A few weeks ago, I participated in a town hall about rapes on college campuses. Madi Barney, Erin Alberty and Jodi Peterson were fantastic participants; I was glad to be there and listen to Madi’s experience, Jodi’s excellent advice and Erin’s solid reporting. BYU’s Julie Valentine provided a prerecorded message and it, too, was very powerful. I didn’t have much to say for my part, other than I think BYU should apologize and that an honor code that shields rapists is a false sort of purity. It’s been a couple of weeks, and I don’t know what impact that town hall actually has had — or what’s next. It was clear that this was only the very beginning of a longer and more difficult process. Here are a few things that might be worth talking about some more.
First, the experience of men and rape was largely ignored (but mentioned in passing). Rape of men can occur in various circumstances, but the Honor Code system at BYU produces a particularly harsh result for gay students. Enormous guilt and secrecy can accompany any gay sexual activity at BYU; a gay student is easy prey and the possibility of being shamed into silence is very real. The result is an environment where gay predators can thrive, and where we have no good statistics or means of providing pastoral care to people who have been brutalized.
Second, additional layers of intersectionality must be considered. Yes, even in Utah there are cultural and racial layers that are intertwined and inform how rape is committed, how rapists are shielded, and how rape victims are penalized. These need to be teased out with precision and with care. We know that BYU students are viewed differently by their skin color; we know that the Honor Code protects unequally. Any long-term effort to address rape culture here cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach or ignore how it is a crime that is committed and suffered on a multifactorial level. This was also called out briefly during the Q&A the other day but much more remains to be said.
Third, it is clear that platitudes and discussions about more discussions are not good enough. Concrete solutions are necessary: some sort of amnesty for rape victims is a no-brainer and should be implemented immediately. But more is needed, because amnesty is a post-facto measure that facilitates justice — it is not a preventative measure nor is it anything that will alter rape culture. To address the origins of rape, we must turn the mirror on ourselves. Why do rapists believe that they can abuse others as they do? Is rape an unavoidable element of Mormonism, if women can neither be ecclesiastical leaders nor fully determinative of their own roles? Can BYU pretend to set a level cultural playing field for men and women, when the professional landscape is nowhere near that? Equality is not a feeling, folks. This last point risks to be a particularly nasty conversation with more heat than light, and those involved must find a way to navigate this thicket with some inspiration and some compassion.
Not sure if there will be more public town halls about this issue. But as I listened to the speakers, it struck me that we are a long, long way from solutions. We don’t understand each other. We don’t know each other. And we lack the depth of feeling and the Christlike compassion we need in order to address this problem. But what is this Church, what is BYU, if not a Zion experiment, precisely the place where such feelings should be possible?
UPDATE: I thought of a 4th issue that might be worth discussing: the prevalence of pornography and its impact on rape culture and Mormon culture. I think it is a really complex dynamic and Mormons find themselves caught between two poles of unhealthy sexuality. What’s the impact there?