The guy who used to be chief of the Utah State University Police Department isn’t any more because he was recorded giving some really bad advice to members of that school’s football team.
Not only did former Chief Earl Morris go way too blame-the-victim in his talk to the Aggies, warning them that women who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might agree to have sex with a man and then, because her ecclesiastical leaders wouldn’t approve, claim that they had been assaulted. He also demonstrated that he really didn’t know what he was talking about when it comes to the way the LDS Church all too often looks at sex crimes.
If Morris had been reading The Salt Lake Tribune over the last several years, he would have known better.
If he had been paying attention, Morris would have understood that young LDS women who were clearly involved in nonconsensual sexual activity cannot expect to get a pass from their church leaders just because they were victimized. That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from reporting done by Tribune journalists over the past five years, reporting that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 and has since uncovered more disgraceful behavior by the church-owned Brigham Young University.
Tribune journalists established beyond any doubt that, at least at BYU, women who reported being the victims of sex crimes regularly found themselves victimized once again by the school’s Honor Code Office. With at least one BYU Police officer funneling details of police reports that are supposed to be confidential to the Honor Code enforcers, students were cross-examined by school officials who, were they behaving as decent human beings, would have offered victims comfort and support rather than try to catch them in rule violations that could lead to internal discipline or expulsion.
BYU is certainly not the only place where victims of sexual assault might be confronted with suggestions that what happened was their own fault. That she shouldn’t have been drinking, shouldn’t have allowed herself to be alone with a man, shouldn’t have been out late or wearing clothes that some dude with an already overactive libido found overwhelming.
None of those are excuses for sexual assault. The only person to be blamed for committing rape is the rapist. Not the victim. Not the pervasive images of sexuality in advertising and on the internet. Not society’s rejection of moral codes that are hundreds or thousands of years old.
The LDS Church, and other religious hierarchies, could help a lot if they would adopt a truly realistic and healthy attitude toward sex. If they would understand that young people of all genders and orientations naturally feel a lot of pressure, not only from a debauched society and from one another, but also from their own biological encoding, to engage in behavior that might be rapturous and might be devastating.
The church, all churches, as well as schools, health care providers and families, would give everyone a much stronger foundation for a healthy life if they were less eager to judge and more interested in educating, supporting, listening, just being there.
In the range of human emotions there must be many people who engage in sexual activity and later feel bad about it. Not that they were forced or coerced, necessarily, just that they weren’t ready. When that happens, they should not be pushed to deny or blame as a way out. They should be allowed to feel regret and remorse, if that’s what they feel, ideally talk out their feelings and never, ever be made to feel that they’ve crossed some kind of personal Rubicon in a way that they are now damaged goods. Or that because they have done it once they are expected to do it again, even if they don’t want to.
The lesson some young women say they have been taught by religious leaders is that any premarital sexual activity on their part — willing or forced — turns a woman into “a chewed-up piece of gum” that no one else will ever want. That is a horrible thing to tell anyone. It discourages people from being honest, with themselves and with others, and makes it much more difficult to seek support, whether from a parent or a friend, a religious leader or, when appropriate, the criminal justice system.
If people can talk openly and honestly about sex and their own feelings, without fear of being judged, it would become easier to say and hear many things that need to be said and heard.
Like, “Yes.” “No.” And, “Get the hell away from me.”
George Pyle is opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.