Mormonism, Bureaucracy, and Sexual Assault
CW: Rape, Religious Abuse
A 19 year old student was raped in Provo, Utah, home of the LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, the cultural epicenter of Mormonism. Edwin Randolph, a sheriff’s deputy and BYU alum, took the woman’s file — illegally but with the encouragement of a former Honor Code Office employee — to the school’s Honor Code Office, the disciplinary department which enforces the code of conduct, to investigate her behavior at the time of the assault. Damningly, Randolph is friends with the accused rapist.
The victim is a student from out of state, as many BYU students are. If she ends up being dismissed from the university, she will leave Provo, an eventuality which will impede the district attorney’s investigation. The DA has asked BYU’s Honor Code Office to suspend their investigation of the victim, and the Honor Code Office has refused. “When we have a victim that is going to be revictimized any time she talks about the rape — it’s unfortunate that BYU is holding her schooling hostage until she comes to meet with them,” Deputy Utah County Attorney Craig Johnson said. “And we, as prosecutors, prefer she doesn’t meet with them.”
This is not the first or only time that consequences from the Honor Code Office have made rape victims feel punished for the crimes committed against them. A slew of rape victims have come forward to claim that the university has made them feel targeted because they were assaulted. As an accredited university, BYU has a Title IX office which is supposed to handle, confidentially, accusations of sexual assault. But victims have claimed that after going to the Title IX office, they were summoned to meet with the Honor Code Office.
To offer some context, the Honor Code at BYU is as all-encompassing as a code of conduct at an institution of higher education can be. Housing is strictly segregated by (cis)gender, and students are not allowed in the bedrooms or even bathrooms of the opposite sex. Curfew on weeknights is 12:00 am. The Honor Code governs dress and grooming standards, including the length of shorts and sleeves for women and the facial hair and length of hair (not over the collar or over the ear) for men. Sex and “petting” among non-married students is forbidden and can result in a student’s expulsion. Alcohol, tobacco and coffee are forbidden. While the Church does not and has never maintained that caffeine is against its rules, one cannot buy a caffeinated soda on BYU campus.
Anonymous reports to the Honor Code Office are taken seriously and investigated. Students are encouraged to monitor and report other students’ engaging in behavior which violates the Honor Code. And they do. I have a dozen or so friends who were turned in anonymously, sometimes by personal enemies, to the Honor Code Office for drinking or staying over at their significant other’s apartment. Some were placed on probation, and some were expelled from the university.
All students must maintain an ecclesiastical endorsement. LDS students, of which ninety-eight percent of the student body is composed, may lose their ecclesiastical endorsement in an interview with their bishop if they confess to drinking, masturbating, or not paying full tithing on their income. Students are asked in these interviews, sometimes pointedly and in detail, if they obey the Law of Chastity, which forbids extramarital sex.
I keep thinking about something that Edwin Randolph said, quoted in the article linked at the beginning. “I’m not here to judge her, but I think, she’s in school here and she’s screwing around.” It strikes me because, for one, it is extremely representative of how BYU students feel. Applications for admission are very competitive, and because Church funds subsidize tuition for LDS students, whether in-state or out-of-state, it is considered a great privilege to attend. The school and the students themselves constantly impress this upon the student body. One might think that young adults, teenagers on their own for the first time, might resent the draconian code of conduct I outlined above, but on the converse students resent those whom they observe breaking the rules. Let me be clear: no one keeps all the rules in the Honor Code. They are so strict that it’s virtually impossible.
While an Honor Code has always existed at the university, its current iteration came into being during the tenure of Ernest L. Wilkinson in the late 1960s. Wilkinson was, to put it bluntly, a paranoid fanatic. He believed the corruption of the Kennedy administration was going to bring about the country’s ruin. Campus demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War were of particular concern to him, and hoping to prevent BYU from becoming the “Berkeley of the Rockies,” he transformed the Honor Code from a policy largely concerned with academic integrity into what it now is, advanced under the narrative that the students themselves demanded it. The Honor Code still, bafflingly, prohibits beards but allows mustaches, a grooming standard frozen in time from two or three culture wars ago. And, despite students’ ostensibly demanding Wilkinson’s changes to the Honor Code, the Honor Code has since remained unamended by the student body.
Going to BYU for four years, as I did, is to live through an endless cycle of gaslighting. Bringing up the ridiculousness of banning beards in the 2000’s and having a peer, as young as I was or younger, treat me as if there was something wrong with me really threw off my calibration of normalcy. But perhaps the worst of it was sitting through the Sunday School lessons in which the hypocritical, nitpicking rules of the Biblical Pharisees were discussed with no nod to the rules we all lived under. In private conversations with trusted allies, the similarities were so often discussed as to become cliche, and thus toothless.
