BYU students who reported sex assaults say they faced presumption of guilt

“They didn’t differentiate between consensual sex or coercion,” a reprimanded student says.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Brooke, who asked to be identified by her first name only, said her sexual assault ended when she ran into the streets of Provo, naked, fleeing her attacker. Since the incident, she said, she has grieved alternate realities in which she could have ended the attack. “I could have done something to stop that, or I should have said ‘no’ louder, or I shouldn’t have been there,” Brooke said. “When bad things happen, guilt comes along.” Self-blame is "almost universal" among victims of sexual assault and the product of a natural "defense mechanism" after trauma, said Donna Kelly, a prosecutor and instructor on sex crimes for the Utah Prosecution Council.

E.M. recalls being shaken by her freshman-year boyfriend's patchy affection for her — his sudden swings from adoration to contempt.

There was the "play" wrestling, which escalated repeatedly to painful hits and kicks if he wasn't happy, she said. There was the pushy, increasing sexual contact — and, she said, the persistent fear that she'd get hurt if she didn't perform.

After they finally broke up, E.M. said, her ex-boyfriend raped her.

Feeling violated and unable to process what had happened, E.M. said she turned to the Mormon bishop at her student ward, or congregation, at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.

"That's what I thought would be helpful," E.M. said. "It was not."

Ultimately, E.M. was suspended from classes for "moral misconduct," according to a 2015 disciplinary letter from the school's Honor Code Office.

The Salt Lake Tribune has interviewed at least a dozen current and former students who say they were investigated or disciplined for Honor Code violations in connection with sexual abuses against them.

Students said school officials thoroughly probed their conduct — from curfew violations to what they were wearing — even after they said they had not consented to sex.

Andy, at 17, could not legally consent to sex with his older abuser. Britt said she told her date no and pushed his hands away when he groped her. Hailey Allen said her ex-boyfriend broke into her apartment to attack her, and in another instance choked her until she nearly blacked out.

All three said they were punished for not being chaste. They and other students said school officials appeared to view physical or emotional abuse endured by a student simply as factors to weigh, rather than as evidence that they did not consent.

"There seems to be at BYU a sense that if a [victim] claims to have been raped, she has an affirmative burden to prove she did not consent to sexual activity," said Michael Austin, a BYU graduate who has studied campus rape responses at religious colleges and oversees investigations as provost at Newman University, a Catholic college in Wichita, Kan.

"Having been at BYU, I do know that there's a persistent fear that somebody is going to have sex and get away with it, and there is a persistent suspicion that women are going to lie about being raped. Those are both very damaging assumptions to make in the modern world. ... It's a 1950s understanding of rape, especially rape on college campuses."

Many students also said their own feelings of guilt, or confusion, about what had happened to them left them unable to advocate for themselves while under the threat of discipline.

Self-blame is "almost universal" among victims of sexual assault and the product of a natural "defense mechanism" after trauma, said Donna Kelly, a prosecutor and instructor on sex crimes for the Utah Prosecution Council.

"You want to figure out what you did wrong so you can be safe in the future," Kelly said.

If an authority figure misreads that self-blame as evidence of the victim's wrongdoing, she said, the effects on the victim can be devastating.

"It affects your whole life," Kelly said. " ... If you're dealing ... with someone who is reporting a traumatic event, and you don't understand trauma, you're not going to deal with it effectively. You're not going to interpret it correctly."

‘I didn’t do enough’

BYU students agree to "live a chaste and virtuous life," according to the university's code of conduct, which also imposes a strict dress code; forbids alcohol, coffee and illegal drugs; and regulates visits between male and female students at the Provo school, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In recent weeks, the Provo school has faced criticism from victims' advocates and law enforcement who say punishing victims of sexual assault for Honor Code violations discourages them from reporting and protects sexual predators. More than 114,000 people have signed a petition asking BYU to offer amnesty from school discipline to students who report sex crimes.

Of more than 50 people who have told The Tribune they were sexually assaulted while attending BYU, a majority said they did not report the assaults — most of them citing fears that they would be held guilty of chastity violations, either for the assault or for prior sexual contact.

BYU has said it is "committed to thoroughly addressing concerns related to sexual assault" and is studying possible changes to its handling of reports. It announced a new website Thursday, inviting suggestions.

BYU has not responded to questions submitted Wednesday morning by The Tribune.

