to put his or her mental health at risk by unnecessarily rehashing events with the honor code office. If you’re thinking, “Oh, stop being a baby – talking about what happened to you is good for you,” I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that you’re also the kind of person who tells survivors not to dwell on the past. But people who understand trauma know that there can be a fine line between discussing events for therapeutic purposes and severely worsening symptoms of PTSD. Victims may already be straining their health by working with the police or the Title IX Office. Why make things worse by requiring them to explain why they were breaking curfew before their assault? Keep in mind – PTSD is an actual disorder. It’s not something victims just make up for sympathy.

2. The Honor Code Office may misinterpret the events of the assault and punish a victim for something they didn’t even do. For instance, an HCO employee who doesn’t understand the way consent works (namely, that it’s sexual assault if consent is absent, not just if a refusal takes place) may interpret prior consent, or the lack of an audible “no” during an encounter to mean the alleged victim consented and is now lying. But remember that whole “dissociation” thing I mentioned, where a person can go numb and shut off their emotions? That can happen during an assault too. Heck, it can even happen during an encounter that the other person genuinely thought  was consensual. That’s why so many feminists are trying to replace the saying “no means no” with “yes means yes.” The lack of a “no” does not equal consent.

If abuse can interfere with the protective instincts of a parent, then how much easier is it for a perpetrator to convince a friend or romantic partner that their determination to follow the Honor Code is selfish?

3. The Honor Code Office may punish a victim for actions a perpetrator coerced or manipulated them into taking. Most people are not assaulted by a complete stranger but rather by someone who knows them, so a perpetrator has time to groom the victim, perhaps by isolating them from friends and belittling the victim’s personal standards until the victim no longer feels he or she has the right to say “no” to things they normally would. In scenarios of domestic abuse, the psychological ramifications of abuse are so extreme that parents often fail to protect their children from a spouse. If abuse can interfere with the protective instincts of a parent, then how much easier is it for a perpetrator to convince a friend or romantic partner that their determination to follow the Honor Code is selfish?

4. Fear of being punished for real or imagined Honor Code violations may endanger victims and other students by leaving victims of assault terrified to report what they’ve been through. This point is already explored at length in the many articles that have been published over the past couple weeks.

5. The Honor Code Office, without even meaning to, may target a female victim because of her biological sex. Think about it: intercourse often leads to pregnancy, but only female students get pregnant. If an assault survivor is single, then showing signs of pregnancy is like placing a target on her stomach for the HCO. If her bishop accepts her account of events then maybe she’ll be safe. However, through a mutual friend we are both very close to, I know of at least one survivor of assault whose bishop did not accept her account when she got pregnant – as a result, she was kicked out of a CES university (I won’t say which, in order to protect the victim’s identity). So if the bishop doesn’t believe her or if someone else reports her to the HCO, then her sex may automatically be placing her at increased risk of harassment, since being female generally carries the risk of pregnancy following an assault.

A woman who gets pregnant following an assault is backed into a terrible corner… even silence about her assault may not protect her from an HCO investigation.

It’s also worth noting that, despite the Church’s stance allowing abortion in cases such as sexual assault, the Church’s stance does not leave that decision between the woman and her doctor. Instead, the Church states that abortion “may” be justified in that case but that it also may not be justified and that women considering abortion for any reason need to counsel with their bishop. While this policy concerns me in general, my point in this case is about the HCO. A woman who gets pregnant following an assault is backed into a terrible corner: if she seeks an abortion without her bishop’s counsel, she is going against her faith’s policies and risks getting an abortion that future leaders will deem “unjustified.” But if she seeks his counsel, he may misunderstand the situation and report her to the HCO. In other words, even silence about her assault may not protect her from an HCO investigation.

Given all these risks, why does BYU investigate alleged victims for potential HCO violations? Why not offer immunity to alleged victims for any HC infractions that come to light because they reported a sexual assault?

I’ll have to speculate here to some extent, but I suspect there are two main reasons:

A. The HCO is genuinely concerned about fairness and justice. If you see the Honor Code as an integral part of campus life and believe anyone who breaks it should work with the HCO to mend their ways, then it may also drive you batty to know that many students on campus get away with breaking it. So you may reason that it’s not fair to the students who confess a violation to their bishop (drinking coffee, drinking alcohol, engaging in consensual premarital or extramarital sex, etc) to face some very difficult consequences, while a student who reveals engaging in the same exact behavior is shielded from punitive action simply because they revealed the violations while reporting an assault. And sure, that’s not fair, insofar as it happens. But is the risk that someone will get away with breaking the Honor Code truly worse than all these other risks I’ve outlined?

Is the risk that someone will get away with breaking the Honor Code truly worse than all these other risks I’ve outlined?

B. The HCO may believe that granting immunity in cases of alleged sexual assault will give students incentive to lie about assault any time they expect to be caught in a violation. But there are a few problems with that reasoning. First, survivors of assault already face the stigma of not matching up with cultural ideas of sexual purity, so I doubt BYU students are going to flood the HCO in order to report cases of assault that never happened. Second, this is the same flawed logic that formerly led the HCO to require members of other religions to shave their beards – they feared students would take advantage of a religious exemption on shaving. Since they lifted that ban, the campus’s small non-LDS population has not, in fact, swarmed the HCO in order to lie their way into beard cards.

And at the end of the day, which is worse: the risk that some students will lie about assault in order to get immunity for genuine honor code violations?

Or the risk that the HCO is harassing and punishing victims of assault and allowing perpetrators to roam the campus, by making victims too terrified to come forward?

If the first scenario is what scares you, you need to work on your priorities.

 

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