Exhibit A: Why So Few Women Report Sexual Assault

The recent announcement that BYU will study Title IX reporting structures is extremely encouraging. If conducted correctly, such a study should give administrators the opportunity to listen to the stories of women who have been silenced by the threat of honor code investigations or forced to defend their own actions at a time when the school should have been helping them heal. All of this will move the Church’s flagship university towards full compliance with the post-2011 directives for enforcing Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments.

Just a bit of background: on April 4, 2011, all Colleges and Universities in the United States received what is now known as the “Dear Colleague Letter” from Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The letter announced major changes in Title IX enforcement procedures that made schools more responsible for investigating and punishing sexual assault on their campuses. The OCR stepped in to this issue for clear and compelling reasons:  sexual assault has become an epidemic in higher education, and most assaults are going unreported. The new Title IX directives require that colleges and universities clean up the viper’s nests that they have allowed their campuses to become.

The linchpin of the entire effort is the creation of safe reporting structures. There have historically been far too many barriers—some structural and some attitudinal—to reporting sexual assault. If victims do not feel safe reporting sexual assault, rape will continue to be a dramatically underreported crime. Women will continue to blame themselves and suffer profoundly when resources are available to help them. And sexual predators will continue their predatory behavior undeterred.

In their instructions to university administrators, the OCR specifically instructs schools to remove as many barriers to reporting as possible, especially those that involve possible punishments for infractions that come to light as a result of a Title IX investigation:

Schools should be aware that victims or third parties may be deterred from reporting incidents if alcohol, drugs, or other violations of school or campus rules were involved. As a result, schools should consider whether their disciplinary policies have a chilling effect on victims’ or other students’ reporting of sexual violence offenses. (p. 15)

A recent BCC post  by Steve Evans on the topic received more than 500 comments over a period of four days.  Reading through those comments is an education about the state of our culture and our community, and I do not mean this in a good way. The comments showcase precisely the attitudes that make reporting rape so difficult at BYU. They precisely define the attitudinal barriers to reporting that the new Title IX procedures were designed to combat. They show why the study that BYU has recently said it would undertake is so drastically important.

I present the following anthology of comments from the blog as Exhibit A in a necessary and continuing discussion of why sexual assault on college campuses—including BYU—is chronically underreported. Comments are linked back to the original text except for those marked (sp), which have been released from the Spirit Prison of moderation to make an appearance here.

A distressing number of comments simply denied that women are being raped and accused victims of making false claims to get out of trouble:

  • Also, whether people admit it or not, there are girls who call rape to avoid getting in trouble for sexual misconduct. “Oh, I didn’t willingly have sex with him!” (link)
  • Violent rapists should be castrated (Unfortunately the definitions of rape allow for either a man or woman who later regrets a consensual sexual encounter to claim rape if any alcohol or drugs were involved… I saw this ALOT in the military. Because of this not all accused rapists are guilty of anything more serious than fornication with a lousy partner). (link)
  • If an accusation of rape acts as an automatic get out of jail free card for any young woman, I wouldn’t dream of letting my son attend BYU. Right now there are relatively few false accusations, how can this type of policy not be expected to increase false accusations? (link)
  • Since when did regret become rape? (sp)
  • In so many cases we should not privilege the accused simply because of their suffering. Rape is something also falsely accused for a variety of reasons, and no amount of pointing to biased “studies” claiming to show false accusations are extremely rare are credible. (link)
  • She knows if she confesses, she gets expelled. She feels guilty and convinced herself I initiated it (yes people in relationships do messed up things, especially when they go bad), so she makes an accusation of rape. If the seeming conclusion here is that she shouldn’t be subject to the honor code, you’ve actually created an incentive structure of -more- false accusations. (link)
  • On another note, as to the idea of women being completely inculpable for a rape. I find the absolutism a bit over the top. (link)

A fair number of comments stress that stringent obedience to the honor code will normally be enough to prevent a sexual assault (thereby reinforcing the notion that a woman must have done something wrong or she wouldn’t have been raped):

  • The Code is designed in such a way that if a person follows it they will almost never find themselves in a situation where sexual abuse/aggression can happen. (link)
  • Each time a student disregards the Code they increase their probability for a negative outcome (whatever it may be). (link)
  • My goddaughter was date raped, which was awful. Was it her fault the guy did this- no! But she was in a dangerous situation, which she put herself in after multiple warnings from me, her parents, and even guy friends who warned her that sneaking out of the house at night to go off with guys that no one knew she was with could easily result in rape. So, from that stand point, disobedience can lead to dire circumstances. (link)
  • I don’t think the school is shaming them for getting raped, but don’t freaking get into situations that could lead to rape if at all possible! (link)
  • The honor code is designed to keep students out of such dangerous situations FOR THEIR OWN GOOD. Follow it. Appreciate it. Realize that it is there for your protection. If you violate it, be humble. Repent. Learn from your mistakes. (link)
  • Wrongs done to you do not make the wrongs you do go away. If you are robbed while selling drugs, you may be at risk of punishment. If you are underage and drinking, and end up raped, you may be at risk of punishment. The greater wrong was done to you, yes, but you aren’t in the right. (sp)
  • It is true though. That’s why we have rules, regulations, laws, codes, etc, because they decrease the probability of a negative outcome. If you quit being so emotional and look at it from a mathematical perspective you will see that. [This comment was made to a Professor of probability theory at Stanford University] (link)
  • No one is suggesting that the rape not be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. However, the fact that a rape occurred does not justify or eliminate the other crimes (honor code violations) that were committed in conjunction with or preceeding the rape. (link)

