“Looking at Lehi’s dream, I feel like BYU’s honor code office handcuffs you to the iron rod and then says, “No, you have agency, you can leave whenever you want, here’s a saw.” And then they use you and the other handless people as lessons on why letting go of the rod is so awful, and if only they had the gospel in their lives.”
[Content warning: Rape]
Discussing BYU’s honor code (or complaining about it, depending on where you stand on the subject) is a time honored tradition for many students of any of the Lord’s Universities. The most common response to even mildly questioning the honor code is usually a form of:
“You chose to come here. You knew what you signed up for. Church members are subsidizing your tuition so you can get a college education for dirt cheap. Thousands of students would rush to fill your place if you left. Get it together.”
And yet, from talking about the honor code with a lot of different people, I don’t think many members are aware that the honor code is NOT simply about obeying all the things we learn about at church. At the end of this post, you can see for yourself some of the notable requirements of the honor code at BYU Provo, Idaho, and Hawaii (beyond simply academic honesty, which is very important). The honor code’s enforcement is an incredibly shady business about which most members and indeed most students know little unless they’ve had to deal with it themselves.
There’s a great deal of important issues raised by critical discussions of the honor code, but I won’t detail them here. Instead I present to you these six stories of BYU students who had personal experiences with the honor code, in the form of getting called into the honor code office, being disciplined by their bishop, or disciplined by employers at BYU with respect to the code. All names have been changed.
To be exceedingly clear: the purpose of this post is not to encourage BYU students to break the honor code en masse. The purpose of this post is to humanize the experience of people charged with breaking the honor code, innocently or guiltily, and to promote critical discussion of the many aspects of the honor code and its enforcement that could be changed for the better.
My roommate at the time and I both had boyfriends and had both gone a little too far the same Saturday night. We told each other and decided to go to the bishop together. She had an appointment first, and seemed to be a little shaken from the meeting, which I assumed was because of her remorse. I was not in this student ward for very long and didn’t know my bishop, and this felt highly personal to tell someone I barely knew.
I was unprepared for the intensity of the bishop’s questioning. I guess I understand the bishop needs to know the nature/extent of the sin to know how to discipline, but even then, in no objective sense could I imagine the depth of the questions my bishop was asking me were appropriate. I became highly uncomfortable as my bishop pressed for more and more intimate details, rephrasing questions when I was stuttering/blushing too hard to answer.
Questions like “How many fingers” and “How deep did they penetrate” to name a couple.
I was instructed to not take the sacrament for one month and to meet regularly with my bishop during that time. My roommate had a similar punishment, but we were both confused when her boyfriend’s bishop just told him to “be more careful next time,” even though it wasn’t his first offense. This experience made my roommate and I deeply uncomfortable, and for all our fasting and praying it was still upsetting to know that if we had a different bishop, or if we were men, this might not have happened at all. We were told the Spirit had guided him, even though I felt farther from the Spirit in his office than I had at any other point in my life. Maybe we just had a “bad bishop,” but playing bishop roulette in the ever shuffling student wards is a risky game, and I resent being told to just try to ignore it, pretend it was just a one time thing, and hope it doesn’t happen again.
About two weeks before walking at graduation in April last year, I tried clocking in at my on campus job (which I had had for three years and was a fantastic and legendary employee), and the clock-in machine denied me. I went to the business office, and they told me I’d been terminated. They had no idea why. I started silently flipping a shit to myself because I was imagining all of the worst possible scenarios wherein I was turned into the Honor Code Office. They could have literally gotten me for anything on the list. (Well, I had no homosexual activity yet. Or an extra piercing. I should still get that extra piercing.) Anyway, as I was waiting for the business office to figure their shit out, I had a huge meltdown right in the middle of the HFAC lobby. To cut a long story short, I got on the phone the Honor Code people, and they were perplexed as to why no one had informed me that my bishop had turned me in. For church attendance. I was so relieved that it wasn’t an anonymous source who had turned me in for LITERALLY anything else. But so hurt that a bishop would do that without actually getting ahold of me first. I believe I used the analogy “like finding the lost sheep, but cutting off all of its legs and beating it before coercing it back into the fold.” “We sent you letters” and “You weren’t there when we came to visit” I was told.
The Honor Code office told me I didn’t have to come in quite yet, and that I needed to meet with my bishop for the next step. Before gathering up the courage to meet with my bishop, I cried much on my couch while listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I don’t remember many specifics about the meetings with my bishop (blocked those memories right out), but I do remember him being so manipulative in such an outwardly nice way, and using his position of authority over me to control me and make me completely powerless.
“Emmeline, I’m just trying to help save your soul.”
He told me that he just didn’t know what to do about me. He wanted to meet with me again, he wanted me to watch conference and tell him what I learned, and to go to church and shake his hand every time, then we could go from there. I didn’t think I could do all of those things while maintaining my own personal integrity.
