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Some BYU students didn’t report sex abuse even after Honor Code ‘amnesty.’ They say church messaging and punitive culture got in the way.

Religious messaging, punitive Honor Code culture can make it difficult for victims to recognize abuse and seek justice, students say.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of students gathered at Brigham Young University in April 2019 to oppose how its Honor Code Office investigates and disciplines students. BYU in 2016 promised amnesty from Honor Code punishment to students who reported being sexually assaulted, but protesters said BYU’s disciplinary processes remained punitive and prosecutorial.

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Sai was a 17-year-old freshman at Brigham Young University when the assault happened.

It was a late-night date, Sai said — something that had become a running joke with roommates, who giggled over Sai’s enthusiasm for dating. Sai, who hadn’t been allowed to go on dates in high school, was known to blow off curfew for a few more minutes of freedom.

So when one of those late nights ended in an assault at another student’s apartment, Sai said, it was hard to imagine others would react with sympathy rather than blame. After all, being at a man’s apartment that late was a violation of the Honor Code, BYU’s strictly enforced rules for student conduct.

It was 2017, a year after BYU announced it would no longer punish victims of sex crimes for Honor Code violations amid intense criticism of how the university was treating assault survivors.

Sai knew about the Honor Code reforms — but didn’t trust them. What if the school, which is overseen by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, thought Sai made up the assault to avoid punishment for breaking rules for visiting hours?

“The general way I feel like the church and the Honor Code treat the chastity rule is that, if you’ve broken one rule, they assume you’ve broken all of them and you’re just lying to them,” said Sai, who is nonbinary and asked to be identified by their first name. The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims in sex crimes.

Five years after its reforms began, BYU surveyed students last spring about the campus climate regarding sexual assaults. That may eventually shed light on the experiences of students who have decided to report assaults to the school since the changes, but the school has not yet released those results. A similar survey, published a year after the changes were announced, showed that the majority of students who experienced unwanted sexual contact still didn’t seek help from the university — and 1 in 5 of those victims said fear of Honor Code discipline discouraged them from reporting.

Recently, multiple current and recent students have told The Tribune that, even after BYU promised amnesty for students who report sexual misconduct, they did not report being assaulted for fear of discipline under the Honor Code. To build trust with students, some said, university administrators still need to do more to make up for the punitive culture around Honor Code enforcement — as well as religious messaging that can make it difficult for victims to recognize abuse and seek justice.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long faced scrutiny specifically for how it addresses sex, chastity, gender, and abuse, and how that affects victims of sex crimes.

But behind all of that, several victims said, are more fundamental teachings about sin itself — messages that can encourage victims to interpret feelings of guilt as a spiritual prompting to repent.

Self-blame already is a near-universal trauma response among abuse survivors, explained Julie Valentine, a dean in BYU’s nursing school and longtime sexual assault nurse examiner.

“This is not just religious culture,” Valentine said. “... This is a full culture shift that we need to strengthen in our education. We tell people, ‘You need to take responsibility for your actions,’ and this is embedded in their minds, so when they become victimized, they immediately go to, ‘What did I do?’”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nursing professor Julie Valentine at Brigham Young University in 2016. It's common for sexual assault survivors to blame themselves, as a response to trauma, she said.

Multiple survivors told The Tribune that response was amplified by church teachings about repentance — an emphasis that came at the expense of healing, or even recognizing that assault had occurred.

[Tell The Tribune: What’s your experience with sexual misconduct at BYU?]

And at BYU, where 98% of students are Latter-day Saints and religious classes are required to graduate, victims may hear more about chastity, worthiness and purity than about consent.

“The climate and culture of BYU is so particular,” noted a BYU law student who said she was sexually assaulted about a year and a half ago. “In conversations about sex generally, there’s so much shame involved; amplify that by 10 when it’s sexual assault. ... With so much fear we put around sex ... [BYU has] a responsibility toward their students to be offering free, on-campus resources that are much more robust.”

