Michelle Quist: In surprise move, BYU meets fight against sexual assault head on

“Remember, sexual contact without consent is assault.”

Pigs were flying in Provo this past Tuesday.

Not literally, of course. But figurative pigs did fly. A dean on the campus of Brigham Young University, the flagship university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, proclaimed to thousands of students, faculty and staff, “Just because a person stops resisting, or freezes, in response to pressure, manipulation or coercion does not mean that a person has consented to sexual contact.”

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune The BYU campus in Provo Wednesday June 1, 2016.

That is pretty startling straight talk from proudly prudish BYU. Most BYU students don’t hear the word “sex” from anyone at a microphone apart from the annual “standards” fireside, where ecclesiastical leaders remind students of their commitment to abstain from premarital sex and provide awkward details about just how heavy petting can get. For college students, it’s peculiarly BYUish.

But on Tuesday, students were treated with some real-world, no-nonsense talk. With a calm, Mr. Rogers-like demeanor and friendliness, Ben Ogles, dean of the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences and psychology professor, spoke with students in the school’s weekly devotional with clarity and directness about sexual assault and the nature of consent.

Ogles’ experience comes from his university responsibilities as a member of BYU’s advisory council on campus response to sexual assault, which was organized after last year’s scandal relating to sexual assault victims reportedly facing parallel honor code investigations. Ogles is also an LDS Church stake president and a psychologist.

The BYU council eventually recommended 23 policy improvements, including amnesty from Honor Code violation investigations for those who reported sexual assault, changes in organizational structure, a new victim advocate position and a comprehensive survey of BYU students.

Ogles’ initial admission during the 30-minute devotional was one of his most pertinent. He said, “Here at BYU, even though we have high high standards for our conduct, there are individuals who perpetrate and experience unwanted sexual contact.”

We cannot solve a problem until we admit it is actually a problem.

Ogles framed sexual assault in a doctrinal view when he taught that a perpetrator exerts power over another person, disregarding their God-given agency and depriving them of their right to control their own physical body.

“Consent cannot be given when a person is asleep, unconscious, intoxicated, or does not have the intellectual capacity to agree, including when they are minors.”

BYU’s campus climate survey, taken by 12,602 students, revealed that 475 students reported 730 separate incidents of unwanted sexual contact, 52 percent of which were perpetrated by a current or former boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse. Only 6 percent of assaults were by a stranger.

Ogles postulated that most men misunderstand the basic nature of consent, and that in many instances, someone assumes the other person is interested. “I wish that all people knew how to ask first.”

“Remember, sexual contact without consent is assault.” “Not every kiss is wanted.”

Ogles went beyond a discussion of just dating partners to include married partners in his discussion of consent. “Marriage itself is not consent to intimacy.”

Someone tell Rep. Brian Greene, who questioned a few years ago whether a man can have sex with his sleeping or unconscious wife without it being considered rape.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Brian M. Greene (R-Pleasant Grove) during the morning session at the Utah State Capitol Wednesday February 4, 2015.

The campus climate survey revealed that 21 percent of women experienced sexual assault as a child or adolescent before attending BYU. To all those men and women who have experienced this tragic and soul-wrenching violation, Ogles said,

“You are not alone. … You are certainly deserving of the title survivor.”

Ogles reminded survivors that in no part were they responsible for the violations that occurred against them.

“Let me be very clear about the responsibility for sexual assault. The perpetrator is responsible for their actions. 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.”

Ogles concluded by asking all students to look out for each other. He pleaded,

“If a friend or relative tells you they have been the victim of sexual assault or abuse, and our data suggests they are most likely to tell a friend or roommate, tell them you believe them.”

BYU deserves credit for addressing this important social issue so directly. We need to keep talking about it, because chances are, someone close to you is still suffering.

Michelle Quist is an editorial writer for the Salt Lake Tribune who hopes and prays that readers will subscribe, for the low monthly cost of $7.99, to support Utah journalism. And opinionism.