Coverage of Campus Sexual Assault at BYU

Sex-assault victims and experts agree: Seeing BYU as inherently safe is ‘naive’

By Rachel Piper, Originally published by The Salt Lake Tribune on June 3, 2016

Jennifer, center, said she was sexually assaulted while she was attending Brigham Young University more than 20 years ago. She and her husband have taught their three sons about healthy sexual behavior and boundaries, hoping to prevent them from becoming perpetrators or victims of sexual violence. Jennifer asked to be identified by her first name.

As an 18-year-old arriving on Brigham Young University's Provo campus in the mid-1980s, Anne assumed that students there "had high Mormon values, like I did. Students that want to drink and party and all that stuff, they don't go to BYU."

So when she was attacked by an acquaintance after a dance at BYU one night, she couldn't process what was happening.

Anne — who asked to be identified by a pseudonym — never reported to school officials or police. She never told her friends. And only in the past five years has she been able to call it, in her own mind, an attempted sexual assault.

But the night forever shook her belief that people could be trusted based on their professed beliefs or what school they attended.

People might be hearing about assaults at BYU for the first time, she says, but it doesn't mean they haven't been happening — for decades, to scores of women who never have come forward.

As BYU has come under scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault reports, many have asserted the Provo campus is safer than many other schools because of its Honor Code, which bans alcohol, sets curfews and limits when students can be alone with someone of the opposite sex. Rankings based on crime statistics have given the school, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, high marks for safety.

The code does reduce drinking, says Provo police Sgt. Brian Taylor, and there's a link between alcohol use and some sexual assaults.

But the Honor Code "is not a blanket protection that nothing will ever happen to you," he adds. "BYU understands that. They have a police force for a reason."

And crime data — especially as they relate to sexual assault — don't accurately reflect what students are experiencing, he says, echoing a point commonly raised by researchers.

Most sexual assaults are never reported. Most attacks against college women occur off campus, according to a federal study, but those assaults — in apartments, at social gatherings — are excluded from university crime statistics.

It's true that BYU "would be the last place you'd expect this to happen," Anne says.

But in a "life lesson you learn the hard way," she knows it does.

'I know this guy'

Anne was walking home from a dance with other students when one of the young men asked to talk to her in private. As they fell back from the group, he suggested they take the long way back to Deseret Towers.

"I hesitated," Anne recalls. "But then I was like, 'I know this guy, I know his name, I know his roommate.' "

He led her around the Marriott Center and up into a residential area, past the border of the campus. When he stopped in front of an empty lot with weeds growing high, Anne told him she was leaving. "And that's when he grabbed me," she says.

What happened next plays out in her memory in flashes. A dog at a nearby house started barking. A porch light flicked on. The man threw her on the ground, covered her mouth and told her to be quiet.

"I'm lying there in the dark and this dog is barking. I just lay there stiff. I guess I was in shock," she says. "Twenty minutes ago, I was with my friends and we were having a good time."

Someone took the dog inside and turned off the light, snapping Anne back to the present. She jumped up and started walking, fast, to get back to a public place. When she realized he was running to catch up with her, "I just took off," she recalls.

Her roommate was there when she burst into their dorm. But never did it cross Anne's mind to tell her what had just happened, especially because she didn't know how to define it.

What she felt in her gut at the time, she says, was that "it was my fault, and I should have known better."

She tried to pretend it had never happened. She often saw the man around campus for the next year and ignored him — except for a few times that she "found out he was calling or talking to a friend of mine," she says. She warned those women, "I wouldn't go out with him."

Years later, Anne was listening to a lecture about sexual assault and thought back to that night in the field. It was only then that she connected the words "sexual assault" to herself.

That was clearly his goal that night, she says.

"It seemed like he had done that before. He knew exactly what he was doing."

Less than 5 percent

Had Anne chosen to report the off-campus assault, she would have remained invisible in BYU's crime statistics.

Under the federal Clery Act, colleges must disclose how many students report assaults that happen on campus, or on public property — like a sidewalk — immediately adjacent to campus, or in an off-campus building owned by the school.

