Keli Byers is a sophomore in college, and like many Americans her age, she is sexually active. At Brigham Young University, where she’s enrolled, that makes her “a slut by Mormon standards,” she says. At BYU, women “who aren’t virgins are treated as inferiors.” This is a social judgment, but it’s also an institutional one: Students who attend BYU are required to sign an honor code committing to live a “chaste life.” For women, that means no sex, but it also means additional rules, like no skirts worn above the knee. Students who don’t comply risk expulsion.
Now, Byers is speaking out in the pages of Cosmopolitan about how the school’s emphasis on chastity—often framed as a device for protecting female virtue—imposes a sexist double standard against women and is particularly damaging to victims of rape. As a teenager, Byers was sexually assaulted by a man who had just returned from a Mormon mission. When she told her bishop about the assault, “I was banned from church for a month,” she writes. “I was punished because a man had touched me.” And now, at BYU, she is being shamed yet again by policies that have more consequences for women than men, like the dress code that’s framed as a way to “help men control their thoughts.”
As schools across the country are being criticized for failing to intervene in cases of sexual assault on campus, Byers reminds us that some American students are still contending with what seems like the opposite problem: Their schools aggressively ban all sexual contact, and that approach can be just as damaging to victims, if not more so. In 2009, I wrote about the sex ban at the Catholic University of America, where, in the student code of conduct, consensual sex and sexual assault were outlawed in the same sentence; both masturbation and rape were sins that could trigger disciplinary action. Predictably, Catholic’s rule failed to prevent harmless sexual contact among its students. (And today, as Byers notes, students at schools with similar rules have as much access to Tinder as everyone else.) But the policy also created a situation where students were so afraid of running afoul of the chastity rules that they didn’t speak up even in cases of sexual assault. For victims and bystanders, reporting rape meant requiring students to admit that they had engaged in perfectly legal sexual encounters, or had appeared in an opposite-sex dorm against the university’s rules, or had consumed alcohol—all of which was regarded, according to the school code, as just as bad as raping another student.
Byers’ story echoes that of fellow Mormon Elizabeth Smart, the kidnapping victim turned victim’s advocate who was abducted and raped at age 14. Smart has also spoken out about how abstinence-only sex ed tactics like the chewing-gum analogy—which claims that all people who engage in sexual contact, willingly or not, are damaged goods, like chewed-up gum—effectively shames rape victims. (Byers, too, got the chewing gum lesson as a teen in church.) Now, secular colleges are also succumbing to the damaging reasoning that allowing young men and women to interact with each other is the real problem here. Columbia University recently canceled a campus concert after, according to one student group, administrators raised concerns in a meeting “associated with drinking and sexual harassment” at the concert—as if sexual assault can be prevented by keeping men and women in different social (and moral) spheres. (Columbia told the New York Times that the cancellation was unrelated to sexual assault concerns.)
While schools like BYU continue to conflate consensual sex with sexual assault in order to shame victims (along with everyone else), Cosmo is smartly taking the opposite route: The magazine is expanding its breezy coverage of the “fun fearless female,” who comes to Cosmo for sex tips galore, to recognize that being a woman who likes sex is still a controversial statement in many corners of America. The fact that Keli Byers—now a proud member of Mormon Young Feminists—was forced to bring her story to Cosmo instead of being heard on campus should bring shame on BYU.