Commentary Violence

Christian Colleges Have a Sexual Assault Problem

Dianna Anderson

Stories of mishandling and outright ignoring cases of sexual assault within religious institutions go back decades.

Read more of our articles on consent and sexual assault on U.S. college campuses here.

When Samantha Field was deciding where to go to college, she had precious few options. As a woman who had grown up in an independent fundamentalist Baptist household, it was unusual for her to go to college in the first place. She lived in Florida, a short drive from Pensacola Christian College. It seemed like the obvious choice—her family could afford it without loans (the school is unaccredited), and she liked the music faculty she had met on a summer program. And, she says, the notoriously strict honor code was actually more lax than the rules in her church. “It allowed knee-length skirts and sitting at the same table as boys, or next to a boy during church. Initially, I felt liberated,” she told me.

But by the time Field reached her junior and senior years, she had undergone numerous sexual assaults at the hands of her then-fiancé. When she broke off the relationship and was honest about the toxic abuse she had been a victim of, she found herself shunned by much of the student body, and she was disillusioned. She couldn’t transfer out of the school because her credits wouldn’t go anywhere due to the school’s lack of accreditation. She would have to start over if she left. So she stayed and endured. “It got so bad that I stopped going anywhere in public—I had a friend who was a [graduate assistant] and she had a kitchen, so I would get up, go to my classes, and then hide in her room for the rest of the day,” she told me. “Being around campus was agony.”

Field’s story is unfortunately not unusual in the world of fundamentalist Christian schools. Students attend because these schools advertise themselves as safe places, which is key to parental support. For many women, it is their first time out from under the rigid restrictions of their fundamentalist household—it allows them to feel like a normal American woman for once. Unfortunately, for many, this comes with the experience of being sexually assaulted by a boyfriend or a friend. And when this happens, many women find themselves rejected by their church and their school.

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President Obama recently announced an initiative to curb rape on campuses across the United States. It is a well-known problem that rapes and sexual assaults that happen on campus are often handled in-house, without police interference. Often, there is little to no punishment for the rapists, and their victims are made to feel shame and guilt for reporting at all.

Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians often hold up these kinds of stories as examples of how “the world” is corrupt. Christian colleges bank on the idea that they are safer because they are a faith-based environment—the sexual sins of rape supposedly don’t happen on their campuses.

A number of recent revelations have proven this assertion wrong. From Bob Jones University to Pensacola to Cedarville to Patrick Henry to Hyles-Anderson College, Christian colleges are plagued by accusations at once familiar and strange: College counselors asking rape victims leading questions about their potential guilt, a lack of reporting to authorities, and failure to punish the rapist are all problems known to those who study incidences of rape at colleges and universities.

But in the Christian environment, the fundamentalist theology surrounding sexual activity and purity creates another layer of shame and guilt. A theology that positions the colleges as better and safer than their secular counterparts also creates an environment in which a person coming forward about rape risks being seen as “impure” and “broken.”

For example, Field recently reported that in 2003 another Pensacola Christian College student was attacked by her then-boyfriend, bound and gagged, and left in a construction site on campus after being raped. The student sought the help of a school counselor, but instead of receiving needed help and victim services, she was expelled for being a “fornicator.” She left campus while her injuries from the rape—a bruised face and a broken arm—were still healing. (The school’s president said in a recent statement that the school “has upheld the law, will continue to uphold the law, reports criminal acts when we are made knowledgeable of them, and fully cooperates with any investigation.” In response, Field wrote that she had heard directly from “a PCC staffer who was expressly forbidden—by three people in the administration—from reporting a child sexual assault to the police and [was] informed [by those three individuals] … that they would not make a report.” She says this “was confirmed by other staffers.” She acknowledges that it was not illegal, in 2011, for the school not to report the assault.)

The student’s expulsion and treatment by the college is directly tied to the perceived sin of having sex outside of marriage. It was apparently considered worse that she was now “impure” than that she had been raped. To her knowledge, her rapist was never confronted or punished, and went on to graduate.

