Brigham Young University (BYU) might not exactly be a liberal stronghold in higher education, but a recent speech from the Dean of Students at the college’s Rape Awareness conference has some up in arms over what they say is a culture that penalizes victims of sexual assault.
Associate Dean of Students and Title IX director Sarah Westerberg gave a speech at the conference, where she stood by the BYU honor code policy when it comes to rape. If a student chooses to report their sexual assault to the proper campus authorities, they will also be subject to an investigation where they must give the full details of their assault. This process also assures that they were not violating any such policies when they were raped.
Mormon opinion site By Common Consent published an article critical of Westerberg’s statements at the BYU event.
“If this recounting is accurate, when victims of sexual violence at BYU report their attack, they potentially put their academic future at risk. If you’ve been raped while in your boyfriend’s bedroom, you’re in trouble. If you were drinking at a party and were raped, you’re in trouble. If you were fondling a partner who then raped you, you’re in trouble… A woman who has been sexually assaulted may find herself penalized, suspended, even expelled for the circumstances of her attack.”
Well over 100 replies were posted to the article within a day of publication. The vast majority were outraged about the comments made at the so-called Rape Awareness event. One commenter said that it was a clear message that rape culture was alive and well on campus.
“I was there and was so shocked by the callous way Sarah Westerberg handled the situation in a room full of rape survivors. She made it clear that BYU’s first priority is protecting BYU’s reputation and punishing victims of assault for any honor code violations that put the victim in a situation where they could be raped. She said BYU ‘does not apologize’ for the ‘chilling effect’ that this enforcement has on the reporting of sexual assault and rape. It is clear that BYU culture fosters rape culture, punishes rape victims, and protects rapists. I do not feel safe here.”
Few commenters seemed to be hostile toward BYU itself. Many were actually former alumni shocked by the way that a university representative would discuss such a difficult issue.
“Isn’t it interesting that in 2016 we still have institutions that are doing everything they can to protect the institution, even up to expelling and punishing the victims of sexual assault. That the ‘honor code’ and BYU are more important than the health and well being of a victim of rape, assault, or whatever else personal violation they suffered, physical or sexual… Any institution that is out to cover up abuse and out to punish the victims of rape is not doing the work of the Lord nor is it a safe place for our sons and daughters.”
A lengthy article from Pacific Standard about sexual assault within the Mormon community spoke to women who had been through a similar situation. Many of them reported feeling scared to report their crimes because they were afraid that they had done something wrong. Ryan T. Cragun, Mormonism expert and associate professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, said that this was part of a larger issue within the LDS church.
“Both men and women are told by Mormon leaders in no uncertain terms that sexual assault is wrong. Yet, the subtle assumptions that underlie messages about gender norms and sexuality contribute to an environment wherein men can draw upon subtle assumptions if they are sexually aggressive with women, namely, that their behavior is the result of the temptations of women and they couldn’t control themselves.”
By Common Consent ended by remarking that they still supported BYU, but did think that it was necessary for the higher learning institution to clarify its position on the subject.
“I would welcome further explanation from BYU administration. I hope that I am wrong. I attended BYU, love BYU and support its aims. But to say that this approach is not the right one is an understatement. It would be a sinful, repugnant way to approach victims of sexual abuse. I call upon BYU to provide some explanation and to shield victims in their reporting and healing.”
BYU’s rape culture may also be symptomatic of a statewide problem when it comes to addressing sexual assault. A recent study, carried out by Julie Valentine, a professor of nursing at Brigham Young University, found that only 22 percent of Utah rape kits has been tested. She also remarked that the state’s rape rates were higher than the national average, reported Fox 13.
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