“I didn’t trust it.”

For a 2019 graduate, BYU’s policy changes came after she said she was assaulted — but possibly not too late for support or justice.

The woman, like Sai, said she was a new freshman when she was assaulted in 2015, just months before a series of Tribune reports showed the university was investigating, and sometimes expelling, sex assault survivors for breaking the dress code, visiting hours, rules against drinking and drugs, a ban on same-sex dating, and the school’s chastity requirement.

After BYU announced sex assault survivors would have amnesty under the Honor Code, the woman said, she considered reporting her year-old assault. The man might attack someone else, she worried.

She also was suffering panic attacks, and her anxiety was interfering with her schoolwork. College Title IX offices, which are tasked with protecting students from sex discrimination at school, often help students secure deadline extensions, safer housing and other accommodations when they report an assault, so they can continue their schooling.

And BYU’s sweeping policy changes had included the restructuring of its Title IX office, where staffers had been providing details from students’ assault complaints to the Honor Code Office, for investigations against the victims. After 2016, the two offices were separated and restaffed, and the Title IX office is generally required to keep victim information confidential. A separate, survivor advocate’s office also was created.

But those reforms came only after months of exhaustive media coverage and at the suggestion of a committee the school created several weeks after the first reports of victim discipline surfaced publicly. BYU initially denied that students were investigated as a result of reporting assaults and asserted that the Title IX and Honor Code offices operated separately.

As the 2019 graduate considered the risks of reporting her freshman-year assault, she weighed what seemed to her like BYU’s reluctance to relent in its enforcement of the Honor Code. Would the same school honor its promise of amnesty, she wondered, or would its priority be to find some loophole, some excuse to scrutinize her?

“I didn’t trust it,” she said, echoing Sai’s words verbatim, “especially because they dragged their feet on even making that change.”

‘A positive sign of trust’

BYU has worked to gain the confidence of students who have been assaulted, said Carri Jenkins, spokesperson for the university. Its Title IX Office has placed posters discussing amnesty and confidentiality in nearly all campus buildings, she wrote in a statement.

“Any time we hear of a student who may be hesitant to report an incident of sexual assault,” she wrote, “we are concerned.” And, Jenkins said, “we are seeing a significant increase in reports of sexual harassment by victims, which leads us to believe that our efforts are making a difference.”

BYU wouldn’t disclose the number of sexual misconduct reports received since 2016. But it said the volume jumped by 400% in the year after the amnesty provision was created — and has continued to increase since then.

“We view this as a positive sign of trust that students have in our Title IX process,” Jenkins wrote, “and a willingness to report incidents of sexual harassment.”

But that trust was not universal, said a 2020 graduate who asked to be identified as Kay. Kay described being assaulted by a teaching assistant in 2017, after the school had promised amnesty.

Kay also did not report the assault — even though TAs aren’t supposed to date their students. Kay, who is nonbinary, said they acquiesced to physical contact only because they were afraid of losing the TA’s help in a difficult class. The man became frighteningly angry, they said, when Kay refused to perform a sex act and urged him to “watch a video” instead.

Kay said the next time they asked the TA for help in class, he refused and threw Kay’s own words back: “Watch a video.”

Kay ended up withdrawing from the class — exactly the outcome Title IX was created to avoid. Reporting the TA seemed like too much of a risk, Kay said, even with amnesty.

“I just still had this lingering fear: What if this is all just kind of a ruse to get more people turning themselves in for doing things that broke the Honor Code?” said Kay, who also was afraid of Honor Code attention for being nonbinary. “I was feeling ... constantly under surveillance, even when I didn’t have anything [to investigate]. Paranoia was underlying a lot of the ways I interacted with the Honor Code.”

An overshadowing focus on repentance

For Kay, that fear of punishment mingled with a feeling of self-blame, which is a common coping mechanism after trauma. Victims often find solace in believing they can prevent it from recurring in the future, explained Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a Salt Lake County therapist and owner of Wasatch Family Therapy.

