In defense of BYU's honor code
This is not the kind of scandal that any university wants to endure — with allegations of systematic, institutionalized callousness toward victims of sexual assault publicized nationally (and internationally) in newspapers and on public radio. But when the college is Brigham Young University — the largest religious university in the United States (excluding online students), and a school owned and operated by the morally and politically conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the scandal has the potential to shake the institution to its core.
The details are complex but the implications are clear. A group of BYU students has accused the university of responding to allegations of sexual assault against female students, in part, by referring the students making the allegations to the school's honor code office for investigation. All students (and faculty and staff) at BYU agree to abide by the code. It stipulates that students will live morally upstanding lives while in attendance. This includes abstaining from alcohol and drugs, premarital intercourse, and even visiting the bedroom of a member of the opposite sex. A substantiated violation of the honor code can be grounds for expulsion. (I agreed to abide by the standards specified in the honor code myself when I taught at BYU for two years in the late 1990s as a non-Mormon visiting assistant professor of political science.)
Whether or not this is the university's intention, a policy of initiating investigations that could lead to punishment for women who claim to be victims of sexual assault creates a strong disincentive for victims to come forward in the first place. That seems like both a miscarriage of justice (punishing the victim of a worse transgression for committing a lesser one) and a violation of the spirit of Title IX, which requires schools to fairly investigate all allegations of sexual assault.
If the problem is obvious, so is the solution. All BYU would need to do is stipulate that when a sexual assault is alleged, the school's Title IX office (and possibly local law enforcement) will conduct the investigation, with the honor code office playing no role at all. Women need to know that they will not be subject to disciplinary action that could lead them to being expelled or otherwise punished as a direct or indirect consequence of reporting an assault. It's hard for me to understand how anyone could object to such a procedural reform.
But that's not the end of the story — or at least it shouldn't be. Because the situation at BYU raises bigger questions about the problem of sexual assault on campus and how universities (and the broader culture) increasingly respond to it.
To judge by the tone of the media commentary, the problem isn't really, or merely, that two bureaucratic offices with different goals are coming into conflict, or perhaps inappropriately colluding, with each other. The problem, liberal critics suggest, is that the school has an honor code office at all.
The code itself, according to Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, is "onerous," places BYU "on a collision course with Title IX," and puts female students at risk by teaching them that "what causes rape" is "women who don't follow a thousand rules about where to be and what to wear."
If this is the case, it's unclear whether the solution I've proposed — a procedure to ensure that the Title IX office handles the investigation, and the honor code office stands down when a sexual assault is alleged — would be a sufficient response. Better, it seems, would be for BYU to become like every secular university in the country, doing nothing to give moral guidance to the students who study and live on campus, and simply encouraging them to reach out to campus law enforcement and the Title IX office if they find themselves the victim of an assault.
But would that really improve quality of life at BYU relative to other colleges?
One in five women will be sexually assaulted in their time at college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. On the other hand, these assaults tend to be wildly underreported, with a recent study showing that fully 91 percent of all colleges in the U.S. claimed zero incidents of rape in 2014. When we dig deeper into the data and look only at large schools (20,000 students or more) with residential facilities on campus, the numbers go up considerably — with 3,187 incidents of dating or domestic violence against women spread across 232 schools. That works out to a little more than 13 reported incidents on average per school in 2014.
How does BYU compare to the average? In 2014, on a campus of roughly 28,000 undergraduates, there was a single reported rape.
What does that tell us? Not as much as we might wish. For one thing, rape isn't the only form of sexual assault captured in the aggregated data, making a direct comparison with the average unavoidably imperfect. For another, 2014 is just one year; there's no way to know if a single reported rape is typical or unusual. And then there is, once again, the problem of pervasive underreporting of sexual assaults. If BYU's harshest critics are right, we would expect higher than average rates of underreporting at the school because of the way the honor code office has involved itself in investigating allegations of sexual violence.
But is it reasonable to assume that this is the only explanation for what seems to be a relatively low rate of rape at BYU?
Perhaps my perspective is skewed from having taught there for a time, but I'd be willing to bet that there simply are fewer sexual assaults at BYU than at most secular universities. And the reason for that lower number is the honor code, as well as the religious and moral culture in which it is embedded.
Alcohol is strongly correlated with sexual violence on campus. Assaults often take place at parties in fraternity and sorority houses, and in dorms where there is often no moral oversight of student behavior whatsoever, and where male and female students are free to come and go as they please at all hours of the day and night.
At BYU, by contrast, everybody knows that drinking, drugs, and partying are not only frowned upon but could lead to expulsion. There is no Greek life to speak of. Dorms are segregated by gender. Men and women are forbidden to be in a room together without supervision — and both are taught that sexual relationships are supposed to be limited to marriage. Early marriage is strongly encouraged and students who marry are provided with special family housing. And all of it is an outgrowth and expression of a comprehensive religious culture.
Does this mean that no one cheats on the rules, engaging in the kind of behavior that contributes to sexual assault on other campuses? Of course not. But it does mean that those who do cheat need to be very cautious about it, because the risks involved are vastly greater than at other universities.
Would I have wanted to go to BYU as an undergraduate? Even leaving aside the ill-fitting religious aspect of the university, the answer is no. But would I worry less about my daughter being sexually assaulted on BYU's campus than I would if she attended a Big Ten university? Without a doubt.
Title IX offices are important. But if we really wanted to cut rates of campus sexual assault, we could do worse than remaking secular universities in the image of BYU: Ban or severely restrict alcohol consumption; firmly regulate Greek life; and impose rules designed to make male students behave a little less like sexual predators and a little more like Mormons.