How @HonorCode Stories Will Change BYU
Stories are about to change a university. Let me explain.
Most people in the Mormon feminist community have heard about the Instagram campaign to expose and hopefully change the practices of BYU’s Honor Code Office. The account, @HonorCodeStories, was begun by BYU alumna Sidney Draughon and has 36k folowers and more than 1000 stories have been submitted. The goal is not to topple the Honor Code but to “restore accountability to the Honor Code office [HCO], and ensure protection, advocacy, and empowerment for all students, without compromising the integrity of the Honor Code itself.”
Back when I attended BYU in the 1980s, there were scary stories circulating about the HCO. And over the years students have tried to change things by writing letters, circulating petitions, making calls, yet it appears that things have become more draconian over time. But I believe things will change. And this is why.
The submissions to the Instagram account are mini narratives, tiny tales of (sometimes big) trauma with a beginning, middle and end. One can be accused of almost anything: sexual infractions, sexual orientation, cheating, hair & dress, and on and on. Some confess to having broken rules but then the process goes off the rails; some assert they were falsely accused for a variety of reasons (my favorite? To open up a spot on the Young Ambassadors!); some are in trouble for not turning in roommates or friends who violate the HCO. Whatever the cause, there is something extremely powerful in reading these narratives of vulnerability.
The bottom line in each case seems to be: “This happened and I had no recourse.” And yet, the very act of writing the story is an act of power. In a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “The Story of my Life,” author Julie Beck observes, “There’s something about the narrative form, specifically—while expressing thoughts and feelings about negative events seems to help people’s well-being, one study found that writing them in a narrative form helped more than just listing them.” Telling is helpful. Listing is helpful. But writing is transformative.
Before @HonorCodeStories, the tales of humiliation and outrage told behind closed doors could be dismissed as the rantings of rule breakers, kids who were selfish and took the spots of upright students who would not have transgressed. (In fact this is my sister’s theory, that because BYU has become so competitive to get into, the pressure to weed out the unworthy has led to tactics more suited to Mao, Stalin or McCarthy than an LDS institution.) In creating a space for people to share their shame, Draughon has created a platform that validates both the individual and collective experience.
In an article in Psychology Today, physician Lissa Rankin explores the personal benefits of sharing stories in public spheres:
“Every time you tell your story and someone else who cares bears witness to it, you turn off the body’s stress responses, flipping off toxic stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine and flipping on relaxation responses that release healing hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, nitric oxide, and endorphins. When we tell our stories and others bear witness, the notion that we are disconnected beings suffering alone dissolves under the weight of evidence that this whole concept is merely an illusion.”
So why now? Why are people who’ve sat on their stories (some for decades) coming forward and willing to share, not just to a friend or two, but the whole interwebs? I think it’s because they now know they are not alone. There is power in numbers. We’ve all had that experience in RS or SS when one brave soul raises their hand and says, “I may be the only one who feels this way, but…” And invariably others raise their hands in agreement or come up the person after and say, “Thank you for saying what I was too afraid to say.” We know from movements like #metoo, that when a few souls bravely speak out, it empowers others to follow and the world can change.
The rush of contributors attest to the truth of what Maya Angelou said, “there’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Individually, as people add their stories, whether huge outrages or minor irritants, there is healing. Every time one of us “likes” a story, we are saying to the victim, I hear you. I support you. You are literally counted.
When something has this much light shed on it, it can’t be shoved back into the dark. We saw this in 2017 with the exposure of the rape culture on Utah campuses. What started with one brave woman resulted in “The yearlong reporting project boosted awareness of sexual assaults and campus safety, while spurring reforms at Utah State University and LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.” So I don’t think I’m overly optimistic in believing these stories are going to change policy, help heal the university and the ones who suffered. Stories change lives.