Brigham Young’s theatre. Not pictured above: systemic institutionalized sexism | Photo: Ellen Forsyth, CC BY-SA 2.0
When I was a teenager, my parents told me that there was one steadfast, never-going-to-change rule if I ever got up to the types of shenanigans that television teenagers got up to: no matter the time of day or night, if I was hurt, if I was in trouble, or if I was drunk (or any combination of the three), I was to find the nearest telephone and call them. I wasn’t to try to drive myself home, or to ask a stranger to drive me home. I was assured that if I called either of my parents they would come get me and take me home, and there would be no discussion of punishment or blame; there would be no melodramatic lecturing while I huddled miserable and hazy in the passenger seat of the car. I just had to do whatever I needed to do to be safe. Now, because I was an incredibly dull and rule-abiding teenager (I sometimes stayed up drinking Dr. Pepper at Shari’s. Until 2 AM. Sometimes there were mozzarella sticks involved. Sheer craziness.) I never had to take my parents up on this promise.
As I got older, I realized that their rules for were a fairly common idea; on college campuses they’re known as “medical amnesty policies.” The purpose of these policies is to make sure that students who need medical attention (or the friends of students who need medical attention) don’t avoid calling for help because they are afraid to get in trouble. The net gain is supposed to be “fewer dead/seriously injured students,” which is a goal I think we can all get behind. However, many schools (including at least one of the institutions that I attended) don’t have these policies. Even worse, as I was furious to learn this week, some schools do not even have a medical amnesty (or similar conduct amnesty) policies for women who report rape. It is, in fact, entirely possible for you to report your rape, and have the details of your rape used against you in an “Honor Code” investigation. Because there aren’t already enough times that you get to use the word “Kafkaesque” in everyday life, or something.
This week’s dose of “what is wrong with people?” is brought to you by Brigham Young University. BYU, being a private LDS institution, has a rather vigorous Honor Code that applies to students, faculty, and staff. Violations of the Honor Code include wearing skirts above the knee, drinking alcohol, drinking coffee, having sex, engaging in overt homosexual acts, and being a man who wears an earring or a beard. Now, since it is a private institution it can make these types of demands, and students agree to them as part of their decision to attend the school. (I’ll rant later about how I think it is unfair for prestigious institutions to ask students to either give up their freedom or give up a top notch education.) But what I absolutely, positively, do not think is appropriate is for the filing of a Title IX report to be used as the basis of an Honor Code violation witch hunt. Which… guess what BYU is doing right now?
Four students have come forward with stories of BYU targeting them with Honor Code investigations as a result of their Title IX reports following rape or sexual assault. Two of the students, Madeline McDonald and Madison Barney, claim that they were never offered counseling services after their report, and that they were not allowed to know the details of the Honor Code investigations that were being performed on them. A common thread in the cases of many of the women who came forward with complaints is a general sense that the institution doubted their experiences from the start. McDonald says that the Title IX Coordinator, Sarah Westerberg, ‘“outright doubted’ her sexual assault complaint and questioned whether or not Title IX complaints were generally manufactured by women with ‘moral regrets.’” Add this to my post a few weeks ago about UCLA, I am beginning to think that schools choose their Title IX Coordinators by picking the staff member that is least likely to support a rape victim.
McDonald also alleges that Westerberg actually claimed that BYU receives a higher-than-normal amount of false rape complaints because of its draconian Honor Code: ‘“She was telling me at BYU people falsely report rapes because the Honor Code Office is so strict on premarital sex, and people report rapes so they won’t get investigated,’ MacDonald said.” When Barney began to struggle with her course load following her rape, and with instructors who would not accommodate court appearances or other absences necessary to deal with her case, she was not allowed to “retroactively withdraw” from two of her courses because ‘“They’re telling me that they can’t prove that a rape occurred.”’ A third student, “Emily,” faced an almost unbelievable situation in which Westerberg explained that BYU would only substantiate her rape claims if her rapist admitted to raping her:
“If he said I had anything to do with what happened, there was no way to prove that a rape had happened, regardless of what the court said, and I was not entitled to any services provided to rape victims,” Emily said. “And they [wouldn’t] give me an opportunity to rebut what he said. They said if he said it didn’t happen, that would be it.”
Emily was “fortunate” that her assailant refused to cooperate with BYU’s investigation. I really hate that we are now having to redefine the term “fortunate.”
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins told Jezebel that ‘“victims of sexual assault will never be referred to the Honor Code Office for being a victim of sexual assault.’” This is the definition of splitting hairs. The students are not referred to the Honor Code Office for being victims of sexual assault. They are referred to the Honor Code Office for details that are learned while the women are reporting their sexual assault. In a separate statement to the Salt Lake Tribune, Jenkins claimed ‘“Violations of university policy or the … Honor Code do not make a victim at fault for sexual violence … and will be addressed separately from the sexual misconduct allegation.”’ While it is technically not against the laws surrounding Title IX to punish someone who is filing a Title IX report for other violations they reveal in the process, it is not, to put it in the mild words of campus security consultant S. Daniel Carter, ‘“best practices.”’ Carter elaborated,
“It’s hurtful to survivors, and most significantly it’s the kind of thing that will have a chilling effect on survivors coming forward. It’s contrary to an institution’s goal of combating sexual violence. Do you want to remove violent predators from your campus or do you want to penalize victims for minor violations?”
