Sexual Assault at BYU: My Own Story

Guest post by Genevieve Demos Kelley, cross posted from

Genevieve's artIn 1997, during my last year at Brigham Young University (BYU), I was raped just off campus by a stranger who approached me and asked for the time. He said he had a knife, and I did not resist the attack. I was frozen with fear. I didn’t kick or bite or try to run away. I couldn’t scream; I couldn’t make even one sound of protest. For years, I would replay the attack over and over in my mind, trying to imagine a different outcome, trying to imagine myself fighting off the rapist. Even in my imagination, I could never escape from the rape. I couldn’t make myself fight hard enough.

I was a young, devout Mormon woman with no prior sexual experience, and the rape left me with overwhelming guilt and shame. Self-blame was accompanied by a lingering feeling that I had lost some important part of myself, something that I wasn’t sure I could ever regain. I had the sense that everything in my world was somehow tainted and dirty. For months, I hated my sexual organs, so horrified was I by what had happened to them and to me.

But here is the part of the story that I remember with gratitude: When I reported the rape, everybody believed me. Every single person. And nobody blamed me. Nobody asked me why I stopped to talk to a strange man on a dark street. Nobody wondered why I didn’t scream or run when I had the chance. When I apologized, sobbing, to the police officer on duty for being stupid enough to walk home alone in the dark, his response was emphatic: “You had every right to walk down that street, ” he said. “This wasn’t your fault.” When I asked my bishop whether God would forgive me, he told me as many times as I needed to hear it that there was nothing to forgive. When I asked my roommates whether they were disappointed in me, they told me that they were angry. Not at me, but at the rapist.

So many people during those first few hours and days were there to give me the support I needed: the group of young men—strangers to me—who called the police for me when I burst into their house after the attack, the detectives who questioned me, the doctors and nurse who examined me, my bishop who showed up to give me a priesthood blessing, my roommates who took me home, the dean of students who called me the next day to tell me how sorry she was that this had happened, the family members who loved me fiercely and protectively, the BYU psychologist who provided counseling services. It felt like I was being wrapped in successive layers of healing love by everyone I came into contact with. During the long months ahead, as I worked through my own trauma and shame, I knew that I could lean on people around me—people who saw me as worthy of respect and love, even when I couldn’t respect or love myself.

Every survivor needs this kind of support. Rape victims should not have to prove that they are perfect rule-followers in order to get the help that they need. They shouldn’t have to prove that they struggled and fought. And though this should be obvious to everyone, it’s worth saying again: Rape victims who know their attacker should be treated with as much respect as victims of strangers. Date rape should outrage us as much as, if not more than, the less-common stranger-in-a-dark-alley scenario.

Reading the stories in the last few weeks of sexual assault victims who were treated poorly at BYU has been painfully eye-opening. It horrifies me that, while I was believed and supported, others have been blamed and censured because of suspected Honor Code infractions. Being raped was bad enough. I do not know how I would have survived had I also been shamed and punished.

I plead with university administrators to make reasonable changes in the university’s policies and practices: Please do not punish victims of sexual assault for Honor Code violations that come to light over the course of the investigation of the assault. This puts victims in a terrible position, forcing them to choose between putting their academic career in jeopardy and letting their assailant go free. Please do not make policing Honor Code violations a higher priority than finding and prosecuting rapists.

Please do not add to victims’ trauma by opening up an investigation into their behavior. Please give them the supporting services that they need to heal. Please let all students know that they are safe to report sexual assault.

Finally, please consider issuing an apology for the harm already done to students. As administrators of a university that affirms the Gospel of Christ, you have an opportunity to teach us all a lesson in humility and self-reflection. To this end, the newly-formed sexual assault advisory council and the website asking for feedback from the BYU community are wonderful first steps. Admissions of error will not make the university look weak or foolish. Rather, they have the potential to be a beautiful testament to the power of redemption and our universal need for grace.

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18 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    What a powerful post! Thank you for sharing this! I’m so sorry that you were raped, but I’m glad that people around you were so good to you afterward. I hope that, like you said, this becomes the standard at BYU, rather than the common case where a woman who has been raped is treated with suspicion and is blamed in whole or in part for what a rapist did to her.

  2. hawkgrrrl says:

    Thank you for sharing such a difficult experience. Wouldn’t it be great if BYU did issue an apology? Since I’ve never seen them apologize for anything, I’m not really sure what that would look like. They’ve dialed down the arrogance, but then Otterson’s horrid PR statement just doubled down on the arrogance, and the dogs of war have been unleashed, once again putting every rape victim at BYU on trial.

  3. Liz says:

    I’m so sorry that this happened to you, Genevieve, but I’m so, so grateful that you shared it with us and that those around you supported and believed you. I agree with you on the apology – wouldn’t that be amazing?! Why does that feel like such a big ask?? Why can’t our institutions show strength via humility instead of strength via arrogance?

    Thank you again for sharing your story.