These were very dark times. I couldn’t ever stop crying. All day, all the time. I felt so powerless. I technically wasn’t allowed attendance in my classes, but I went anyway. After talking to friends, my therapist, a beloved feminist progressive professor of mine, my wonderful boss, and the people at Dave and Cranky Chuckie’s (seriously, they talked to me for about an hour and a half after closing, gave me my meal for free- “shitty day discount”, then baked me cookies), I decided to just do it. I made it through all 8 hours of conference, went to church, had my therapist and boss write letters to my bishop about my depression/anxiety/whatever, and came up with a script as to what I’d say to my bishop that was what he wanted to hear while still being honest for myself. I met with my bishop again- this time making great effort to have a better attitude and to play his game. He told me that he saw a change in my countenance and that I was just a lost soul who had finally seen some light. Okay, whatever sir. I just played his game. He called the honor code office and cleared things up the next day. I never was rehired, though. I didn’t even tell my parents about all of this until months after. But now I’M A FREE BIRD.
When I first received the phone call summoning me to the Honor Code office, I was hurt, confused, and scared. I didn’t have anything to be afraid of, because I hadn’t done anything wrong, but it was unsettling nonetheless. I had always been a good honor-code-abiding student, almost a wallflower at BYU, and now some mysterious person out there who knew my name had some influence over my academic future. I felt needlessly invaded, as though someone had been watching me sleep at night.
When I reported to the office the next day, I was told that someone had reported a male was staying at my apartment (I’m female). Supposedly, the male had been staying with my roommate, which identified me as a witness of the violation. Even though the woman I spoke with was kind, it definitely felt like a “guilty until proven innocent” situation. We ended up settling the matter with no outstanding issues, but I was told that in the future, if I knew about something like that and didn’t report it, I could face disciplinary action from the university. Basically, at BYU, witnesses face discipline if they’re not the first to report an incident. It felt like a threat.
This experience opened my eyes to the environment here that encourages students to identify the “less righteous” to the authority. And when that self-righteous encouragement doesn’t work, the authority uses fear instead. But I think the worst part of it all is that if someone had a personal problem with someone else, they could easily give a false report to the HCO about their victim. The accuser’s identity and dignity is protected, while the victim is assumed to be guilty and invasively questioned. I still love the church and I love BYU, but I have to admit that this experience shook me up. I respect the honor code, and I know it exists for a reason. However, the way violations are handled is scary.
My previous boss in the counseling center, who was an 80-year-old sister missionary who had no office management experience, sent me home from work because she thought my shirt was too low-cut. This was before I had taken out my endowments, so I didn’t have the garment-measure of what was deemed as what I used to call “Jesus-Approved.” (I no longer attach myself to this idea that modesty determines how good/bad of a person I am.)
Before I stopped wearing my garments, I did wear this outfit again with garments underneath and BIG SHOCKER- it was “Jesus-Approved.” My big problem with it is that if you look at the photo [below], there is nothing “immodest” about this outfit, but her main problem is that I am a chesty girl and SHOCKER- you can tell. For anyone who has 38DD’s like me, you’d be hard pressed to find any outfit that totally hid your chest outside of a hoodie.
And when she told me to go home and change, she didn’t do it privately and discretely, she said it in front of three of my coworkers sternly and loudly for all to hear. She said,
“That shirt is immodest and inappropriate. Go home and change and don’t come back until you’re willing to follow the honor code and show some respect for yourself and for God.”
I was completely embarrassed and shamed. I thought I looked really nice that day and felt beautiful until that moment. I felt objectified and dirty and I lost all respect for her in that moment. I spent the rest of the day with an ugly grey hoodie zipped all the way up over my chest. I felt fat and gross and ugly and I was ashamed of the body I only seconds before had felt great about.
It was then that I finally realized that the modesty doctrine was so damaging to women and how they are viewed in the world, especially in Mormon culture. There was no reason that I should have felt bad about myself in that moment, in that outfit. I should have been proud that I had taken the time to look nice that day and I should have felt confident instead of letting her opinion get the best of me.
I learned a valuable lesson that day: my clothing does not define my worth. Old sister missionaries do not define my worth. I am strong and beautiful and deserve to feel that way every day, boobs and all.
[From BYU Hawaii- quick note that hale=house in Hawaiian]
I was called into the honor code office yesterday, and in my head I thought “surely it’s that petition I’ve been working on, they want to squash my individuality.” BUT NO. My hale/dorm coordinator and one of the RAs reported me for “immodesty issues.” The head of the HC office didn’t want to tell me the names, but after I started bawling and elaborated on why I thought it wasn’t fair that I was accused without knowing my accuser, he gave me the text of the report. So now I feel super uncomfortable in the place I LIVE because two people that had never even talked to me about my “immodesty” reported me. They also used the situation of one of my friends, who is also an RA, asking me to put on longer shorts, out of context. She was confused and also furious when I told her. I have to write a written report and had to sign a contract saying I wouldn’t talk to them about it because it could be considered harassment and I could get kicked out. The text of the report, minus names, but including grammatical errors, is:
“It was brought to —-‘s, Hale – Coordinator, attention on 2/13/14 —‘s issues with immodesty. When —-, Hale – RA, saw — in the lounge dressed immodestly, she asked her to go change. — response was. You can tell me what you want, but I don’t care. —– witnessed the incident. According to other RA’s observations [none of whom have ever talked to me] — has claimed that she refuses to follow the honor code because she claims it is something that is illogical and needs to change. She said I brought all of these shorts to Hawaii, I’m going to wear them. We are now passing the issue to the Honor Code office because of her defiance.”