Another set of comments came right out and blamed women for breaking rules, with the clear implication that getting raped is the punishment they deserve because they are, you know, sinners:

  • It sounds like all of the above mentioned scenarios are against the honor code already and if one continues to place oneself in those situations, then all’s fair. (link)
  • Does anybody think God will not punish a WoW sin if the violator was raped because of it? Or will He punish both the rapist and the WoW sin? (link)
  • If I willingly put myself in an adverse situation contrary to Honor Code, examples of which were given in the article, and am subsequently raped, I’m still at fault for breaking my promise to keep the Code. (link)
  • While I agree you shouldn’t blame a victim for the actions of the perpetrator, you SHOULD count it against a victim if they put themselves into a dangerous situation. (link)
  • In the specific scenarios mentioned in the article, rape or abuse is partially the consequence of breaking the rule in the first place. Remove mention of the natural consequences and any BYU student should think the academic penalty is perfectly fitting, according to the well-established honor code: (link)
  • I believe in due process, and the lack of due process is a problem at universities all over the country. But I also made a consistent, though imperfect, effort at obeying the honor code. If I chose to disobey it, and then experienced some bad outcome as a result, I would expect to see a consequence from that. (link)
  • If their behavior prior to the sexual assault was not in keeping with the honor code, I’m not sure that the horrific nature of the sexual assault means there should be no consequences for those actions. (link)
  • I don’t know how we got to this view of things in our culture- selective justice, moral subjectivity, etc. but we’re definitely there and it’s how a lot of people think. Actions have consequences. It’s pretty simple- if you don’t want issues with the honor code, then obey it. (link)
  • The Honor Code is the “law” of BYU. So, forgive me if I am missing something but here’s what I see as I read through the write up of that meeting- BYU is asking rape victims to give a full accounting of what happened so that all details are known and all are held accountable. (link)
  • BYU and the Code does not punish people because they were assaulted or victimized or whatever. It punishes them for violating the contract. . . . If I don’t keep up my end of the agreement I’m penalized, if I keep up my end of the agreement I’m not penalized. (sp)
  • If someone does something bad (or even illegal) to you while you are doing something bad (or even illegal), you are still doing something bad (or even illegal). In any real-world examples that come to mind, the other person would not have done that thing to you had you NOT been breaking that law to interact with them in a certain way. (link)
  • I do not wish for the Honor Code to be a deterrent to anyone who wishes to report sexual abuse. However, the same people who wish to break rules, laws, or codes – without wanting to be punished for doing so – are the many who are abusing others sexually throughout college campuses nationwide. (sp)
  • You aren’t responsible for the rape, but you are 100% responsible for knowingly putting yourself in a dangerous situation where any reasonable person would expect you to be raped. (link)

And then there are these comments, which would be funny if they weren’t so incredibly sad

  • When did the purpose of the Honor Code become “preventing rape”?? (link)
  • “You guys hopefully recognize, that “the world” represented by the MoLibs here, has been working hard at hypersexualizing our nation via p0rn, and getting criminals off by placing the grievance on someone else (you can’t send him to jail, he was abused as a child, daddy was never home, never showed loved, etc.) There are always extenuating circumstances to the bleeding heart liberal, but surprisingly, there’s always some favored “in group” that gets the mercy while another group doesn’t, instead of following the constitutional principle of “all (wo)men equally before the law” they invent special classes. (sp)
  • Just wondering, is there any other suffering out there that makes the rule of law of none effect…Jaywalking, DWI, embezzlement, vigilante homicide? Just trying to see how far this “mercy” extends… This is a fundamental difference between Liberals and Conservatives, the rule of law, or the rule of mobocratic emotionalism? (link)
  • Murder, a family member is murdered, just what am I allowed to get away with because of that? (sp)
  • You sadly don’t need Google to prove there are a lot of weird role players these days… Of course, what if you can’t prove someone is a role playing masochist? And even if those cases are presumably rare, we still have to consider it if the accused claims it was desired. (link)
  • Let’s say I walk through the rough part of town with hundred dollar bills hanging out of my pockets and I get mugged. Do I bear any responsibility for this at all? Was I completely reasonable in what I was doing? Seems like I have to take just a little responsibility for my own poor judgement (not for the crime, but for being in the wrong place at the wrong time). (link)

Let me be very clear here that I am not interested in rebutting these comments. If you don’t see what is wrong with them, then you and I do not sufficiently agree about enough core values to have a productive discussion. What I do want to suggest, though, is that the beliefs and assumptions implicit (and sometimes explicit) in these comments are exactly the reason that so few women are willing to report acts of sexual abuse.

Our culture has long taught that rape is something that occurs when a large man in a trench coat approaches a woman late at night and forces her at knife point to engage in sexual acts. But that’s not what rape on college campuses looks like. When women are raped by men that they know, or trust, or have relationships with, years of bad cultural assumptions will already be causing them to blame themselves. The whole point of the recent changes in Title IX enforcement is to help victims overcome these feelings and report a horrible crime.

But this is not primarily about obeying the law. Every institution must comply with the barest minimum of the law or it will not be allowed to continue operating. BYU is and needs to be better than that, and our community needs to be better than the picture drawn by these comments. We now have the opportunity to build a community that, in meaningful and important ways, comforts those who stand in need of comfort. That is what it means to be the Kingdom of God.