  4. Thank you so much! I think you did a great job of pinning down a key factor in why some rape victims are supported by our institutions and others are further victimized. Mormon society, like the rest of American society, seems bent on believing that victims of date rape are somehow responsible for rapist’s actions. We need to purge this kind of philosophy out of our community, in addition to changing policy.

    An apology from church and BYU leaders would really help to set the tone. I think that an earnest apology from leadership would set the example–really help us rank-and-file Mormons to reconsider any victim-blaming attitudes we may maintain toward victims of rape by acquaintances. I worry about the recent trend in our community to refuse to apologize. This kind of pride seems to cement poor policy, instead of humbly working toward a more Zion-like community.

  5. Anne says:

    Thank you for your courage in sharing your story. I support your call for BYU to apologize.

  6. Caroline says:

    Thank you so much for your courage in sharing your story. What a horrifying experience. I am so glad, however, that people around you at BYU were so supportive and wonderful to you. If only other rape victims at BYU could also be surrounded by such love and support. I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestions on changes to policy. No woman should have to choose between finishing her education and letting her rapist go free.

  7. Stephanie says:

    1997 was my freshman year at BYU. I remember your story being reported, and how that kind of shattered my “I’m at BYU and so of course I’m safe” bubble. I remember the attacker’s arrest after people noticed him trying to lure women into his car outside a campus building. (At least I believe this was the same case, my apologies if I’m mistaken). I’ve thought of you since then, and I’m so glad to hear that you had so much support and love as you tried to recover and heal. And I agree with everything you’ve said. I hope that as BYU evaluates its policies it can move to MUCH better practices. Victims need support, not censure. And predators need to stop feeling secure in the knowledge that they will get away with their crimes.

  8. Violadiva says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. I think you pointed out an important piece about not feeling able to fight back; so much victim blaming goes on in this regard, with rhetoric about fighting to your death to protect your “virtue.”
    Unless you’ve been there, people have no idea what “fighting back” looks like, but some assume that if a victim did fight back, she’d somehow be successful in overcoming her assailant.
    I’m so glad you felt supported, believed and helped. What a scary thing to go through.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    Genevieve, your voice is such an important one in this conversation. Thank you so much for sharing such a difficult time.

  10. spunky says:

    I am so sorry that you had this experience. Thank you so very very much for being a voice of strength and reason. I agree with every word you’ve written, and hope BYU takes notice. <3

  11. Walker says:

    You’re very brave to share your story. Do you think the difference is that you were attacked at knifepoint by a stranger, whereas the other women more recently reporting rape were with an acquaintance, at a party, some under the influence? It’s truly devastating that the concept of acquaintance rape isn’t as strong as stranger rape, when it’s significantly more likely to occur on a date or with someone you let into your home, your car, your life.
    Please continue to speak about this subject- it’s uncomfortable and painful, but people need to know it’s not uncommon and it happens to us. The faithful, the kind- any one of us. And remind them that the level of support you experienced should be the same for any survivor of assault- no matter their circumstances.

    • Genevieve Kelley says:

      Walker, thank you for that important question. I do suspect that rape by a stranger often triggers more compassion and support than rape that occurs at a party or on a date. This tendency to privilege one victim over another is horribly unfair and should be completely unacceptable to us as a community. We must not think that rape is somehow less awful for the victim because the rapist is someone whom she knows and trusts. We must not be less horrified by people who rape their friends, acquaintances, and family members than by those who rape strangers.

  12. Jenny says:

    Thank you for sharing this! What a powerful testament to the need for victims of sexual assault to buoyed up with love and compassion. It pains me to think about the added pain that BYU has caused women through shaming and nor sputtering them when they need the support the most. You ate absolutely right with this: “Rape victims who know their attacker should be treated with as much respect as victims of strangers. Date rape should outrage us as much as, if not more than, the less-common stranger-in-a-dark-alley scenario.” And I love your plee to BYU to apologize and seek for redemption.

  13. Suzanne Kemeny Riddle says:

    Dear Genevieve,

    Thank you for writing this. I remember you in 1997. So many of us wanted to help, but didn’t have adequate words.

    I’m heartbroken to hear how hard your experience was. I’m so glad you felt believed and supported. I’m glad that helped.

    You are very courageous. Thanks for sharing your experience, to help other students at BYU. Blessings to you.

    • Genevieve Kelley says:

      Dear Suzy, Thank you for your comment. I remember you with so much fondness and admiration.

  14. Melissa Goates Jones says:

    Geneveive–thanks so much for sharing your story. I was a freshman at BYU in 1997 and also remember your story. I think we knew each other from the Chevy Chase singles ward in Maryland–this makes this story even more powerful to me. Love to you.

  1. May 29, 2016

    […] victim blaming statements about how we can Keep our Boys Safe.   But please don’t miss the very sincere and vulnerable sharing of stories by victims and survivors of sexual assaults on BYU campus, and […]

  2. June 10, 2016

    […] post by Genevieve Demos Kelley.  Genevieve recently posted on the Exponent Blog about her experience of rape at BYU.  This post is cross posted […]

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