When students report assaults outside those boundaries, schools may provide them with services, such as changed class schedules or counseling. But even if another student is the accused abuser, those cases are left out of Çlery reports.

Within Clery limits, BYU reported 58 forcible sexual offenses between 2005 and 2014.

Asked to provide the total number of students who report forcible sex offenses, BYU cited federal guidelines and said it maintains "a confidential log that is not open to the public."

Zero sexual assaults were reported by BYU in 2005, 2006 and 2011. But it's unlikely that not one person was assaulted on campus in those years, says Julie Valentine, a nursing professor at BYU who researches sex crimes and violence against women.

"I don't think a zero is an accurate number for any university," she says.

Like Anne, many victims do not appear in the public statistics because they choose not to report.

In Utah as a whole, 11.8 percent of women who have been sexually assaulted have reported it, Valentine says. And reporting among college students is even lower. A 2000 National Institute of Justice study, which found most attacks against college women occur off campus, pegged the percentage of sex crimes reported by students at less than 5 percent.

Critics have argued that BYU students face an additional hurdle to reporting: fear of being prosecuted under the Honor Code for violations before the assault.

The Honor Code is a "significant issue to be addressed" when it comes to reporting, Valentine says. She is part of a four-member advisory council formed by BYU last month to look into how the school handles reported sexual assaults.

She also points to a different barrier: students not understanding that they were raped.

Many young people "have very little sex education, and I think this really hurts them," Valentine says. "They might be making out, and then things start to progress, and they really don't know what's happening and they freeze."

A victim, experiencing "real terror," Valentine says, might be unable to move, speak or recognize what is happening. And after they're out of that situation, she says, they might think, "maybe that's just how it is, or maybe it wasn't a big deal."

"It's hard for many people who have been victimized to get to the point where they can say, 'This happened to me,' " Valentine says.

'This unrealistic perception'

Nicole, now 23, came to BYU expecting a different culture from other places she had lived around the West. After she was assaulted her first year, she says, "I've realized that's not really the case."

She hopes BYU will adopt an amnesty clause, granting students immunity from being investigated for lesser infractions if they report a violent crime.

"It's a matter of safety," she says. "We have this unrealistic perception of Utah, of BYU, of how everyone's good here. Going into a situation thinking you'll be safe, with all these rules and regulations, it puts you in a worse situation — you're not watching yourself as much as you should."

Four years ago, she and a young LDS student she had been dating for about six weeks went to her dorm to watch a movie. Some of her roommates were camped out in the common area, watching a different film, so Nicole and her date went to her room.

Soon after the movie started, "he started getting forceful," she says. She said "no" multiple times. He kept going, and raped her.

Nicole dumped him and told him never to talk to her again.

She didn't tell anyone about it, she says, sure they would view it as her fault "because I let him in my room, or I didn't punch him after the fifth time I said no."

Getting kicked out of BYU didn't seem likely, she thought, but she could lose her housing — and then everyone would know that something had happened. It could jeopardize her relationships with everyone in her life, she felt, including her family. So she stayed silent, falling into depression.

A year later, she talked with a woman who dated the man after Nicole did. The same thing had happened to her.

"I felt bad because I never said anything," Nicole says.

Nicole, who asked to be identified by her middle name, has since served a Mormon mission. She confided in her mission president who helped her realize, she says, that what happened that night wasn't her fault.

But she still doesn't think she'll tell anyone. Her family has been following news reports of sexual assault at BYU, and her mother recently asked if anything had ever happened to her while she attended.

"I lied to her and said no," Nicole says. "If I were to tell the truth, who knows what would happen or how she'd react? I'd rather just move on."

'The last thing in my mind'

A young convert to the LDS Church, Jennifer went to BYU in the 1990s looking for a fresh start. She had been sexually assaulted as a child and thought that BYU would be a "super-safe place — a great, wholesome environment."

But, she says, she was assaulted twice by Mormon men she was dating while attending the school. She only told close friends.

The first man, she says she recognizes now, used emotional manipulation to try to push her into sexual encounters, telling her she never would "get anyone else." She broke off contact with the student after he "sabotaged" arrangements on a group trip, she says, leaving her in a room alone instead of sharing with another woman. He acquired a room key, let himself into her room and attacked her.