While The Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual assault, sources in this story agreed to the use of their initials, first names or full names.

Britt, a former BYU student who asked to be identified by her first name, said she was punished for being unchaste even though she never consented to sexual contact.

Describing the Honor Code Office's approach, she said, "I should have tried harder, I should have done more than I did. I still 'sinned' because I didn't do enough to get out of there."

Britt said she was on a first date with a fellow BYU student when he urged her to enjoy the view from his upstairs bedroom window in an apartment on Provo's mountain bench. Suddenly, she said, the man grabbed her from behind, pulled her onto his bed, and groped her as she told him no and tried to push his hands away.

"I told him I wanted to go home, but he told me he couldn't take me home because we had to go have dinner with his friend or something," Britt said. "So I awkwardly had to stay with him. I didn't have a car, and he wouldn't take me home."

The man refused to take Britt home until the next morning, she said.

Britt recalled having little understanding at that time of the legal significance that she did not consent; she said she turned to her LDS bishop instead of police.

"He told me I wasn't worthy to take the sacrament anymore because of what happened," Britt said.

Instructions for local LDS lay leaders, known as Handbook 1, state that rape victims "often suffer serious trauma and feelings of guilt" and "are not guilty of sin. It says church leaders "should be sensitive to such victims and give caring attention to help them overcome the destructive effects of abuse."

Just months before Britt's graduation, she discovered a hold on her enrollment when she tried to register for her final semester of classes.

Apparently, she said, her bishop had reported her to the Honor Code Office. She appealed the hold to the office, where a counselor — BYU's title for those who investigate potential violations — reviewed the circumstances of the assault, Britt said.

"She asked me what I was wearing that night, which, I was wearing a deep V-neck," Britt recalled. "Apparently that was my fault."

Britt said she made it clear that the sexual contact was not consensual.

"I told them that I didn't want it, that it wasn't my fault, that he wouldn't take me home," she recalled. The school concluded, she added, that "I violated the law of chastity, I violated the rule [that] you can't be in someone's bedroom alone, and you can't be at someone's house past midnight."

Britt ultimately was put on academic probation and given a reading list of statements by Mormon leaders. She said she doesn't know whether the male student was punished.

"I had to write an essay saying what I did was bad and that I was sorry, and how to not get in that situation again," Britt said.

‘I was scared to say no’

Brooke, who asked to be identified by her first name, also said the Honor Code Office punished her under chastity rules, although she had not consented to sex.

She has described being suspended from BYU for two years in 2014 after she reported being raped by a fellow student who had pressured her to use acid, also known as LSD. That rape was overtly forceful, she told BYU, and it ended when she fled naked into the streets of Provo.

A few days earlier, she said, the same man had demanded sexual favors.

"I was scared to say no and he was telling me I can't leave unless I do it. I felt trapped, and so it happened," Brooke said. "I felt dirty and gross and like I was being used and I didn't have a say in it. I had a sick feeling about it. That's not how you're supposed to feel after consensual sex."

When a school investigator described that first encounter as "consensual," Brooke said she objected and described his threats and pressure.

She provided to The Tribune images from a report in which a BYU investigator wrote: "Brooke did not want to engage in the sexual activity but did not know what to do and did not know how to resist."

Nonetheless, BYU's disciplinary letter cites "continued illegal drug use and consensual sex" as the reasons for her removal.

"They still just chose to ignore what I told [them]," Brooke said. "They didn't differentiate between consensual sex or coercion."

Brooke has not returned to BYU. She recalled taking frantic inventory of "what ifs."

"I could have done something to stop that, or I should have said 'no' louder, or I shouldn't have been there," Brooke said. "When bad things happen, guilt comes along."

Andy, another student who asked to be identified by his first name, said he was put on "withheld suspension" after his bishop ordered him to confess to Honor Code investigators that he'd had sex with a man he'd met online.

Andy said he did not consent, but the man used physical force and ignored his protests. Andy said while he had been unwilling to have sex, he didn't use the word "rape" with his Mormon bishop or with the Honor Code counselor.

"There's the stigma of, 'Guys don't get raped,' " he said.

But he said he did disclose a factor that he believes should have signaled abuse. Andy was 17, and his assailant was 25: a criminal age difference under Utah law.