Some students are attracted to campuses like PCC because of their strict honor code. Field tells me that students were required to sign an agreement to “obey to abide by the school’s restrictions and to acknowledge that PCC maintained the right to expel us at any point for any reason. It was also an agreement never to sue the school for anything.” The honor code, now referred to as “The Pathway,” contains such restrictions as what students can and cannot wear in the interest of modesty and purity, and explicitly states that any sex outside of a heterosexual marriage is “a perversion.”

Honor codes like PCC’s appear at Christian colleges around the United States. I attended a Christian liberal arts institution that had similar teachings on sex and purity, though we did not have to sign an honor code, and it was easier to get around the rules than at some places. Though PCC is often held up as an extreme example of legalism, the school is not nearly as much of an outlier as it is made to seem.

This theology about premarital sex creates a purity culture that is also a rape culture. The ways in which Christian colleges handle rape cases place this rape culture in harsh relief.

At Bob Jones University (BJU), students who report a sexual assault or rape are put through a ringer of questions about their sexual purity. The impression seems to be that if someone was already engaged in sexual sin, then rape is a kind of natural consequence to such behavior. Jeffrey Hoffman, a former student who is now the executive director of BJUnity, a group developed to support LGBT students and alumni from BJU, told me, “It’s a common assumption that people are sexually bad and have to be prevented from being sexually bad by living to strict rules. There is no talk about consent.”

The culture on campus, Hoffman says, operates within a system of tattling: “Spiritual leadership positions are generally given to those who rat out others for infractions of the rules, and the students face a lot of pressure to tattle on their friends.” This makes it hard to discuss problems with the way the administration handles a case of rape or sexual assault, or to seek outside help for such a case.

Similarly, as Kiera Feldman reported in the New Republic, the evangelical institution Patrick Henry College has experienced insularity when it comes to cases of rape and sexual assault. Cedarville University in Ohio, too, is currently undergoing a Title IX investigation in response to allegations that the school mishandled cases of rape that happened to students while on campus.

Stories of covering up and outright ignoring cases of sexual assault within religious institutions go back decades. In the 1980s, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) terminated the tenure of Donn Ketcham for having what was reportedly referred to in the ABWE community as an “affair” with a 14-year-old girl—but only after they made the girl sign a “confession” of how she “participated in a physical relationship with Dr. Donn Ketcham that transgressed God’s Word and that was not pleasing to Him.” In 2011, ABWE issued an apology for its actions, both in the 1980s and in the years since, pledging to further investigate multiple incidents of Ketcham’s “inappropriate behavior with the opposite sex.” This pledge only lasted two years, however, as they fired their independent investigator in 2013.

This is purity culture as rape culture in action.

The desire to set themselves apart from the secular world at large has led numerous Christian institutions to pretend that rape is not a problem, even in the most clear-cut of cases. I spoke to Tamara Rice, a former missionary kid with ABWE and a current child advocate. In Rice’s opinion, the theology of ABWE (theology mirrored by Christian colleges across the country) contributed greatly to their mishandling of cases of rape. Such mishandling, Rice said, is likely a result of “their beliefs about women’s worth combined with their beliefs about abuse—a lack of conviction that it is not the victim’s fault—and also what I would call their theology of reputation, meaning their belief that the ministry as a whole couldn’t survive the truth being told about one individual.”

This delicate dance between the theology that places women and survivors into a lower class of people, and the theology that says “the world is watching, put up a good front,” has made the falls from grace at Christian colleges all the greater. The complicated web of bad theologies, fragile reputations, and lack of oversight will only come to an end when conservative Christians are willing to look their own theology in the face and acknowledge its effects. As Hoffman put it in a statement to me:

It is a performance-based, sex-negative, body-shaming, legalistic system of moralizing (or “Christlikeness,” as they often term it). There is no room for genuine grace, no room for mercy, no room for substantive disagreement or even the slightest disagreement over doctrine or its application. Authoritarian systems don’t generally operate with transparency. They also tend to be abusive.

