Brigham Young University (BYU) is located in Provo, Utah and is just some 20 minutes from my home. Recently, the school has been receiving loads of negative press surrounding a student who reported a rape and, as a result, has been disciplined by the university herself. That’s right—a female student reports a rape (and apparently her attacker admits to it in a recorded phone conversation) and she finds herself in hot water with her university. Why? Because if you attend BYU, which is owned by the Mormon church, all students must promise to abide by a strict Honor Code, which includes not having sex outside of marriage, not touching alcohol or drugs, and dressing to a standard that includes no shorts above the knees or sleeveless tops.
The student who launched the media blitz, 20-year old Madi Barney (who has publicly come forward and agreed to be named), met a guy who, she says, raped her during their date. She waited four days to report it because she feared BYU would find out. Her concerns came true when a deputy sheriff turned the report over to the university. Soon after, Madi was informed that BYU had launched an Honor Code investigation against her. Refusing to answer all of the university’s questions so as not to impede the police investigation, BYU refused Madi services under Title IV, the Federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination at universities, and barred her from registering for classes the following semester. Since coming forward with her story, several other female BYU students have reported that they, too, were either disciplined or kicked out of school for reporting rapes or sexual assaults because, the school determined, they were in violation of the Honor Code. (I have to hand it to these young women who were strong and brave enough to go public with their stories. This is never easy for victims of sexual assault but it is particularly hard in the Mormon community where members are taught at an early age to never disparage the church or its institutions.)
As a mother of two daughters and a former BYU alum (after a few years there, I transferred to another university where I graduated), I attended an organized protest against the school’s policy. While there, I was also interviewed by several media organizations. I told anyone who asked that I would never send my daughters to a school that discourages female students from reporting crimes against them. Our daughters need to feel safe and supported, not punished. And in BYU’s case, victims are actually retaliated against if they committed Honor Code infractions during the crime (like perhaps drinking prior, allowing a male into her bedroom, or wearing “inappropriate” clothing).
This incident has opened up a new debate about reporting rape, and the responsibility women may play in their own assaults. (Victim-blaming, anyone?) As I followed comments from BYU supporters, I have been horrified and dismayed at some of their opinions. Many have stated that “these female students knew the rules at BYU and if they don’t like them, they should go elsewhere.” One commenter said that if the female students adhered to BYU’s Honor Code, they likely would not be raped. And even if she was raped, she ought to still be punished accordingly for her wrongdoings.
So let me get this straight… If I were a female student and had a beer, wore a sleeveless dress, and then went out on a date and got raped, I am now fearful of reporting the crime because I may get kicked out of school. I may likely be grilled by university employees about my behavior leading up to the assault. And, if I believe this shit, I will question what I did to deserve it. And what affect does this policy have on victims? It undoubtedly causing many of them to remain silent, guilt-ridden, and ashamed. It also allows perpetrators to go unchecked. A threat to tell the university on the female student is enough to make sure she remains silent.
Seriously, who can defend this policy? Especially if one has daughters. And, that aside, what will this mom do to teach her daughters about rape, responsibility and reporting? Here are five conversations we are having as a result of this incident.
- Keep yourself safe. This is smart, regardless of age, location or circumstance. If you are meeting a guy you don’t know well, stay in public places. Be careful with trusting anyone.
- You are loved and supported. If she is ever assaulted, she must know that I will believe her, love her, and support her.
- Be brave, report it to authorities. (This is a whole lot easier to do if she knows that her support system is strong and unwavering.)
- You are not at fault.
- Say no. She is the owner of her body and decisions. And she is allowed to say “no” to sex at any time. And she should say it—loudly. Do not be afraid or intimidated.