Coverage of Campus Sexual Assault at BYU
Sexual assault victims say abusers wield BYU’s Honor Code as a weapon
By Erin Alberty, Originally published by The Salt Lake Tribune on April 26, 2016
Julie remembers her 19-year-old self as a "strict rule-follower."
But her neighbor, whom she had been casually dating for about a month, started urging her to bend the Honor Code at Brigham Young University. Hanging out in his apartment when his roommates turned out not to be home, or staying too late — these were hardly criminal transgressions, he assured her.
One day in October 2012, Julie relented. Alone with the 27-year-old in his apartment, she soon found herself trapped by what police describe as a predatory tactic targeting BYU students.
The man raped her, Julie said, and then threatened to report her to Honor Code officials if she were to report him to police.
As BYU has come under fire amid students' claims that they were investigated by the school as a result of reporting sexual assaults, critics have pointed to the chilling effect that scrutiny has on victims. More than two dozen current and former BYU students have told The Salt Lake Tribune they did not report sex crimes against them — many for fear of school discipline.
That risk becomes a weapon when an abuser exploits it as a direct threat against a victim, said Provo Police Sgt. Brian Taylor, who has worked in the department's sex-crimes unit.
Disciplining students who report sexual assaults, Taylor said, "creates a safe haven" for abusers and a "strong disincentive" for victims to report.
"Everybody is less safe," Taylor said. "What's the greater good? Protecting the moral integrity of the institution by punishing every identifiable act of consensual sex? Or are we going to deal with predators? It seems this question needs to be asked and answered."
More than 110,000 people have signed an online petition to add an amnesty clause to BYU's Honor Code to safeguard sexual assault victims. BYU has announced it is considering "structural changes" to how it handles sex-crime allegations.
Taylor said it is hard to quantify how often abusers use the Honor Code to prevent reports to police or school authorities because often it works. However, The Tribune has learned of multiple cases in which current and former students said abusers explicitly threatened Honor Code action to silence them, retaliate or extort favors and gifts.
To wield the threat of school discipline as a weapon, all an abuser has to do is entice a victim to break a rule, said Kortney Hughes, victim services coordinator for the Provo Police Department.
"Predators aren't stupid," she said. "They will use any influence they have to pressure [a victim]."
'He told me ... no one would believe it'
Looking back, Julie said, it seems like a setup. Breaking the Honor Code was out of character for her, she said, but her neighbor was persistent.
"He did pressure me ... even when I expressed discomfort. Lots of 'Come on, it's fine, don't worry,' " recalled Julie, who asked to be identified by her first name only. The Tribune generally does not name victims of sexual assault.
What began as a consensual kissing in her neighbor's apartment quickly escalated, Julie said. He tried to take off her clothes and reach under them. She pushed him off and said no, but he kept grabbing and forced himself on top of her.
"My mind shut down, and I waited for it to be over," Julie said.
When Julie's neighbor tried to contact her later that day, she told him he knew he had raped her, and she didn't want to see him again.
He pointed out that she didn't have any obvious injuries to prove she'd resisted.
"Because I didn't fight tooth and nail and break a rib or something, he told me if I came forward, no one would believe it was rape and I would get kicked out of school," Julie recalled.
Julie said she believed — and still believes — that her rapist's prediction was accurate. Julie was a volunteer operator for the rape hotline run by the Center For Women and Children in Crisis in Orem.
"On the rape crisis unit, I had worked with at least a half a dozen women who were traumatized, having been raped; were brave enough to report it; and got kicked out of school because of the circumstances surrounding the rape," Julie said. BYU officials have said a student is never disciplined "for being a victim of sexual assault," but it acknowledges that a victim may be investigated for related violations of the Honor Code.
Even if Julie were able to convince school officials that she had been raped and avoid punishment for being alone with a man in his apartment, she said her neighbor knew she had a secret — one that could get her kicked out of BYU anyway.
Julie was losing faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU. Students are required to obtain and keep an endorsement from a religious leader. Although students from a non-Mormon faith may switch their religious affiliation while enrolled, LDS students are required to remain in good standing with the LDS Church.
Before the rape, Julie had admitted to her neighbor that she was having doubts after he noticed she didn't seem very happy at church.
"I think that was how he was able to pick me out as a target," Julie said. "He blackmailed me with that information for months. He used that to get me to go out with him, to go to church with him. I still had to make out with him. He would still reach under my clothes. ... He was threatening to tell the Honor Code people about my faith transition."
'I just didn't report it'
Even if a victim is in full compliance with the Honor Code, an abuser can exploit it by threatening to lie. Premarital sex is forbidden by BYU's rules, so if school investigators believe a victim consented, the student can be punished for violating the chastity requirement.
A current student, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Emily, said that is why she did not report a fellow student who groped her in February.
She had gone on one date with the student, who suddenly began behaving awkwardly, saying he felt guilty because he had kissed her, she said. Emily said he contacted her, wanting to apologize. Instead, she said, he pulled her into a room at the Wilkinson Center and kissed her forcefully, pushing her against a wall. She said he fondled her under her clothes despite her protests.
When his roommate walked into the room, Emily said, she was crying and her pants were down. The roommate said, "Hey man, we gotta be somewhere in 30 minutes," she recalled.
