Does the BYU honor code create or discourage sexual harassment? Does the increasingly stringent focus on female modesty create or discourage objectification of women? In both cases, women are often singled out and approached by total strangers who feel it’s acceptable to make comments on their appearance. In the work place, this behavior may constitute creating a hostile work environment. At BYU, we call it standing valiantly for right.
In employment law, hostile environment sexual harassment refers to a situation where employees in a workplace are subject to a pattern of exposure to unwanted sexual behavior . . . It is distinguished from quid pro quo sexual harassment, where a direct supervisor seeks sexual favors in return for something . . . courts have . . . recognized hostile environment as an actionable behavior since the late 1980s.
BYU’s Honor Code
Most colleges have an honor code. Not many include a dress code because dress is not directly associated with honesty. University honor codes promote academic rigor by applying harsh penalties, including expulsion, if a student is found cheating. This protects the university’s academic reputation. The BYU honor code states that it prohibits sexual harassment as part of living a chaste and virtuous life. An example of this would be repeatedly soliciting dates after being rejected. However, the code also stipulates that students are required to “encourage others” in their commitment to live the honor code (which includes an increasingly stringent dress code). This “encouragement” of others sometimes plays out in strange ways.
A student who is hyper-vigilant for dress code infractions made by fellow students is supported by the system. The standards office addresses all claims, seeking subjective “facts” to support the allegation, including witness statements where possible. The anonymity of the person making the claim is preserved, and there are no negative consequences for a student making a false or unsupported accusations. Students called to the standards office are required to prove their commitment to the code or to disprove the claim that was made.
Here are 4 real life examples from BYU:
- When I was a freshman, an anonymous tipster said my skirt was too short, and I received a notice to report to the standards office. I felt embarrassed and panicked; I hadn’t knowingly violated the school code. Would this incident go in my file? Could I be expelled or put on probation if they didn’t like me? I talked to my roommates; every single one of them had experienced a call to standards at one time or another. I wore the offending skirt when I went to standards, and they said it was fine. I felt I must have some rights in this situation. I was irritated that I had been put through this, and I asked what would happen to the student who made the false claim, and they said nothing; they further advised that though my skirt was within standards, maybe I shouldn’t wear it again in case someone else reported me. The onus was on me to prevent future specious accusations. Nobody cared that I had spent several stressed out days and time and energy to report to the standards office for what turned out to be a baseless accusation.
- A few years later, I discovered our apartment complex’s male RA standing in the bushes, peering into my roommate’s window. When I asked what he was doing, he said: “I think your roommate’s fiance is in her room.” I told him that if I ever found him looking in our windows again I’d call the police. I knew they would see his behavior as unacceptable. 
- Most will remember the skinny jeans debacle at BYU-I last year, in which a curvaceous female student was barred entrance to take her exam because the male testing center manager deemed her pants too tight. She had gone to the testing center straight from a ward leadership meeting with her bishop, and her pants were not even “skinny jeans”; she was just a pretty girl being objectified by a stranger with enough authority to bar her from taking her test.
- Some will recall last year’s Valentine’s Day note passed to a girl at BYU who was wearing a nearly-knee length skirt with leggings. The note was a request for her to consider the impact her manner of dress had on other students. It didn’t say anything about the impact of getting a note from a random creeper on Valentine’s Day about the fact that your covered knees are “having an impact” on so-called “others.” What she was wearing would have been acceptable attire in a mosque.
These were just random female students, trying to study or take a test, who happened to be visible to male students who couldn’t control their own sexual thoughts and felt perfectly in their right to approach a stranger and ask her to take responsibility for their sexual reactions.
Let me clarify that many BYU students (male & female) agreed that these last two incidents were out of line, although there were also many who sided against the women. The skinny jeans situation even created a policy clarification that skinny jeans were acceptable, which contradicted the flyer that had been distributed around campus telling women they were not true disciples of Christ if they wore the offending jeans (see image to the right).
The Corporate World
How would this play out in the workplace? First of all, corporate dress codes, where they exist, are less restrictive than BYU. Corporate dress codes are written to encourage employees to project a professional image, without reference to sexual motives. There are cultural disincentives to dress in a deliberately sexy manner (e.g. women have reason to fear they may not be taken seriously).
Sexual conduct is handled as a separate policy matter from dress code. A male colleague approaching a female colleague to inform her that her clothing is too sexy or too tight would therefore be initiating a discussion about his own sexual reaction. Most men in the corporate world wouldn’t touch that conversation with a ten-foot pole. How this comment will be perceived by the female colleague is subjective. Most women in the workplace would feel uncomfortable, particularly because it is an unwanted criticism and they have not violated any company policy. Unless they are close friends with the male who approaches them, they may feel threatened by this interaction; they will probably feel sexually objectified and slightly creeped out.
