A Tuesday devotional at Brigham Young University in Provo stressed the importance of students getting affirmative consent before physical and sexual contact, while also highlighting the availability of campus support services for victims of assault.
In a televised speech praised by some for its directness on a sensitive topic, Benjamin Ogles, dean of BYU’s College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, encouraged students to request permission before kissing, touching or sexual activities.
Any perceived awkwardness in asking permission of a date or spouse, Ogles said, pales in comparison to the pain a person experiences when physical comfort is violated.
“I wish that all people knew how to ask first,” he said. “Instead of guessing or assuming, we can rely on direct information.”
Ogles said students are “bombarded with unrealistic scenarios” in film and television, which depict heroic men forcefully kissing women who melt in the heat of the moment.
“Please learn to discern between fantasy and reality,” he said. “These are fake relationships that sometimes romanticize assault.”
Mormons are taught to abstain from sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. Ogles said that sexuality is a healthy, positive experience when expressed in the appropriate circumstances but added that people’s value is not diminished when they are manipulated, coerced or forced into sexual situations.
“You are not damaged or worth less because of the incident,” Ogles said. “You are children of God and he stands ready to assist you.”
Ogles’ devotional also included statistics from a recent campus climate survey conducted by BYU, which is owned and operated by the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The survey found that most students lacked information regarding campus sex assault policies, reporting entities and support services. And among students who had experienced unwanted sexual contact during the 12 months before taking the survey, most made no formal report, while 26 percent disclosed the incident to a Mormon bishop or other ecclesiastical leader.
Only 22 percent of students responded that they had received education on what the definition of “consent” is.
BYU came under fire in recent years after several students reported that they had faced academic consequences as a result of reporting sexual assaults. In some cases, the students’ cases were shared with the school’s Honor Code Office, which oversees compliance with BYU’s rules of conduct that, among other regulations, forbid alcohol, coffee and premarital sex; impose a dress code and curfew; and ban expressions of romantic affection between people of the same gender.
The school formed an advisory council, which included Ogles, to review the school’s policies and recommend revisions. Among the task force’s recommendations was that sexual assault investigations be kept separate from the Honor Code Office and that an amnesty policy be adopted to shield victims from punishment if their assault was preceded by violations of campus rules.
Ogles, who served as chairman of BYU’s survey committee, said his experience studying sexual assault had changed his own ideas and behavior regarding personal space and the agency of others.
“Here at BYU, even though we have high standards for our conduct, there are individuals who perpetrate and experience unwanted sexual contact,” he said. “This was discouraging.”
Ogles also emphasized that victims of assault should not feel that their actions contributed to, or caused, the actions of their attacker. And friends and family of victims, he said, should attribute blame for an assault solely to the perpetrator.
He compared that type of victim-blaming to his own experience having his possessions stolen from an unlocked car while living in Ohio. He said he initially felt responsible — for not locking the doors, for parking on the road, and so on — but came to understand that his actions did not give someone the right to commit a crime.
“Let me be very clear about the responsibility for sexual assault — the perpetrator is responsible for their actions,” Ogles said. “A victim was deprived of their agency and they are not accountable for what happened to them without their consent, no matter what they were wearing, where they were or what happened beforehand. They did not invite, allow, sanction or encourage the assault.”
Reaction on social media to Ogles’ speech was generally positive, with many praising for the forthright discussion of a sensitive and necessary topic.
But some commenters took issue with Ogles’ analogy to car theft, suggesting the comparison was reductive to the issue of sexual assault.