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How BYU’s Honor Code may help prevent sexual assaults

FILE"” BYU’s Honor Code standards — and the religious mores from which they’re derived — seem tailor-made to prevent sexual assaults.
FILE"” BYU’s Honor Code standards — and the religious mores from which they’re derived — seem tailor-made to prevent sexual assaults.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Editor’s note: Those who are victims of sexual violence can find resources by calling the Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 1-888-421-1100 or the 24-hour crisis and information hotline at 801-467-7273.

This week the Salt Lake Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize largely for its reporting on sexual assaults at Brigham Young University, detailing how victims of sexual assault feared punishment from the university's Honor Code Office if they came forward to seek help.

The university has since hired a full-time Title IX coordinator and implemented an amnesty clause for victims, aiming to shield students who report sexual assaults from Honor Code discipline.

The Salt Lake Tribune's thorough reporting and commitment to the story was worthy of the award. The Deseret News rightly took out a half-page advertisement in Tuesday's paper congratulating the Tribune.

Unquestionably, victims of sexual crimes deserve care and help. Rapists deserve prosecution and punishment (The editor’s note above points to resources for victims of sexual violence).

For those interested in finding solutions to the pervasive problem of sexual assault on college campuses, BYU might actually serve as an important case study not because of how it stumbled but because of how it succeeds in keeping students safe.

BYU’s Honor Code standards — and the religious mores from which they’re derived — seem tailor-made to prevent sexual violence. From BYU's notoriously dry campus to its strict abstinence-before-marriage requirement, the Honor Code aims to prevent situations in which assaults tend to occur.

Studies have found a strong correlation, for example, between campus sexual assaults and heavy drinking.

By contrast, BYU’s Honor Code completely forbids alcohol.

To be clear, a perpetrator, not booze, is the direct cause of a sexual assault. And victims should never be blamed because they chose to drink. Nor should alcohol be used to justify or excuse sexual violence. However, alcohol is an issue. It's well established that rapists prey on inebriated victims who are less able to effectively fight back, and alcohol also impairs judgment, making consent all the more fraught.

Curbing heavy drinking, therefore, can potentially help prevent some sexual assaults.

At BYU there are undoubtedly some students who jettison the no-alcohol rule, but the vast majority proudly tout the school’s 19 milk-filled years as the nation’s No. 1 “Stone-Cold Sober” campus.

Very few schools mirror BYU's precise Honor Code policy — which bans even legal alcohol consumption both on and off campus — but recently places like Stanford and Dartmouth have begun targeting alcohol consumption and banning hard liquor.

The Harvard School of Public Health's "College Alcohol Study" offered a detailed examination of alcohol on college campuses that spanned nearly a decade and surveyed some 14,000 students across the country. Released in 2001, the study found that for schools that banned alcohol on campus, rates of abstinence from alcohol were nearly double (close to 30 percent compared to 16 percent on campuses with no alcohol ban). The percent of students who were classified as “heavy episodic drinkers” was also markedly lower.

Experts point out, however, that fraternities (rather than schools) are often the sources of booze. Frat houses are usually located off-campus, beyond direct institutional oversight. Research implies that, far too frequently, fraternities create boozy brotherhoods that breed hedonistic brinksmanship in which more sexual assaults tend to occur. A 2007 study found that fraternity members were nearly three times more likely to commit a rape than their non-fraternity classmates.

Meanwhile, BYU completely bans Greek life. And other universities are starting to follow suit.

In recent years, schools ranging from Emory and Clemson University to Amherst College, among many others, have gone so far as to either eliminate Greek life or significantly restrict it.

BYU, however, goes a step further by also segregating male and female students into separate dorms. Even in off-campus housing, students are separated by gender in school-approved apartment units. Boys who visit girls (and vice versa) cannot cross a bedroom’s threshold without violating the Honor Code.

There’s also a curfew. Even fiancés have to leave their future spouses' apartments when the clock chimes midnight.

Despite all of these policies, sexual assaults still occur. And victims unquestionably deserve all the support and safety the university can muster.

However, in the ongoing effort to improve the nation’s campus climate, it’s worth acknowledging that BYU’s Honor Code offers some strong preventative medicine that might be prescribed in school-specific doses across the country.

It's naive to expect colleges to suddenly become bastions of teetotaling chastity crusaders. But, it's morally apathetic to not strongly urge institutions to at least consider steps to create safer environments that aim to prevent sexual assaults.

“Title IX offices are important," Damon Linker, a senior correspondent for The Week magazine, observed. "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.”

Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News.