The “chilling effect” that Carter speaks of is already obvious in the account of Madison Barney. Barney detailed the way that the Honor Code investigation affected her case before she even reported her rape: ‘“I was raped, and I waited four days to report because I was so terrified about my standing at BYU.”’ Anyone who has watched a modicum of Law and Order: SVU knows that the earlier a sexual assault is reported, the better; viable DNA evidence is more likely to be collected, and scummy lawyers lose the opportunity to ask you questions like “But if you were so traumatized by the events, why did you wait to report the rape?” If students are afraid to report a rape because doing so will put them in the unenviable position of having to explain everything from their skirt length to their caffeine addiction prior to their assault, then the already-low reporting rate is likely to drop dramatically
What is worse is that BYU seems to invite this double bind. Jezebel reports that “The university’s own sexual misconduct policies encourage victims to report, ‘in order to protect their own and others’ safety,” noting that victims “should make a report even if they have been simultaneously involved in other violations of university policy.”’ In a “you aren’t out of trouble yet” section at the end of the policy, it clarifies that any Honor Code or other university policy violations will be addressed “separately” from the Sexual Misconduct investigation. So to clarify, you should report your sexual assault even if you are in violation for other aspects of university policy, you’re still going to get in trouble for those other violations, but they’ll investigate your rapist for any possible violations separately from their attempts to make you feel like a criminal for reporting your own rape.
Such big hearts these guys have.
Another student, identified only as Brooke, alleges that BYU straight up lied about the trouble she would be in for reporting a rape while also being guilty of Honor Code violations. At an off-campus gathering, a group of guys convinced Brooke to try acid. Though she started feeling ill, she was ordered into the bedroom, and one of the men she was with started digitally penetrating her in front of two of the other men. The other men left when the original assailant began raping her. She escaped in nothing but a bra and a blanket, and the men started to chase her down the street. She banged on a neighbor’s door for help, and passed out before the police arrived. Everyone from her family, to her friends, to the police, to a friend of her rapist pleaded with Brooke to report her rape, but she was very reluctant to do so because she did not want to be kicked out of BYU. When she finally reported her rape, she asked administrators point blank if she would be forced to leave the school because she was on drugs at the time of the rape. They told her no. After a two-hour video conference/interrogation with the Honor Code Office, the Honor Code representatives told Brooke that they’d “pray” about her case. Guess what that prayer amounted to? “The next day, she learned she’d been kicked out of school and couldn’t reapply for two years.”
In Barney’s case, the school shouldn’t even have been able to investigate her for Honor Code violations, because she hadn’t actually reported her rape to any administrators or the Title IX office. She had only reported her rape to the police. But her rapist’s friend just so happens to be a Utah County sheriff’s deputy, who illegally gave her police report to BYU. The Title IX and Honor Code investigations began at that point, even though prosecutors have pleaded with the University to delay the Honor Code investigation in order to avoid jeopardizing Barney’s rape case. The prosecuting attorney advised Barney not to take part in the Honor Code investigation, and Barney complied. BYU responded very maturely by blocking Barney from registering for new classes. The deputy who handed over the report, Edwin Randolph, showed off his lacking “basic human decency” credentials when testifying about his actions:
“I’m not here to judge her, but I think, she’s in school here and she’s screwing around,” Randolph said. “When I was [a BYU student], we had guys get in trouble for this stuff, so I think it’s a problem.”
Randolph’s response amounts to “I’m not judging her, but she’s a slut,” and also exhibits a delightful persecution complex borne of some kind of delusional universe wherein men are the ones who predominantly get in trouble for sexual indiscretions.
You would think that a sane institution, and a sane representative of said institution, would respond to the revelation that their policies were discouraging the reporting of sexual assault by addressing said policies. You would think that when a government agency begs them to stop an Honor Code investigation because it is going to mess up a rape case that they would stop the investigation. You would unfortunately be wrong. Sarah Westerberg managed to acknowledge the harm that BYU’s policy could do to students while also doubling down on the whole “not giving a damn about the harm BYU’s policy could do to students” thing:
At last week’s rape awareness conference, Barney said, BYU Title IX coordinator Sarah Westerberg said her office is part of a private institution and allowed to involve the Honor Code Office. Westerberg said her office would “not apologize” for referring abuse victims for discipline, while acknowledging a “chilling” effect on sex crime reporting, according to several students who attended the event and confirmed Barney’s account.
So to recap again, Westerberg acknowledges that the connection between a Title IX investigation and an Honor Code investigation could prevent assault victims from coming forward about their experiences. And not only will she not advocate that the policy be changed, she won’t even apologize for discouraging assault victims from reporting their assaults. That is just…. Wow. Literally the least you can do when your institution is persecuting assault victims is apologize for the fact that you are persecuting them.
It is nothing new to police women for their behavior at the time of their rape. Women are asked questions about what they wore, what they drank, what they smoked, whether or not they were flirting with their rapist before he became a rapist, whether they said “no” loudly and forcefully enough, and whether they fought back. These things are all bad enough. It is an entirely new level of victim blaming, victim shaming, and victim punishing to “reward” women who are brave enough to come forward about their experiences by investigating them as if they were criminals, obstructing their education, and generally caring more about a nitpicky Honor Code than they do about an actual concept of honor. If BYU had actual honor, then it wouldn’t use Title IX investigations as a way to sniff out untoward behavior. Instead it would send the message, as my parents did for me, that safety and well-being are more important than rules, and that it is better to seek help than to suffer alone.
I hope that one day BYU has that kind of honor, but they obviously don’t have it today.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not reporting on the institutionalized misogyny of punishing rape victims for coming forward, she studies gender in popular culture.
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