Two years later, during her junior year, she arrived home with a young man — not a BYU student — she had been dating for several weeks to find her roommate making out on the living room couch with her boyfriend. Though inviting someone of the opposite sex into a bedroom is against BYU's Honor Code, Jennifer felt uncomfortable in the common area, so she and her date went into her bedroom.

As soon as she closed the door, he pinned her to the bed, saying, "I've been waiting so long for this moment," she recalls, and tried to rape her, kissing her and pulling off her clothes while she struggled and cried.

"It was the ultimate betrayal," she says.

After that attack, she decided to go on a Mormon mission, hoping it would change her life. She also had a deep-seated fear of getting in trouble with the Honor Code Office, she says, and reasoned that if BYU did find out, her being on a mission might "exonerate" her.

"The last thing in my mind was, 'I wonder if I need to get help?' " she recalls.

While she was at the Missionary Training Center near BYU, she "cracked" and told a local church leader what had happened, preparing for him to send her home for being unworthy.

"You've been assaulted," he said, and told her the Lord would help heal her wounds.

That approach reflects church policy, described by LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins. "A victim of assault or abuse has not in any way had their virtue or value taken from them," he said in a statement. "Victims should be reminded that God loves them and they are not responsible for the actions of another person, nor do the actions of another person, particularly in cases of sexual assault and abuse, impact their virtue and value."

Jennifer, who asked to be identified by her first name, served a full mission and mailed a letter to her ex-boyfriend from the field.

"Attempted rape is a crime," she wrote. "And what you did to me is a crime."

'We talk about it a lot'

Jennifer returned to BYU after her mission and still struggled with feelings of low self-worth. As graduation neared, she started dating a man seriously, but kept recalling metaphors about impure women — dirty laundry, used-up gum — that she had absorbed from the Christian faith of her childhood and later as a Mormon.

She felt she owed it to her boyfriend to explain her history — and why he wouldn't want to marry her.

He still did. He also wanted her to try counseling.

They now have three boys and are rearing them with tools that Jennifer and her husband hope will prevent them from becoming perpetrators or victims of sexual violence. They started teaching their sons at a young age about aspects of healthy sexuality so that the knowledge will be ingrained by the time they need it, Jennifer says. Especially now that her oldest sons are teenagers, "We talk about it a lot."

Her examples: The way a girl dresses doesn't have anything to do with her interest in sexual activities. A girl who flirts with you doesn't necessarily want to make out with you — she might just want to get to know you. Never assume that someone else is comfortable with what you're doing.

Anne says her experience also has shaped her parenting. She has made sure her daughters — soon preparing for college — learn from her mistake of "being so naive" to believe that all Mormons could be trusted implicitly, and that BYU, or Utah in general, was a place where violent crimes didn't happen.

"You need to always be careful; you don't trust anybody, even if it's a relative," she tells them. "Even if it's the missionaries."

Hawkins concurs. "A person should never automatically put their safety in someone else's hands simply because that person is — or claims to be — a member of an organization that they respect. That includes the church."

And he says there is "significant value" in parents pairing abstinence teachings with frank sexual assault lessons.

"We believe that parents (and where appropriate, youth leaders) need to have open, repeated discussions with their children about these important topics, including what constitutes abuse and in whom they can confide if they have questions or feel they have been abused."

Valentine says she's glad that the spotlight is on college campuses, including BYU, for how they handle sexual assaults. "I'm very positive that improvements will be made across the country, and at BYU," she says.

BYU's panel examining possible reforms meets a couple of hours a week in person, Valentine says, and members exchange calls and emails daily. "This is a pretty intense effort right now."

As preventing sexual assault becomes "more of a public, community discussion," she says, "it will follow that more victims will come forward. We're going to see a big rise in reported rapes, which is a good thing. If they report more, there will be increased prosecution. The overall effect will be a decrease in rapes."

Anne hopes that the conversation will help create a more accurate understanding of reality — that no place is wholly safe, and bad things do happen to good people.

"It needs to be out there," she says. "I feel like everybody's sheltered."