While BYU did not remove him from classes, his discipline meant he lost his campus job and his housing. Andy eventually completed the terms of his suspension and remains a student at BYU.

"I have numerous gay friends, many of whom have been sexually assaulted, who live in fear that the Honor Code Office is going to find out and they're going to get kicked out of the university," Andy said. "Seeing the fear in their eyes, what every victim of rape feels. ... That's not how I want to live my life."

‘What do I do now?’

E.M. said her LDS bishop and the Honor Code Office discounted her boyfriend's abuse. Her bishop's first reaction after she told him she'd been assaulted, she said, was to demand repentance.

"He sat there and thought about it for a while and said, 'I don't think I'll be able to help you. If you don't talk to [the Honor Code Office], then I'm going to report you," E.M. recalled.

She said she told the Honor Code Office she'd had sex with her boyfriend but hadn't wanted to, and in their final encounter was raped despite her protests.

She was suspended for three months. In her disciplinary letter, the Honor Code Office issued reading assignments with titles such as "The Miracle of Repentance" and "We Believe in Being Chaste." She has not returned to BYU.

No one at the school advised her to report to police or to the school's Title IX office, she said.

"Everyone just took it as me wanting it," E.M. said. "They didn't see it as a criminal thing. ... They made it seem like I was responsible for his actions and I shouldn't have been there to tempt him to want to do that sort of thing."

Victim blaming is a predictable pattern in cultural responses to sexual assault, said Julie Valentine, a BYU nursing professor and sexual-assault researcher.

"People think, 'What was she doing, that this awful thing happens to her? If I can blame her, I'll be safe. If I can pick out what she did wrong, then I'll be safe,' " Valentine said.

A dearth of education about consent may stop victims at BYU from pushing back against that blame.

E.M. said that she had never heard the terms "date rape" or "acquaintance rape" when she began college in 2014. Even after describing the assault by her boyfriend with phrases such as, "He just held me down," and "I told him 'no,' " she says of date rape: "I'm still not really sure what that means."

Nearly all of the victims who spoke with The Tribune recalled clearly communicating their refusals to their assailants — but many of them also said they did not know then that the forced sexual contact amounted to assault. Multiple students invoked an image of "a stranger in the bushes" to describe rape as they envisioned it before they were assaulted.

Students often arrive on campus without a clear understanding of date or acquaintance rape. According to a 2000 National Institute of Justice study of crimes against college students, women were unlikely to label an assault as rape if no weapon was used and were reluctant to consider someone they knew as a rapist.

Student Madeline MacDonald said that she was guided only by a feeling that "what just happened was not OK" after a blind date groped her while pinning her inside the cab of his pickup truck in 2014 in Orem.

"I was texting my roommates ... Googling definitions of sexual assault and crimes," MacDonald recalled. "We were like, 'Crap, that was sexual assault! What do I do now?' "

Lacking that vocabulary puts victims at a disadvantage when they have to advocate for themselves, said former student Hailey Allen.

Allen said she was punished by BYU in 2004 after her ex-boyfriend raped her multiple times — in one case choking her and in another breaking into her home.

Allen said she did not use the word "rape," and an Honor Code counselor threatened Allen with expulsion before Allen could disclose all of the details, she said. Her bishop argued on her behalf for academic probation only.

Allen was required to take a self-defense course and read a devotional that warned: "Sexual transgression is second only to murder in the Lord's list of life's most serious sins."

Later, Allen said, she read a novel about a marital rape.

"It was the first time I realized that someone you knew could rape you," Allen said. "I called my bishop and I said, 'Why didn't you tell me?' He said, 'Well, I didn't think I could give you that word. You had to come up with that word yourself.' "

Brooke said that's not realistic in a school environment where rape is framed by purity ideals that emphasize a victim's burden to prove innocence and resistance instead of a nuanced understanding of consent.

"It's hard for [victims] to explain," Brooke said. "Rape is a strong word, and people don't like to talk about it. If the people in the Honor Code Office experienced what we experienced, they'd understand. But they don't. They just have 'sex' and 'rape' and nothing between that. They don't make room for what happened to us."

Editor’s Note: The LDS Church was invited to comment shortly after this story was posted online Thursday. A spokesman expressed frustration that the church had not been invited to comment earlierand declined to comment for that reason. BYU, asked to comment Wednesday, has not responded to submitted questions.