The last few months have revealed troubling patterns in the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist worlds. While they are known for prohibiting sex before marriage, certain institutions have responded to victims of sexual violence by scapegoating the victims.
Bob Jones University (BJU) hired, fired, then re-hired Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) to investigate how the university has treated victims in the past. The investigation team was to recommend steps that BJU can take to insure their campus is a safe environment. Some of the victims who have come forward as part of this investigation claim they were told by the BJU administration that they “tempted” their attackers, and told that they should not file a report with police because it could damage the reputations of various Christian leaders and “the body of Christ.”
It doesn’t end there. Several students came forward sharing their experiences at Patrick Henry College (PHC). One unnamed woman says she was sexually assaulted and then told by the administration not to report it. She claims they “hinted” that if she did, she would be expelled.
At Pensacola Christian College (PCC), several students have claimed that when they approached the administration after being sexually assaulted, they were expelled for various reasons. Incredibly, one of the victims was expelled for “fornication,” another for “deceit,” and the last for “sexual immorality.” In my own case, I was told to “repent” and to “take responsibility” for my part in my assaults. PCC has “categorically den[ied]” the claims.
All of that is disturbing, occasionally horrifyingly so. However, there is something even more insidious running under the surface at the three institutions. The common value—at least the stated value—is sexual purity, which often is partly to blame for the institutions’ choice to re-victimize those who have suffered sexual violence.
For many, the teachings of purity culture—expressed in purity pledges, purity rings, formal purity balls—is an opportunity to commit to self-respect and self-control. However, in many environments, it can have extremely negative consequences, such as encouraging women to remain in abusive relationships because they are no longer “pure.” But many people who grew up in this culture think of it in positive terms, arguing that “staying pure” helped them avoid the heartbreak of breakups, repeated letdowns, and later, divorce.
However, when purity culture meets an institution such as a Christian college or university, with a vested interest in protecting its reputation among hyper-conservative parents, the result is a campus that is unsafe for victims. Because sexual purity is upheld in the institutions’ codes of conduct, victims of sexual abuse are penalized if they come forward.
The three colleges mentioned above enacted strict morality codes, and all of them have strict guidelines regarding sexual morality; however, not every guideline is well-defined. In BJU’s Student Handbook, for instance, “sensual behavior” can result in immediate expulsion (page 47). But the school’s Handbook does not make it clear what “sensual behavior” is. Each school, however, makes it clear that any sexual behavior that takes place outside of heterosexual marriage is immoral or a “perversion” (PCC’s Pathway, page 14).
However, none of the morality codes stops with the typical evangelical injunction not to engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage. At BJU and PCC, physical contact of any kind is forbidden, and students of the opposite sex are not allowed to be off campus together without a chaperone. Each school designates areas of campus that are strictly off-limits to students of a particular sex. At PHC, “ladies” are warned to not “walk in the dark” (Student Affairs Manual, page 3). Dress codes are designed to encourage not just modesty, but “purity” and to “protect against the effects of sin” (PCC’s Pathway, page 13).
When it comes to addressing sexual violence, only PHC even mentions it—and only once—referring to “sexual assault” in a brief section titled “Legal Standards” (Handbook, page 28). They do not mention it again, not even under a list of “more serious violations” in the Student Affairs Manual (page 8). Neither BJU nor PCC mention anything beyond “harassment,” and even that is discussed only parenthetically, for the most part.
So what does all of this mean?
In American culture, when a victim of sexual violence comes forward, he or she can be met with virulent criticism and skepticism. Questions such as “what were you wearing?” or “how much did you have to drink?” typically are thrown at the victim. However, at Pensacola Christian College, Bob Jones University, and Patrick Henry College, these questions are the default. If a student alleges that he or she has been violated sexually, the institutions’ first step in response is to prove what violations the victim is responsible for committing.
At these colleges, because the administration has a commitment to uphold strict morality codes, what were you wearing? where were you walking? were you drinking? become the automatic line of questioning. It often is found that the victim of sexual abuse did, in fact, commit a minor infraction. When that is the case, such an admission on the part of the victim is used to paint the victim as an equally guilty party.
Students at these schools usually are required to sign an agreement stating that one condition of remaining a student is to abide by the code of conduct. If they report sexual abuse, and during questioning are found to have violated a rule, they know that a black mark will be added to their file.
Questioning of the victim can turn into a type of psychological warfare, in which the student is led to question who, in fact, was responsible for the attack. They are forced to ask themselves: “Would someone in the administration think I was dressed immodestly?” or “I know I wasn’t supposed to be in a classroom alone with him. What will they do to me if I tell them?”
The morality codes often work in favor of the assailant. Studies indicate that rapists victimize those who are less likely to report the attack. At these colleges in particular, an assailant can rely on the victim’s fear of reprisal from the administration, or even expulsion from the school. Once the victim has broken a rule—such as being with a member of the opposite sex in a parking garage, off campus, or in an empty classroom—they know the administration is likely to hold the victim at least partly responsible.
The school administration is compelled to enforce the morality code, not to mention protect the institution’s reputation. Further, deans and college presidents are highly motivated to maintain the trust of parents who send their sons and daughters to a Christian college. Given the pressures and loyalties of those in the administration, it seems they are likely to not interact appropriately with victims. They often are guided more by the rules enumerated in the morality code than by compassion and a desire to assist the victim of sexual abuse. So when a young woman or man falls victim to the coercive tactics of an abuser, the administration is left with the job of assigning blame. In situations involving sexual violence, this can result in the administration placing a higher priority in determining penalties (including expulsion) than in helping bring healing to the victim.
What this interaction does—the interrogations followed by penalizing the student who reports abuse—is to send victims the message that they are at least partly responsible and that they will not be protected and helped by the administration. Many students who are violated on Christian college campuses carry guilt and shame for something that was not their fault.
The perverted standard enforced by these college administrators is one tragedy. That these universities seem more interested in protecting their public image than in helping victims is another.