It is in this context that the first part of what Randolph said, “I’m not here to judge her, but…” is obligatory and, like a racist statement which begins with the speaker’s affirming that they’re not racist, totally meaningless. The fact that he was able to engage in such linguistic duplicity points to the institutional structures in Mormonism which uphold the constant judgment of one’s neighbor. Mormons know they are not supposed to judge other people. And yet, the apparatus of constant judgment is essential to the social control which the Church wields, institutionally and culturally. Sure, no one necessarily wants to be the person who smugly stifles a discussion and reinforces the party line with a holier-than-thou comment in church, but I never in twenty-nine years of church attendance observed someone call out that judgmental, self-righteous person. If you can identify the importance of a community’s values by its social policing, a too-short skirt, inappropriate piercings, or drinking iced tea all rank as more grievous sins than self-righteousness.
The Church, for its charismatic foundings, has evolved into a behemoth of bureaucracy. The organization is laid out in minute detail, a fractal of all-volunteer committees that mirror and report to the committee directly above them. Bishops and their counselors meet endlessly with the leaders in their own ward and with their stake presidents. Stake presidents report to area authorities, and area authorities report to the Council of the Twelve Apostles. At the top is the First Presidency, prophets, seers, and revelators who are always men and, if those current prophets are correct, always will be. Towering over the Salt Lake City temple is the Church Office Building, which houses the Corporation of the Presiding Bishopric, the legal entity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Somewhere in that gird of cubicles lies the Church public relations department, which speaks for the men who speak for God. Church employees put out the monthly church publications and write the lesson manuals, a syllabus which is synchronized globally, the breathtaking uniformity being a supposed marker of the True Church.
It is puzzling that Mormons, overwhelmingly conservative, are so dogmatically distrustful of state bureaucracy while so compliant, reverent even, toward the bureaucrats who mediate their relationship with God. There is no shortage of doctrine about agency and individual responsibility within Mormonism, which can explain the contempt for big government, but does little to explain why Mormons perpetuate, and even seem to enjoy, a surveillance and disciplinary apparatus which regulates the most minute of their public and private behaviors. The LDS Church conforms so well to Foucault’s theories it’s no wonder the professors who taught me them at BYU were always looking over their shoulders.
Within the religion there is no valid expression of sexuality outside of marriage, including masturbation. Some students brag about having “virgin lips,” intending to never kiss anyone until marriage. Some leaders have encouraged kissing a girlfriend as one would kiss his mother. Many marry young, unsurprisingly, in this environment. The Golden Age quaintness, of course, masks a dark undercurrent where students seek to stamp out their sexual exploration with compartmentalization and denial. Consent is a foreign concept in make out sessions at BYU, as many assume both parties are there to push the boundaries, to go a little further than they know they should. To talk about what one wants to do would be to openly confess premeditated sexual sin. The Church’s perennial fretting over pornography does nothing to tamp down its consumption, and if Utah rates of porn viewing are an indicator, actually exacerbates it. Reported rates of sexual assault in Provo are greater than or on par with national averages, even with an estimated ninety percent of rapes in the city going unreported. There is a hill on BYU campus, known informally but universally, as Rape Hill.
I repeat. There is a Rape Hill on BYU campus.
It almost goes without saying that women bear the brunt of the policing of sexuality. Mormonism is explicitly and proudly patriarchal, by definition, in that its most powerful officers are and have always been men. Invariably, patriarchy extends to men’s effective (and at times, legal) ownership of women’s bodies. Invariably, there is a feigned paternalistic concern for the subjects that it terrorizes. While patriarchy is not unique to Mormonism, its institutional and cultural conservatism has impaired its ability to reckon with its own misogyny. The Church despises its liberal fringe and has a history of excommunicating its most vocal feminists.
“She’s screwing around,” Randolph said about the victim. He indicated he doesn’t believe that his friend raped her, implying that she’s trying to get away with having sex by claiming rape. “She’s screwing around” — offered as a justification for his illegal sharing of a police file with the Honor Code Office, the phrase also serves as a victim-blaming hedge. Victim-blaming, ludicrous in any other area of Mormon practice, is common in this situation because rape is not a crime when women’s bodies belong to men.
But it’s not the Honor Code Office’s business to sort through all that, is it? They’re just following the rules. As with War on Drugs policies that disproportionately jail people of color, the rules give an impartial veneer to the workings of injustice. And, sure enough, the Honor Code Office is acting in this case according to its own policy: “In cases involving sexual violence or harassment, the university will conduct its own investigation regardless of the pendency or timing of other civil, criminal, or ecclesiastical proceedings.” The rules, though, prohibited the sharing of a police file with the Honor Code Office. The rules dictate that the Title IX office not share information with the Honor Code Office. And yet, so seemingly vigilant in their upholding of the rules, so seemingly worried about the spiritual well-being of a disobedient young woman, Latter-Day Saints have contributed to an environment where justice against rapists cannot be pursued, where women walk the quiet streets of Provo in fear, where the police department persecutes victims of sexual crimes. My only hope is to embarrass my alma mater into reforming, because everyone with a conscience in Provo has probably already been kicked out of school.