Friday, May 20, 2016
Sexual assault at BYU: My own story
I was a young, devout Mormon woman with no prior sexual experience, and the rape left me with overwhelming guilt and shame. Self-blame was accompanied by a lingering feeling that I had lost some important part of myself, something that I wasn't sure I could ever regain. I had the sense that everything in my world was somehow tainted and dirty. For months, I hated my sexual organs, so horrified was I by what had happened to them and to me.
But here is the part of the story that I remember with gratitude: When I reported the rape, everybody believed me. Every single person. And nobody blamed me. Nobody asked me why I stopped to talk to a strange man on a dark street. Nobody wondered why I didn't scream or run when I had the chance. When I apologized, sobbing, to the police officer on duty for being stupid enough to walk home alone in the dark, his response was emphatic: "You had every right to walk down that street, " he said. "This wasn't your fault." When I asked my bishop whether God would forgive me, he told me as many times as I needed to hear it that there was nothing to forgive. When I asked my roommates whether they were disappointed in me, they told me that they were angry. Not at me, but at the rapist.
So many people during those first few hours and days were there to give me the support I needed: the group of young men—strangers to me—who called the police for me when I burst into their house after the attack, the detectives who questioned me, the doctors and nurse who examined me, my bishop who showed up to give me a priesthood blessing, my roommates who took me home, the dean of students who called me the next day to tell me how sorry she was that this had happened, the family members who loved me fiercely and protectively, the BYU psychologist who provided counseling services. It felt like I was being wrapped in successive layers of healing love by everyone I came into contact with. During the long months ahead, as I worked through my own trauma and shame, I knew that I could lean on people around me—people who saw me as worthy of respect and love, even when I couldn't respect or love myself.
Every survivor needs this kind of support. Rape victims should not have to prove that they are perfect rule-followers in order to get the help that they need. They shouldn't have to prove that they struggled and fought. And though this should be obvious to everyone, it's worth saying again: Rape victims who know their attacker should be treated with as much respect as victims of strangers. Date rape should outrage us as much as, if not more than, the less-common stranger-in-a-dark-alley scenario.
Reading the stories in the last few weeks of sexual assault victims who were treated poorly at BYU has been painfully eye-opening. It horrifies me that, while I was believed and supported, others have been blamed and censured because of suspected Honor Code infractions. Being raped was bad enough. I do not know how I would have survived had I also been shamed and punished.
I plead with university administrators to make reasonable changes in the university's policies and practices: Please do not punish victims of sexual assault for Honor Code violations that come to light over the course of the investigation of the assault. This puts victims in a terrible position, forcing them to choose between putting their academic career in jeopardy and letting their assailant go free. Please do not make policing Honor Code violations a higher priority than finding and prosecuting rapists.
Please do not add to victims' trauma by opening up an investigation into their behavior. Please give them the supporting services that they need to heal. Please let all students know that they are safe to report sexual assault.
Finally, please consider issuing an apology for the harm already done to students. As administrators of a university that affirms the Gospel of Christ, you have an opportunity to teach us all a lesson in humility and self-reflection. To this end, the newly-formed sexual assault advisory council and the website asking for feedback from the BYU community are wonderful first steps. Admissions of error will not make the university look weak or foolish. Rather, they have the potential to be a beautiful testament to the power of redemption and our universal need for grace.
Three weeks after publishing this post, I wrote a follow-up piece. You may read it here.