Saturday, April 30, 2016

BYU's Honor Code and Sexual Assault

      My undergraduate alma mater, Brigham Young University, is getting a lot of bad press right now over how it treats victims of sexual assault. There is a serious problem there that I'd like to discuss, but I think the controversy has missed the bigger picture.

Quick Background: BYU and the Honor Code
      This article from the New York Times is representative of dozens. Here's the basic situation: BYU is owned, operated, and heavily subsidized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and everyone who attends must sign the Honor Code, agreeing to abide by Mormon standards of living. Probably for that reason, 99% of students are Mormons. In addition to standard academic prohibitions on cheating and lawbreaking, the Honor Code also bans alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, coffee, tea, extramarital sex, pornography, revealing clothing, foul language, anything else opposed to church teachings, and even some things which are not (like facial hair).
      When the BYU Honor Code Office hears that someone has broken one of the rules, they investigate, and academic consequences can follow, including expulsion. The problem comes when a student is sexually assaulted while engaged in some Honor Code violation—drinking, for instance, or consensual sexual behavior that turns nonconsensual. In order to report the attack, the victim must expose herself or himself to an investigation, and potentially jeopardize her or his education. Several victims have come forward saying they experienced exactly that.
      Rape and sexual assault are some of the most traumatizing things that can happen to a person, and it's absolutely essential that victims be able to report these crimes without fear of repercussion. The Honor Code says victims should report sexual assaults even if they were themselves involved in Honor Code violations at the time—but offers them no promise of safety from consequences when they do. That is, obviously, inadequate, and I hope that the attention being given to the issue results in change. Not only does such a policy discourage victims from reporting and provide offenders leverage to continue their predatory behavior, but it also fosters the wrongheaded attitude that victims bear some of the guilt for what happened to them. The university appears to be reconsidering its policies.

The Whole Perspective
      But all the recent news reports are missing the rest of the story. It needs to be acknowledged that the Honor Code probably prevents far, far more rapes and sexual assaults than it provides cover for. Statistics on these things are notoriously difficult to come by, but this NIH article says that alcohol is involved in about 50% of sexual assaults. Most sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the victim, and often the assault is preceded by consensual kissing or other intimate activity.
      At nearly all American colleges and universities, from party schools to the Ivy League, alcohol use is so prevalent, it's considered an epidemic. Drinking is present in every social situation, for the faculty as well as for the students. The legal drinking age is winked at; there is virtually no effort to prevent underage drinking. The pressure to drink is enormous, as is the pressure to be sexually active. This creates ideal conditions for sexual predators to exploit.
      Now imagine what happens when a university outlaws alcohol entirely. Imagine what happens when a university bans extramarital sex, as well as the mere presence of a member of the opposite sex in the bedroom. Imagine what happens when a university has no fraternities or sororities. All the conditions in which predators thrive are gone, and sexual assault becomes far, far less prevalent. At BYU, no one feels pressure to drink or be sexually active in order to fit in. In fact, all the cultural pressure is against those things. I'm sure those behaviors go on—after all, it's a university with more than 30,000 students. But if you want to drink at BYU or be sexually active while single, you have to seek it out, and you have to do it under the radar.
      If BYU's Honor Code so effectively reduces sexual assaults (as well as unplanned pregnancies, STDs, drug overdoses, drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, etc.), why doesn't every university in the country adopt a similar code? Obviously, because people like to drink, and wouldn't be willing to commit to BYU-style restrictions, even if it would drastically reduce the incidence of sexual assault. Let's keep that in mind as voices from mainstream American culture criticize the Honor Code.

      This article from By Common Consent makes an excellent point about how some of the most problematic aspects of religion can be the very same things that are its greatest benefits. So how do we address the problems caused by the Honor Code without sacrificing its benefits? Lots of people suggest an amnesty clause: if you report a sexual assault, you won't be investigated or punished for any Honor Code violations you were committing at the time of the assault. The only problem with such a policy is that it creates an incentive to falsify claims of sexual assault. Very few reported sexual assaults are fabricated, but at BYU, where drinking tea can jeopardize your academic standing, there might be more occasions in which the free pass would be tempting. I still doubt it—very few people are sadistic enough to ruin an innocent person's life, especially out of mere concern that they might get caught. Presumably, amnesty would not apply to violations discovered before the assault was reported. On the other hand, as a prosecutor, I know the policy would have complications in the courtroom. The attorneys defending an accused sexual assailant would highlight the victim's supposed incentive to falsify her story. Even if such an argument were baseless, it would make it more difficult to convince a jury that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

In summary
BYU's unique Honor Code, and the campus culture it fosters, has resulted in a far lower incidence of sexual assault than at most American universities. But if a BYU student violates the Honor Code (e.g., by drinking or engaging in consensual extramarital relations) and is sexually assaulted, reporting the assault could get the victim punished for her own violations. This discourages victims from reporting, and is a problematic policy that needs to be changed.


Anonymous said...

So, what would you propose then?

Travis Brinton said...

I'm not sure I know what would be best. My thought right now is that despite the downsides, an amnesty clause would make the most sense. It would probably have a caveat that it only applies to violations discovered as a result of the victim's report. It would grant amnesty to such violations regardless of whether the victim reported the attack to the university or the local authorities. It would work essentially the same as testimonial immunity in the criminal justice system.

If the university claimed that it had an independent source of information on the violation, it would need to be able to show that the information was truly independently obtained. Perhaps the victim would have a right to appeal to some third-party arbitrator who would decide whether it agreed that the university didn't rely on the report to learn of the violation. The Honor Code Office would probably benefit from some process like that and a little more transparency. But now it's getting into all the little details of implementation that would have to be worked out.