There are obviously some serious problems:
- THIS WAS ONE INCIDENT. I had heat rash and I explained that and my friend was like, no problem, I just had to tell you. I did NOT say “you can tell me what you want, I don’t care” at any point. After ONE INCIDENT, people who had NEVER TALKED TO ME reported me to HC for my DEFIANCE. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME.
- To the person who “witnessed it”, I had previously said, “it’s just really frustrating and difficult that I brought all these clothes to Hawaii and I CAN’T WEAR THEM.” Wtf. She said “I understand, that’s a problem most people have.” I never said that I refuse to follow it. I wouldn’t be at this school if I refused to follow it.
- Guilty until proven innocent? Anonymous reporting? That’s so shady. So shady. They literally hold my livelihood, place of residence, education, and life savings spent on tuition in their hands. They can flick me like a bug on false accusations.
- All of the answers to my questions by the head of HC were SO SCARY and another animal, which I’ll talk about now.
- The sheer fact that I was brought in there with no evidence against me, and wasn’t going to be told my accusers until I repeatedly asked, is absolutely absurd and terrifying.
- The fact that someone who doesn’t talk to me can literally destroy my life is also scary. Why did they think that was okay? Who DOES THAT to people????
- I was told that “Repentance is always an option, and that’s what we’re here for. Not saying you need to repent, just throwing that out there.” NO I DON’T NEED TO REPENT. AND IT’S NOT ALWAYS AN OPTION. When people, say, have sex – they get freaking kicked out. There isn’t a choice to repent. There is ZERO Christlike love in the administration of this institution, and I told him that.
- He’s a previous police officer. I have terrible experiences with the police not believing me and believing people who lied about me so that’s just intensifying this.
- I was told that I should go to another school because there are thousands of people who not only would follow the honor code but would also “help others follow it” i.e. rat people out. I said I’d be at UH if I could afford it but I can’t. He still said I should go to UH, right after I said that wasn’t a choice for me, because I can’t afford it.
- When I said that other people regularly got away with more immodest clothing in my hale and I was one of the select few who got reported on ONE INCIDENT, he encouraged me to give him a list of other girls who were immodest so that they could talk to them too. NO WAY IN HELL. “But it would be anonymously. They won’t have your name.”
- I broke you. Other people can too.
- I don’t WANT it to be anonymous. If I say something about someone, I say it to their face. I don’t tattle under the table.
- I’m not bringing everyone else down with me. That’s wrong. And it’s disgusting that he suggested it.
- When I said that it was interesting that the school promoted treating adults like children, he kept offering hypothetical situations where I should feel inclined to report. “If your friend was repeatedly drunk and got in a car accident, you wouldn’t feel bad for not reporting them earlier?” NO I WOULDN’T. Because I would talk to THEM and tell them that’s a stupid choice, and if they still choose to make it, they’re an adult with agency and it’s on them. “Do you think your beliefs on this will change in 30 years when you have teenage children?” Not in the least. -He said that we’re living in likeness to the law of Moses right now because we’re not ready to make our own choices. “In the future, when we can give people correct principles and they’ll govern themselves, it will be more like what you’re aiming for.” UH PRETTY SURE THAT’S NOW. We are adults. And after we graduate, there’s no HCO to keep us in check.
- He basically said that if the HCO didn’t exist, chaos would reign. He gave a story of a girl who CHOSE to go to town and sleep with a military dude and didn’t come home for three days. He said, “that sort of stuff is what we’re protecting you from.” EVEN IF IT WAS AN INSTANCE OF RAPE, THAT HAPPENS UP HERE, AND HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IMMODEST DRESS/NIGHTCLUBS NO MATTER WHAT YOU SAY.
- Etc. etc. I could go on forever.
TL;DR – Honor Code encourages treating adults like children, disabling the purpose of agency, having friends rat out other friends without directly talking to them, and shaming people even when they haven’t done anything wrong. Additionally, they have free reign to make or break people’s entire lives, and can freely make sexist/other terrible statements under the guise of authority from the Church. So, I will do everything in my power to give my future children the ability to go somewhere of higher caliber.
In college I was raped by my boyfriend.
I felt horrible and went to my Bishop. His plan of action was to have me read The Miracle Of Forgiveness and to meet with him until he felt my repentance process was complete. During that time I was not allowed to take the sacrament, hold a calling, or pray in church meetings/activities.
It took 9 months for him to feel I’d repented.
The person who raped me was in the same singles ward. I asked the Bishop what his punishment would be.
Nothing. The Bishop decided not to have the man go through the repentance process because he was only a year from graduating at BYU and the Bishop didn’t want to risk the chance of him getting kicked out of school.
If you or someone you know has had an interaction with the Honor Code Office or bishop discipline at BYU, please consider sending in your story to firstname.lastname@example.org. An ex-BYU Idaho student is compiling an anthology of experiences and would love to hear about yours.