But some assault survivors said church teachings further intensified their focus on their own conduct and possible need to repent — a theme that has carried into BYU’s disciplinary practices.

Students punished under the Honor Code have said they were assigned readings that exhort them to confess their sins “without the slightest minimizing of the offense, or rationalizing its seriousness, or soft-pedaling its gravity;” one reported being told that “the Spirit wanted you to get caught.”

Church members are routinely interviewed by clergy about their conduct and beliefs, to ascertain their worthiness to enter the faith’s temples. Fully participating in church activities and ordinances without having repented for sins can be seen as another violation of sacred promises — which can heighten the urgency of identifying and confessing sins, especially sexual sins.

“There’s the three biggest sins in Mormonism: The first is apostasy, and the next two are murder — and right below murder is sexual sin,” Kay said. “Those big sins are the ones where God can’t forgive you without you turning yourself into the bishop first. You’re essentially expected to.”

So that’s what Kay did after being assaulted. “I felt dirty,” Kay said. “I felt really guilty and I felt really gross, and this is a sign I need to go talk to a bishop.”

The bishop didn’t report Kay to the Honor Code Office or withdraw the student’s BYU endorsement (annual clergy endorsements are required for students to enroll at the school). But he did forbid Kay from taking the sacrament — similar to weekly Communion — and withdrew their temple recommend.

“That was just another level of achiness,” Kay said, which came as a bit of a surprise, since they had expected to feel relief. Church leaders often speak of repentance as a healing process, the surest way to ease the turmoil of guilt — and “it really does make some people feel better,” Kay said.

When repentance didn’t soothe Kay’s anguish after the assault, they concluded they just hadn’t been sorry enough for their sin. What if they were “soft-pedaling its gravity?” Each sexual contact, Kay felt, had to be accounted for.

“I felt like, even though every step of the way I didn’t want to, I had to tell myself, ‘I made this choice,’” Kay said. “I didn’t feel ‘repentant.’ Even then, I feel like I knew what I did wasn’t wrong. But that’s not the way I told the bishop. I felt like I didn’t feel bad enough for it. I guess that’s why I had to go to a bishop, just to shame myself, to feel bad enough about it.”

Sai described a similar urge to “put all of the guilt on yourself. … Then it kind of feels like you have a little more agency.”

Sai said they began self-harming after being assaulted.

“I didn’t want to be in my skin anymore,” Sai said. “There definitely was an aspect of punishing myself physically for what happened. … I felt like, ‘OK, if I’m feeling this bad about it, it must be because I did something wrong and the only way to atone for that is to suffer more.”

Christopher Moore, a church spokesperson, reiterated the church’s position that, “though victims may have feelings of shame or guilt, they are not guilty of sin. Leaders ... help them understand the healing that comes through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”

And BYU, Jenkins said, “aligns its policies with The Church of Jesus Christ’s doctrine and teachings on sexual abuse, which clarifies that victims of sexual abuse are not responsible for the actions committed against them and do not need to repent for those actions.”

For Kay, though, the feeling of guilt was precisely what stopped them from identifying as a victim in the first place. And their desperate quest for the promised relief of repentance pulled them even further away from recognizing the TA’s behavior as assault — much less reporting him.

“I wasn’t even going to consider what the person who assaulted me did,” they said. Therapy seemed irrelevant; Kay had been taught that feelings of guilt were the Spirit prompting repentance, not a sign to seek mental health care.

That belief, described by multiple survivors, “can even back up one more step: Negative feelings are from Satan,” Hanks said.

“So if I’m feeling bad, it must be because I’ve done something bad or I am bad. That’s a signal. It’s framed that way,” Hanks said. " ... When you funnel all uncomfortable dark feelings as a result of sin or personal weakness or Satan or whatever, it’s rarely talked about that you may be being abused if you feel that way.”

