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For College-Age Mormons, Sexual Violence Is a Religious Problem

Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints church doctrine says that victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sexual sin, but there’s a far different story playing out on the ground, where bishops are making women repent for their own rapes.
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Brigham Young University. (Photo: Jaren Wilkey/Wikimedia Commons)

Brigham Young University. (Photo: Jaren Wilkey/Wikimedia Commons)

In 2003, Brigham Young University-Provo student Sarah* began dating Rick, a just-returned missionary and "righteous priesthood holder" with the sort of spiritual resume that would make any Mormon mother-in-law proud. But despite his status in the Church, he was unable to stave off his lustful thoughts for her, which his religious faith taught him were sinful. His faith also taught him that they were Sarah’s fault.

Sarah felt so guilty for inspiring lust in a man of God that she sought her bishop's guidance. She would read scripture and pray for long periods of time, hoping that somehow her actions would stop tempting her boyfriend. It wasn't enough: The tipping point happened one evening after he complained about being "too tired" to take Sarah home. “He forcefully began removing my clothes,” Sarah says. “It's difficult for me to go into too many details because even though I know that I was the victim, I still feel ashamed and embarrassed by what happened. I guess it wasn't technically a rape, because he didn't penetrate, but it is the worst most helpless moment of my life.”

"When I woke in the middle of the night with him touching me, I just laid there. I didn't stop him. I didn't say no. I was worried about ever reporting it, because what if people didn't believe me?"

I spoke to over a dozen former and current BYU students and professors for this story, including representatives from BYU’s Young Mormon Feminists group, as well as five sexual assault survivors. Everybody had or had heard stories similar to Sarah’s: the abuse would start small, with "lustful thoughts" they were blamed for inspiring. It would escalate over a long period of time, with their boyfriends trying to pressure them into sexual activity, culminate with coercive or forced sexual contact, and conclude with the men blaming their victims. The women would seek the counsel of church elders, who taught them that what happened was their fault. This pattern was remarkably consistent in the women interviewed, whether they discussed something from over a decade ago, or just a few years ago.

In its doctrine, the Church carefully differentiates willing sexual contact from sexual abuse. As quoted on its website: "Victims of sexual abuse are not guilty of sexual sin." And: "The Lord condemns abusive behavior in any form—physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional. Abusive behavior may lead to Church discipline." There's a far different story playing out on the ground, though.

In the Mormon community, teenage boys and girls are taught that preventing sexual violence is a woman's responsibility. To preserve the morality of men, a woman must closely monitor how she dresses and speaks and acts. When abuse does occur, church leaders "counsel" survivors with LDS literature that proclaims that it's better to die fighting than to fall victim to rape. Some victims are even spiritually ostracized until a church official deems them repentant.

“Both men and women are told by Mormon leaders in no uncertain terms that sexual assault is wrong,” says Ryan T. Cragun, associate professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, who specializes in Mormonism. “Yet, the subtle assumptions that underlie messages about gender norms and sexuality contribute to an environment wherein men can draw upon subtle assumptions if they are sexually aggressive with women, namely, that their behavior is the result of the temptations of women and they couldn't control themselves.”

THE MORMON BELIEF THAT it is a woman's responsibility to police a man's sexuality is especially apparent in the Church's modesty standard, which the Church leadership defines as "an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior," designed to glorify God while not drawing undue attention to oneself. For men, "modesty" can mean anything from having a neat haircut to not getting a tattoo, but for women, it overwhelmingly means not dressing in a way that makes men think of sex, as the difference in detail between men and women's clothing guidelines show: "Young women should avoid short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance."

The language around women, their dress, and rape gets even more explicit in the community, with Sunday school teachers teaching women ages 12 to 18 in gender segregated classrooms that revealing clothing will incite rape. As Hannah Wheelwright recalls:

I remember one specific part of a lesson I had in Young Women's where one of the teachers said that she had heard from a recent ex convict that it is essentially very triggering for convicted pedophiles and rapists to see lace on women's clothing because it reminds them of the sex workers they frequented and porn. I remember my eyes getting so big at hearing that, and I looked around the room to see who was wearing lace. We were all looking at our clothes and each other, horrified, promising that we'd go home and get rid of all our clothing with lace in it. We were terrified that some rapist would attack us on the street because our camisole with lace on the bottom, as was the fashionable trend at the time, made him think we must be wrapped up with porn.

