Brigham Young University dismissed star player Brandon Davies from its basketball team this week after he admitted to having sex with his girlfriend, violating the school’s honor code. How common is premarital sex at the country’s largest religious university?
It’s not clear, but here’s what we do know. A 1954 internal study (cited in a 1985 book about the university) estimated that 14 percent of students had sex before marriage—the only BYU-specific stat the Explainer could find. It also seems that, over the 20th century, BYU students became less, rather than more, approving of out-of-wedlock intercourse. A study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that the proportion of BYU students who considered premarital sex “morally wrong” increased between 1935 and 1973 from 88 percent to 98 percent. Compare these numbers with a more general study (PDF) of Mormon students “at five large universities and two small colleges in the northwestern part of the United States” in 1972, which found that 19 percent of men and 10 percent of women who attended church frequently or occasionally had participated in extramarital sex. Only about 60 percent of active churchgoers found it “immoral.”
BYU won’t say how often premarital-sex cases are reported to the Honor Code Office, and it’s impossible to know how many go unreported. Each year for the last decade, about 1.5 percent to 3.5 percent of students were contacted by the Honor Code Office about potential violations, according to the university. But that number includes all violations of the honor code, which not only prohibits premarital sex but also plagiarism, alcohol, and visiting opposite-sex dorms too late at night as well as “sleeveless, strapless, backless, or revealing” clothing for women; coffee; tea; and (unless you have certain doctor-confirmed skin conditions) beards. The university doesn’t provide rule-by-rule statistics but says that the majority of cases are for lesser taboos—those that would result in a warning rather than probation, suspension, or expulsion.
The university, established in 1875, did not create an explicit list of prohibitions until the 1939-40 school year; even then, it didn’t appear in the school catalog. The Student Honor Council, formed in the late 1940s, concerned itself mostly with academic honesty, booze, and tobacco. Rules against coffee and tea came along in the 1960s, along with a slew of other regulations. (Although other forms of caffeine, like Coca-Cola, are today considered a matter of personal choice, in earlier days the university reportedly removed No-Doz tablets from nationally marketed school-supply packs in the campus bookstore and a Pepsi Cola vending machine from a law-school lounge.)
The honor code applies to all Brigham Young campuses, including its business school and branches in Hawaii and Idaho and has spawned imitators elsewhere. Ironically, in 2008, students writing an honor code for the University of Texas at San Antonio lifted several passages from the BYU code without attribution.
Bonus Explainer: Could Davies sue BYU for harming his basketball career? Probably not. Arguments against such claims, at BYU and elsewhere, often cite the 1975 ruling for Slaughter v. Brigham Young University. Hayes Slaughter, a former BYU graduate student, sued the university for what he considered an unfair expulsion. Slaughter had added an adviser’s name, without telling him, as a co-author of two papers he submitted to a technical journal, apparently hoping they’d have a better chance of being accepted. The university considered the act a grave violation of the honor code; Slaughter insisted that he had acted in good faith. A jury initially awarded him $88,283 in damages, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, finding that BYU’s actions adequately followed due process.
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The Explainer thanks Carri Jenkins and Michael Smart of Brigham Young University.