"He didn't even seemed surprised," she said of the roommate.
She did not report the student's transgression, she said, because she didn't expect Honor Code staff to believe her — based on her previous experience with an unrelated school investigation.
In summer 2015, Emily had reported to police that a man had assaulted her during a date in July in Orem. Police found bite marks on her body, according to charges of object rape and forcible sexual abuse filed against the man. In January, he attacked Emily while she was working as a janitor at BYU, according to kidnapping and witness-retaliation charges against him.
She reported the workplace attack to the school's Title IX office, which is tasked by the federal government with protecting students from sex discrimination and reviews complaints of sexual violence against students.
Emily said the Title IX coordinator, Sarah Westerberg, told her the Honor Code Office would have to substantiate her off-campus rape allegation, even though the defendant was not a BYU student, and review Emily's behavior for potential Honor Code violations. That investigation appears to have stalled because the defendant refused to cooperate with the school, Emily said.
After the February assault in the Wilkinson Center, she said, the student who groped her used the Honor Code Office to threaten her.
"He told me if I told anyone, he would tell the Honor Code Office it was [consensual] — and that his roommate would back him up," Emily said.
"After my experience with that [previous case], I 100 percent believed that was exactly what would happen. They were going to believe [the criminal defendant] without any witnesses, and this guy had a roommate that was going to back him up and say he did nothing wrong. I just didn't report it, even though it happened on campus."
'How naive I was'
Allison Davies said she had not planned to report her then-boyfriend to police after he raped her in 2006.
Then 21 and a student at BYU, she was dating a man she described as "one of those guys who's older and single and hangs around Provo." They had a consensual physical relationship, she said. But when he wanted to have sex, Davies said, she looked him in the eye and frantically shook her head "no."
He ignored her, said Davies, who agreed to be identified by The Tribune.
Because Davies had never been taught about consent, she said, she didn't know until a meeting with a therapist years later that what had happened was rape.
"[Consent] was never talked about in a very public way because people are assumed to wait until they're married to be in these situations," said Davies. "I think I was preyed on because of how naive I was."
The man manipulated and belittled her, she said. When she tried to end the relationship, he sneaked into her basement bedroom on a Saturday morning and flew into a rage.
"He got very threatening at that point with me," she said. "My heart was absolutely pounding and racing. I remember him going up the stairs of the basement, getting on the phone with the Honor Code Office, threatening to report me."
Because it was a weekend, no one answered, and he would have to wait two days to turn in Davies. Instead, he left and called her every three or four minutes for the rest of the day — "no less than 100 times."
Davies said a mutual friend talked him out of reporting her to the Honor Code Office, but only after a struggle.
"It was the one thing where he had power over me," Davies said.
Sgt. Taylor said the Honor Code's approach to victims of sex crimes further muddies already-widespread misunderstandings about consent.
"Sex without consent is a crime," Taylor said. "Consent can be given, and it can be withdrawn. People may engage in a wide variety of consensual activity and still say no to intercourse. [If intercourse happens anyway], that's a crime and we treat it that way. Say a female BYU student engages in a short menu of sexual activities with a male partner and then she gets raped. How should the Honor Code treat that?"
'I can hold this over them'
Some predators discover that the threat of an Honor Code investigation can leverage more than just a victim's silence.
In 2012, Brad Ray Adams, then 36, met with a male BYU student via a personal ad on Craigslist. The student sent sexually explicit photographs of himself to Adams, police wrote in court documents.
Adams threatened to send the photos to BYU's Honor Code Office, which police say led to a cycle of extortion in which Adams demanded sex and money from the student.
The student already had given Adams $260 when Adams demanded another $800 — or, police wrote, he would accept $600 along with sexual favors.
By the time the victim reported the extortion to police, Adams had told the victim's fiancée of their sexual contact, which ended the engagement, and had outed the victim to the rest of his family, investigators wrote.
After police set up a sting to make a payment to Adams, he was charged with attempted forcible sodomy, voyeurism, theft by extortion and attempted theft by extortion. In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to the two misdemeanor extortion charges and was sentenced to 15 days in jail, a year on probation and a fine of $636.
Prosecutor Craig Johnson at the time said he wanted to pursue a first-degree-felony forcible-sodomy charge, but the victim was reluctant to participate in the case.
"Where someone's sexual orientation is outed — especially combine that with the unique religious affiliation with BYU — and the pressures affected the victim in a way that he did not want to testify," Johnson said.
The victim remained a student at BYU and was "working through things" with the university, Johnson has said.
The student told police that Adams claimed to have extorted cash from "several other men and ruined their lives in similar fashion," police wrote, though Taylor said investigators found no evidence of other victims.
Grooming and threatening are well-known strategies among sexual predators everywhere, Taylor said; these techniques are not isolated to Provo.
BYU's Honor Code provides abusers yet another mechanism to control victims, he said.
"Any sex-crimes investigator will tell you that an offender will use whatever pressure he thinks will get a victim to not report: He'll threaten to hurt you, he'll threaten to embarrass you, he'll threaten to tell an employer, he'll tell a kid, 'Your mom won't love you if you tell anybody,' " Taylor said. "This behavior is just part of that victimology. There's one more handle that an offender has over a victim: 'Oh, this person goes to school at an institution that's allergic to sex, so I can hold this over them.' "