90% of Provo rapes are not reported to the police.
This is just one of many disturbing facts in a Deseret Morning News article about rape in Provo. (The article is a few years old according to its byline, but it showed up this morning as #3 on the “Most Popular Articles” list on the Deseret website — I’m not quite sure why.) According to the BYU police officer cited in the article, “most Provo residents are religious and have a tendency to stigmatize discussion of sexual assault and sometimes to demonize the survivor.”
The officer discusses some incredibly disturbing interviews with rape victims. About one victim, he notes, “She said, ‘I should have died before I let him do that to me.’” About another: “I’m a perversion to the good saints of my church,” wrote the victim, who said she wished she were dead. And he warned that the internet could be a tool for rape and abuse, saying, “In my mind, (the Internet) is the biggest cesspool ever created. I tell coeds all the time: You’re stupid if you hang out in chat rooms.”
I found the article really disturbing. And I have to wonder to what extent some of these phenomena stem from attitudes that exist in church culture.
On some fronts, I think the church does very well. For instance, the article points out the problems of online sexual predation. And church leaders that I’ve seen tend to do very well at emphasizing the potential problems of the internet.
On other fronts, I’m less sure. The officer discusses a horrifying blame-the-victim mentality that seems to affect the decisionmaking of many Provo rape victims. It is an ugly idea, reminiscent of Victorian era ideas that tended to reduce a woman’s entire worth to her virginity. And yet, I’ve seen similar attitudes among church members with whom I’ve spoken. Some church members have casually mentioned to me that they’d never marry a non-virgin, even if she was a rape victim. If she’s still alive, she must not have fought hard enough. That idea seems terribly misguided to me; yet, incredibly, I’ve heard people cite both Mormon Doctrine and The Miracle of Forgiveness as evidence for this kind of stance.
If 90% of rapes are really going unreported in Provo, I have to wonder to what extent this connects to church culture. If, as the article suggests, it’s true that rape victims are sometimes afraid to report their assaults for fear of being demonized by other church members, then something is very wrong with our culture as a community.
A significant fraction of women will be victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives. Our community can do better in the way it treats these victims.
This kind of approach leaves assault victims with the terrible choice of risking ostracism and condemnation for their victim status, or trying to recover from their trauma alone. Meanwhile, a reporting rate of only 10% leaves dangerous predators unimpeded, to continue to prey on the community.
I think the article does a good job of highlighting some of the problems with a condemnatory approach toward rape victims. I’m wondering just how prevalent these attitudes are. In your observation, are blame-the-victim attitudes existent or prevalent among church members? Are these ideas more prevalent in particular segments of the population? What are the sources of these attitudes, if they exist?
And how can we, as church members, cultivate better attitudes and social mores in this area? How can we be clear that rape is not a victim’s fault, and that being a victim of rape is in no way a violation of any commandment? How can we be more compassionate towards victims of sexual assault?
(Please bear in mind when commenting that this is a very sensitive topic. Statistically, it is all but certain that some T&S readers have themselves been victims of sexual assault. Please be especially sensitive in comments.)