“While the PR Department of the LDS Church and most leaders would say this advice applies equally to both males and females,” Cragun says, “if you carefully examine their discourse, women are more often told to dress modestly to prevent the men from having immoral thoughts (rather than vice versa).”

Similar thinking extends all the way up to BYU, where all three campuses have the modesty standard written into their honor code.

All threecampusescodes encourage other students to call out immodestly dressed women, or report them to the honor code office. These standards focus mainly on immodest women, and have inadvertently led to reporting practices that look like institutionally sanctioned sexual harassment. This is a consequence that Michelle*, who attended BYU-Idaho and BYU-Provo from 1997 to 2001, experienced firsthand:

I was extremely large-chested and curvy (I have since had plastic surgery to remove about half of my breast mass). BYU has very strict morality standards so anything tight, form fitting, low cut or showing your stomach if you reached over your head was out. For someone with H to J cups (depending on who measured me), this meant violating the standards and hoping I didn't get sent to the honor code office and often meant that men would make direct comments to me about my body, my attire, and my morality based on something I had no control over.

Michelle also experienced an escalation of sexual abuse that was similar to Sarah’s:

One night my boyfriend was at my apartment and we were kissing and he kept trying to put his hands down my shirt and inside my bra. I realize this is nothing to non-Mormons, but to a Mormon, this is serious business. I kept trying to remove his hand, but he just kept going back to it, more aggressively each time. Finally, I got a hand free and decided to try the same thing (hands in shirt) on him and he recoiled in horror and said we couldn't do that.

This notion carried through to when he returned from his mission and stalked her in the hopes that she would marry him: "After we met and I got it through his head I was not interested in giving up my shot at grad school to marry him and work while he went to undergrad,” Michelle says, “he told me I was 'damaged goods' anyway."

BECAUSE MORMONISM HAS SO much to say about proper sexual conduct, many Mormon women seek out their bishops for assistance after experiencing sexual violence. The survivors I interviewed were no exception.

In 2006, Helen's* boyfriend raped her in one of BYU's dorms. Unsure of where to turn, Helen went to her bishop, who gave her The Miracle of Forgiveness by church prophet Spencer W. Kimball. Published in 1969, Kimball’s influential book contains an exhaustive list of sins that Mormons need to repent for, including a section on “Restitution for Loss of Chastity.” When Helen got to this section, this passage jumped out at her:

Even in a forced contact such as rape or incest, the injured one is greatly outraged. If she has not cooperated or contributed to the foul deed, she is of course in a more favorable position. There is no condemnation where there is no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one's virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.

Helen says The Miracle of Forgiveness text made her feel "horrible, like I had failed and was now dirty and broken because I didn't fight to the death."

But Helen's bishop didn't stop with The Miracle of Forgiveness. His action plan included required weekly meetings with him, withholding the sacrament from her, forbidding her from holding a calling, and barring praying in church meetings or activities until he felt like she had repented. After nine months of this, Helen's bishop was finally satisfied.

Megan's* bishop also prescribed The Miracle of Forgiveness as a remedy for the abuse she suffered. During Christmas break three years ago, she woke up to her brother molesting her. For the rest of her vacation, she didn't tell anyone what happened. “When I woke in the middle of the night with him touching me, I just laid there. I didn't stop him,” she says. “I didn't say no. I was worried about ever reporting it, because what if people didn't believe me?”

When she went back to BYU-Idaho for the spring semester, Megan told her bishop there about what had happened. He notified her hometown bishop, who then had her brother call her. She was walking to class when her phone rang:

He called me bawling, apologized, said he felt horrible. I asked if our parents knew. He said no, and asked if I wanted him to tell them. I told him not to tell our parents.... My brother promised me he wouldn't tell them. At the end of our phone call he said something like "I'm so sorry, you don't have to forgive me. But, the bishop said I needed to make this phone call, and so I am." Those last words really struck a chord with me. It made me feel like he was only calling because he 'had to.' Because he was seeking forgiveness and wanted to go on a mission. Not because he actually cared.

