Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Stop Silencing Victims


I was sexually assaulted by two Mormon classmates when I was sixteen years old. We were on our way to the school parking lot when one of them groped my body and breasts without my permission. The other one just laughed. I was paralyzed by confusion and fear. Luckily, a friend saw us and told them to leave me alone.

Afterward, I felt horrible. Perhaps I did something wrong? I victim blamed myself, rerunning the usual questions in my mind, “Did I give them the wrong impression? Was it something I was wearing? No, it couldn’t be. I was wearing jeans and a long sleeved shirt. Was it my makeup? Did I look at him the wrong way?”

I concluded it was best not to tell anyone. I didn’t want anyone to get into trouble, including me, and more importantly I wanted these horrible feelings to go away. But the victim blaming persisted.

You see, when you victim blame yourself it produces a false sense of empowerment. I told myself, “If I can just isolate what I did to bring this upon myself then I can stop it from happening again. I’m in control. I can stop this. I will not be the victim again.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth. No amount of rationalizing was going to change the fact that I was assaulted and it can happen again. This is a difficult conclusion to reach because it requires recognizing one’s own vulnerability. I had to accept this wasn’t my fault. They did this to me. I can’t stop it by not wearing make-up or wearing different clothing, or never smiling at another guy. Victim blaming will not empower me.

However, recognizing vulnerability should not be confused with weakness. There is strength in recognizing vulnerability because it can empower a person to overcome physical and social obstacles.

Recently, a very specific vulnerability has been exposed in the BYU Honor Code. Victims of sexual assault are not getting the adequate assistance they need for fear of being punished during the process of confronting their assault. The victim blaming and rape culture that is harvested by the implementation of the BYU Honor Code is real and it is doing very little to attack the real enemy. The enemy is not clothing, modesty, women’s bodies, or even the Honor Code. The enemy is the dehumanizing subjugation of another human being during and after a rape or sexual assault. Sadly, victim blaming after the assault is a toxic perpetuation of injury that can be just as painful as the assault itself. This is the enemy—apathy toward human suffering.

I understand there are concerns about offering Honor Code immunity to sexual assault and rape victims. I understand there is a possibility of people abusing that immunity by staying in an apartment past curfew, wearing “immodest” clothing, or drinking alcohol. However, the risk of these offenses is miniscule when compared to the current Honor Code policy that enables victim blaming, discourages women from coming forward, and empowers sexual predators.

I love BYU. My husband and I have many happy memories there. It is a wonderful school, and there is also room for improvement. The university recently stated “Brigham Young University cares deeply about the safety of our students. When a student reports a sexual assault, our primary focus is on the well-being of the victim.” I trust they mean well and I want to trust this statement. However, these words will be most meaningful when they deliver tangible results. In a time when sexual assault and victim blaming are running rampant on campuses across the nation, BYU is in a position to set an example worth following.

Today at the BYU: Stop Silencing Victims Demonstration I participated in handing over 90,000 signatures of people who support granting Honor Code immunity to victims. I remain hopeful that our common concern of “the well-being of the victims” will lead us to constructive and improved resolutions.