Madi Barney sat sobbing in the Provo, Utah, police department. It had been four days since the Brigham Young University sophomore had been raped in her off-campus apartment.
She was scared – terrified – that the officials at her strict, Mormon university would find out and punish her.
Nonsense, the officers told her, they’ll never know, and they won’t hurt you. But a month or so later, there she was with her attorney in Brigham Young University’s Title IX office – a place where rape victims are supposed to get help – and offered an ultimatum by a university official.
Barney was told the school “had received a police report in which ‘A) it looks like you’ve been raped and B) it also looks like you may have violated the honor code’”, she recounted, and that “I was going to be forwarded to the honor code office unless I let them investigate me. I said absolutely not.”
The university has told Barney that she cannot register for future classes. She is no longer welcome at the institution her father attended before her, along with aunts and uncles and two cousins, a university that devout families consider the Harvard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Attending the graceful campus at the foot of the snow-capped Wasatch Range is an aspiration for many young Mormons, and being thrown out is a black mark that can follow the devout for life, estrange them from their families, derail their education and ultimately their careers.
It can bring with it “horrible guilt and shame and dishonor”, said sociologist Ryan Cragun, who specializes in Mormonism at the University of Tampa. “If it’s tied to the honor code, not only is it tied to academic failure, but you’re a sinner. This could cause ramifications for your eternal salvation.”
So what did the 20 year old do? She fought back. And in the process, she helped galvanize many other rape survivors to come forward with their own stories of “re-victimization” at the hands of BYU officials in what has evolved into a grassroots effort to change one of the university’s most stringent sets of policies – the honor code.
The public outrage that followed has shone a spotlight on the school at a time when victim-blaming has appeared in headlines elsewhere in the country. This week, a court in Oklahoma declared that state law did not criminalize oral sex with a victim who was incapacitated by alcohol. And on 15 April, at a campaign event in New York, Republican presidential candidate John Kasich advised a college student concerned about rape: “don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol”.
Going public exposed Barney to yet another wave of abuse, this time via newspaper comment sections, social media posts and threatening emails – a sign of the tough job ahead for BYU students and alumnae as they push against a culture that both nurtures and punishes.
“Are we to understand that this young lady wants her transgressions overlooked while holding others accountable for theirs?” wrote one online skeptic. “In the end, be moral and don’t break the rules and you’ll be better off”, scolded another. Asked a third, “Why do people think that a sexual assault means ‘everything I did is irrelevant and I am in no way responsible?’