Both Sai and Kay said they were so consumed with processing their own potential fault that, for a long time, they entirely overlooked the clearest element of assault: They both had told their attackers “no.”

Cultural pressures on consent

The Honor Code requires students to “live a chaste and virtuous life, including abstaining from any sexual relations outside a marriage between a man and a woman.”

But it doesn’t specify which acts exceed the bounds of chastity. And as romantic touching escalates, students said, it can pose nerve-wracking questions in BYU’s dating environment — where “going too far” can be an expellable offense, but where students may also feel pushed to find a romantic partner as soon as possible.

“In Mormonism ... the nuclear family is the basis of the whole system: You’ve got to get into a straight relationship and make a perfect family,” Kay said, “so you can go to the highest part of heaven.”

The pressure was on, Sai said.

“Right now, I think the culture in the church is, ‘You’ve got to date, you can’t say no to a date, you can’t say no to being asked out, you can’t say no, you have to [give them a chance],’” Sai said. “Some wards [congregations] would do this thing where they would randomly assign you to go on dates, or if someone in the ward thought you would be cute with someone else, they could submit you to go on a date. It was an activities committee thing.”

Kay also said they were advised not to refuse romantic invitations, starting in high school.

“You’re in church classes with these 16-year-old girls and being told, ‘It’s really hard for guys to ask girls on dates because they’re afraid of getting rejected, so you should give them at least one chance, go on at least one date with them,” Kay said. “Otherwise, that’ll hurt their feelings.”

Neither church doctrine nor BYU policies “in any way teach that women must … ‘affirm men’s overtures to them and give them a chance on dates,’” Jenkins said in response to a Tribune query.

But members say it’s still a theme in church activities and culture — and that message rang in Kay’s ears, they said, when the TA suggested going to a movie together and he placed his hand palm up on the armrest.

“I took his hand because I was thinking, ‘This is what I was supposed to do, so I had to do it even though I had never considered this person a romantic interest, and he was my TA,” Kay said. “At BYU, if you’re hanging out one-on-one, everything is tinged with, ‘What is the other person’s intention?’ and feeling pressure to reciprocate that.”

That continued as he drove Kay to an overlook to make out, Kay said. And it wasn’t clear to Kay whether anything that happened crossed the Honor Code’s line. It “was all kind of firmly in that gray area,” Kay said. “The Honor Code is pretty vague about some things.”

Kay sensed that the TA would feel rejected if they said no to touching in the gray area — and making men feel rejected was a thing Kay had learned women should not do.

“Up until the night of being assaulted, I never explicitly said ‘no’ to any moves he was making,” Kay said. “I just silently obliged to them all.”

But when he suddenly took things much further, Kay said, they froze.

“His response — he felt bad about it, but he mostly felt bad for himself,” Kay said. “‘Aaaugh, I made you uncomfortable, oh no, that was really s----y of me.’ He was overly beating himself up to the point that I was really apologizing to him.”

But not long after that, Kay said, the TA tried the same thing again.

“I had just expressed, ‘I don’t want to go any further,’ and I was crying,” Kay said. “But I just was constantly being met with ... stuff like, ‘That’s not nice that you’re leading me on,’ and all this stuff about how it was so inconsiderate of me.”

The TA also had tried to move their contact to a place that was “really breaking Mormon temple covenants,” Kay said. “This is no longer just a gray area anymore.”

But when the TA refused to help Kay in class after that refusal, Kay said they tried to make amends.

“I just knew, ‘If I do anything that upsets him, that could be serious trouble for this class — and possibly my safety. ... I’m going to have to just go along with what he wants from now on. I can’t say no anymore,’” Kay said. “I still struggled throughout the whole process.”

Kay kept seeing him for about a week.

“He was spinning things as, he’s the victim, so I had to comfort him because he was just inconsolable unless I completely told him, ‘Everything’s OK, I’m fine,’” Kay said. “I didn’t want to keep seeing him, but I felt really guilty. In Mormon culture, you have to be a ‘nice’ person, but what that really means is that I felt bad there was someone harboring ill will against me.