A few days after that, Megan's mom called, also crying. Their family's bishop had contacted her family, saying that Megan would need her parents for emotional support. Megan's mother flew 2,000 miles to campus to take care of her daughter for a few days, while her dad called BYU-Idaho counseling services on her behalf. When they told him that they would be required to report the assault, he counseled his daughter to confide in her school bishop if she needed assistance. Megan's bishop himself discouraged reporting, saying, "It's better to keep these things in the family."

The summer after the molestation, her parents made Megan's brother move out, and banned him from visiting while she was home alone. But this rule didn't stick, nor did other outward acknowledgment of his behavior: "By the time I returned home he was blessing the sacrament again,” Megan says. “I didn't believe that was right. I was still suffering. I still suffer to this day." Currently, Megan’s brother is serving on a mission as well.

Punishment has also eluded Helen's rapist. She recalls that when she asked the BYU bishop how her boyfriend would be punished, this is what happened: "Nothing. The Bishop decided not to have the man go through the repentance process because he was only a year from graduating at BYU and the Bishop didn't want to risk the chance of him getting kicked out of school."

He would later go on to marry in the LDS temple.

"IN EFFECT IT MADE all my spiritual experiences suspect," says Sarah on experiencing a spiritual crisis after her assault. "If I could delude myself into thinking my relationship with Rick was what God wanted, then I could delude myself about anything including my faith."

While Sarah has ultimately stayed, Helen, Michelle, and Megan have become inactive or even removed their names from church records. “I question if I had never gone to BYU if I would have felt the need to take the radical step of formally removing my name from the records of the Church,” Michelle says. “In the end, I think I would have. I think it would have just taken longer.”

In the Mormon community, teenage boys and girls are taught that preventing sexual violence is a woman's responsibility. To preserve the morality of men, a woman must closely monitor how she dresses and speaks and acts.

It's hard to say how many Mormon women issues like these have permanently alienated. Since LDS leadership does not publish attendance records, no one knows for sure how many people leave the Church, and what their demographics are. In 2008, however, uproar occurred within the Mormon community around a rumored statistic that single women 18 to 30 were leaving in droves. In 2012 Mormon blogger John Dehlin, who specializes in working through crises of faith (and who has been threatened with excommunication for his work), published a study on why people leave, with 40 percent of 3,086 respondents citing "Church's stance on women" as a factor, with specific issues ranging from men presiding over women to their exclusion from the priesthood.

Despite the sexism woven into the very fabric of Church doctrine, there are BYU community members who think that change can come from within. After all, not all LDS literature asserts that it's better to die fighting than to lose one's virtue to rape.

When asked about survivors turning to bishops who didn't have the training to deal with cases of sexual assault, Carri Jenkins, assistant to the president on university communications at BYU-Provo (BYU-Idaho, which Michelle and Megan attended, declined to comment for this story), pointed to Counseling Services, located "at the heart of campus," as an alternative. She also mentioned BYU-Provo's Title IX office, where survivors can access academic and housing accommodations for their safety and well-being. When asked about any internal judicial process for sexual assault complaints that BYU provides, Jenkins said that students could report to the university police department, who would then work with county judicial officers on their cases.

BYU students are also involved in raising awareness, with feminism influencing much of the conversation. Since Hannah Wheelwright started Young Mormon Feminists in 2012, the group's Facebook page has grown to over 1,000 members, and weekly meetings regularly have 25 to 45 attendees. Through sexual violence trainings and blog discussions, one of the main purposes of the group is to show that being a school that prizes "sexual purity" doesn't make it immune to sexual violence.

It also means not letting something like this happen, as Helen feared it would, back in the immediate aftermath of her rape:

When I was in my teens a strongly pushed idea in the LDS culture was to get married to the person you'd had sex with. I remember being terrified of being pushed into a marriage with the man who raped me. Now, I don't let anyone or anything influence my relationship with God. No untrained volunteer clergy gets any say in my life or my health. I am the one in charge and it feels wonderful. I feel peace and a closeness to God I've never felt before.”

*Names have been changed.