If a woman complains to the HR department that she was approached by a male colleague who made sexual comments about her appearance, the HR team would investigate the complaint to determine if there is a pattern of unwanted behavior and to assess whether the complaint is justified based on what a “reasonable person” would feel in that situation. Based on how most women would perceive being approached in this manner, the guy will probably be deemed to be in the wrong. Because most courts side with complainants, large corporations take complaints of hostile work environment very seriously. The corporation must be able to demonstrate in court (if the situation arises) that they have a strong track record of taking these types of complaints seriously. Even if the complaint is resolved, being the subject of this kind of investigation will raise questions about this person’s ability to work with others; these doubts will limit his career potential.
Another concern happens relative to how men and women are discouraged from interacting. If a man refuses to be alone with a female colleague in a professional work context (e.g. on a business trip or in an office for a one-on-one meeting), that man is the one who is bringing sexuality into the workplace and creating an awkward situation, one not recognized by the majority of professionals as a real threat (where there is no history of sexual misconduct). Male employees are expected to treat female colleagues, subordinates and bosses as business professionals, not as potentially seductive threats. As Tracy M put it in another forum:
“there is a cost to holding a normative line outside the accepted social and professional perimeters one inhabits. That cost might be absorbed entirely by you, or it might be projected into others- particularly, me (as a woman). When men refuse to work with women, whatever their well-thought out reasoning, historically, it reinforces the Old Boys Club, and progressively, it will (thankfully) more and more frequently, harm their own careers.”
I want to clarify that most of the Mormon men I know are perfectly capable of controlling themselves when they see an attractive woman, regardless of how that woman is dressed or whether they are alone with her; this was true even at BYU. Most of them can handle seeing an attractive woman in the workplace without stuttering out some sort of unwanted creepy commentary or fleeing as if from Potiphar’s wife. But those who are already prone to creeperdom are bolstered and given plenty of fodder for self-justification in the Mormon world, to their peril. And by far, the biggest creepers I’ve met in the workplace have been Mormon men. In one case, it even caused our company’s senior leaders to ask whether Mormon culture was creating the sexist and unprofessional behavior that had been observed.
I suggest the following changes:
- Dress standards have changed dramatically over time. I suggest we move to principle-based standards that don’t dictate specifics. Give them correct principles and let them govern themselves! I know, I know, it’s not the Mormon way.
- I would love to see the university do some research on the number of dress code complaints against men vs. women. If the split is not 50/50, that seems pretty clear that something is unequal in the way the dress code is written and/or enforced. That’s including beard and hair length complaints–probably 99% of the complaints against men. I would also like to see a study showing who made the complaint: men reporting women, women reporting men, women reporting women or men reporting men. I suspect a high % are men reporting women, which would be very telling if it is the case.
- Let’s put the honor back in the honor code; students should be “on their honor” to abide by it. When someone else calls you out for it, they are questioning your honor. That’s certainly how I felt. I suggest we settle this the old fashioned way, with duels on the quad. Would the standards committee be willing to act as second for some of these self-righteous weirdos? I think not.
- Tattling and whistle-blowing are perfectly appropriate for cheating, physically harming others or egregious ethics violation like quid pro quo. But dress code? Really? Grow the hell up, people.
- The standards office should track those who report so-called modesty violations to verify that they don’t have a pattern of harassment. They should then educate those who make complaints how to manage their own sexual feelings and their own accountability. Maybe a pamphlet like the ones on Glee. Or perhaps they could volunteer for Milgrams experiments in the psych department. Let’s make lemonade out of these lemons.
We are told to be in the world but not of the world. Are we preparing BYU students for entry into the workplace when we encourage and reward sexual objectification and social awkwardness? Are we preparing our students for adulthood when we reward tattling as a way to solve problems? Are we respecting women when we ratchet up the focus on modesty to the point that women whose intentions are honorable are singled out and treated with suspicion? Is it a mistake to conflate a person’s honor with a dress code?
 An exception to this rule is military colleges which do typically govern behavior on and off campus.
 I didn’t.
 My experience working for a local college in Pennsylvania for 2+ years led me to believe that campus security typically likes to resolve things in-house which often translates into more leniency in order to keep things hushed up.
 We must have been better at avoiding train wrecks back then.
 Insert tent pole joke here.
 The fact that I am a Mormon was cited as evidence to the contrary. Good thing nobody asked my opinion.
 Although I did have a fellow student who was told his visible leg hair (due to not wearing socks) was indecent as “male leg hair is an extension of the pubic hair.”
 Or dueling quads: a really vigorous scripture chase?
 Sing a hymn? Perhaps not The Iron Rod.