“... I didn’t realize at the time that I had been assaulted. Even after ending things with him, I tried apologizing to him.”

By the end, Kay couldn’t tell where the guilt was coming from: the sex acts, the TA’s wounded reaction to the breakup or the trauma response.

What can be done?

A page on the church’s website poses the question, “What if I think the abuse is my fault?”

“You are not responsible for what happened,” it answers. But the same paragraph links to a General Conference address with a more complicated response:

“The Lord may prompt a victim to recognize a degree of responsibility for abuse,” states the late apostle Richard G. Scott. “Your priesthood leader will help assess your responsibility so that, if needed, it can be addressed. Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout into bitter fruit.”

That language, Hanks said, reinforces the likelihood that victims will mistake their abuse response for a spiritual prompting to repent.

And parsing through each moment leading up to a sexual assault, to apportion “responsibility,” is likely both unrealistic and deeply harmful for someone who is in the aftermath of trauma, she said. “If you’re an abuse victim, that can be such a trigger for a downward spiral into shame,” Hanks said.

It also can divert survivors from a crucial part of healing and justice, she said: “Actually putting the guilt on the person it belongs to.”

If sexual assault survivors volunteer that they feel guilt, Hanks said, “a trained professional needs to be involved in the healing process.”

But at BYU, students said, trained professionals to help sexual assault victims are not always easy to come by.

The campus counseling office, known as CAPS, seldom has appointments available immediately, students said — a problem at many universities, said Valentine, the nursing school dean. She served on the committee that recommended BYU’s 2016 reforms.

“I was wait-listed for four to five weeks,” said the law student, who said she sought counseling after being assaulted in 2020. “And they cap you at seven sessions per semester,” which amounts to one or two visits per month.

Jenkins noted that CAPS “always has crisis counselors available same-day for urgent needs” but at times helps students seek counseling off campus “if they are in need of care beyond what is provided at CAPS.”

The survivor advocacy office, created as part of BYU’s 2016 reforms, also connects victims to off-campus therapists and to one student therapy group, the law student said, “but it fills up fast.”

There should be no shortage of care, she said. “Not, ‘Oops, you didn’t make it on the list in time.’”

The law student said she wanted to start her own campus victims’ group — not an assault awareness and education group, which already exists, but a community group for survivors themselves, to compare notes on getting support, learn about one another’s experiences, and simply to socialize and know they’re not alone.

The law student said she approached the survivor advocates’ office in search of a staff adviser for the group. But employees in that office were “very discouraging about my idea,” she said.

“It was too much of a liability if someone were to get triggered or have a negative response,” the law student said. “They said they couldn’t take on the liability for a club like I was suggesting.”

The law student found the reaction baffling.

“So I can’t trust the school to care enough about me to invest in appropriate resources because they are afraid they’ll be liable? BYU owes it to their students to take care of them,” she said. Especially, she added, because so many victims face additional struggles under cultural and religious norms that BYU itself has promoted on campus.

At the very least, Hanks believes, BYU and the church need to explicitly acknowledge that sexual assault may pose a significant contradiction to things students have learned about feelings of guilt and spiritual promptings to repent. Simply repeating “victims aren’t at fault for abuse” is not enough, Hanks said, to head off the risk that victims will confuse a common trauma response with a call to repentance.

Especially, Valentine added, because so many people who are assaulted — of any faith tradition — do not immediately identify themselves as victims in the first place.

More education on consent could help BYU students recognize assault and might even prevent some sexual violence, Kay said. Sai agreed but said consent education should occur in church itself — and that it should receive at least as much emphasis as the importance of pairing up does.

“I strongly feel the best venue for that would be in the [male] priesthood and [female] Relief Society lessons,” Sai said, “to teach about consent and about healthy relationships, with physical touch in your relationships.”

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