Until the theological problem of top-down authority is addressed, more students will be victimized. More students will find themselves without recourse. And more lives will be ruined.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Clinton Criticizes Trump’s Child-Care Proposal in Economic Speech

Ally Boguhn

Hillary Clinton may be wooing Republicans alienated by Trump, but she's also laying out economic policies that could shore up her progressive base. Meanwhile, Trump's comments about "Second Amendment people" stopping Hillary Clinton judicial appointments were roundly condemned.

Hillary Clinton may be courting Republicans, but that didn’t stop her from embracing progressive economic policies and criticizing her opponent’s child-care plan this week, and Donald Trump suggested there could be a way for “Second Amendment people” to deal with his rival’s judicial appointments should she be elected.

Clinton Blasts Trump’s Child-Care Proposal, Embraces Progressive Policies in Economic Speech

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton took aim at Republican nominee Donald Trump’s recently announced proposal to make the average cost of child care fully deductible during her own economic address Thursday in Michigan.

“We know that women are now the sole or primary breadwinner in a growing number of families. We know more Americans are cobbling together part-time work, or striking out on their own. So we have to make it easier to be good workers, good parents, and good caregivers, all at the same time,” Clinton said before pivoting to address her opponent’s plan. “That’s why I’ve set out a bold vision to make quality, affordable child care available to all Americans and limit costs to 10 percent of family income.”

“Previously, [Trump] dismissed concerns about child care,” Clinton told the crowd. “He said it was, quote, ‘not an expensive thing’ because you just need some blocks and some swings.”

“He would give wealthy families 30 or 40 cents on the dollar for their nannies, and little or nothing for millions of hard-working families trying to afford child care so they can get to work and keep the job,” she continued.

Trump’s child-care proposal has been criticized by economic and family policy experts who say his proposed deductions for the “average” cost of child care would do little to help low- and middle-wage earners and would instead advantage the wealthy. Though the details of his plan are slim, the Republican nominee’s campaign has claimed it would also allow “parents to exclude child care expenses from half of their payroll taxes.” Experts, however, told CNN doing so would be difficult to administer.

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Clinton provided a different way to cut family child-care costs: “I think instead we should expand the Child Tax Credit to provide real relief to tens of millions of working families struggling with the cost of raising children,” Clinton said in Michigan on Thursday. “The same families [Donald Trump’s] plan ignores.”

Clinton also voiced her support for several progressive policy positions in her speech, despite a recent push to feature notable Republicans who now support her in her campaign.

“In her first major economic address since her campaign began actively courting the Republicans turned off by Donald Trump, Clinton made no major pivot to the ideological center,” noted NBC News in a Thursday report on the speech. “Instead, Clinton reiterated several of the policy positions she adopted during her primary fight against Bernie Sanders, even while making a direct appeal to Independent voters and Republicans.”

Those positions included raising the minimum wage, opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, advocating for equal pay and paid family leave, and supporting a public health insurance option.

“Today’s speech shows that getting some Republicans to say Donald Trump is unfit to be president is not mutually exclusive with Clinton running on bold progressives ideas like debt-free college, expanding Social Security benefits and Wall Street reform,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a statement to NBC.

Donald Trump: Could “Second Amendment People” Stop Clinton Supreme Court Picks?

Donald Trump suggested that those who support gun ownership rights may be able to stop Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton from appointing judges to the Supreme Court should she be elected.

“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment,” Trump told a crowd of supporters during a Tuesday rally in Wilmington, North Carolina. “By the way … if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people—maybe there is. I don’t know.” 

Trump campaign spokesperson Jason Miller later criticized the “dishonest media” for reporting on Trump’s comments and glossed over any criticism of the candidate in a statement posted to the campaign’s website Tuesday. “It’s called the power of unification―Second Amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power,” said Miller. “And this year, they will be voting in record numbers, and it won’t be for Hillary Clinton, it will be for Donald Trump.”

“This is simple—what Trump is saying is dangerous,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, in a statement responding to the Republican nominee’s suggestion. “A person seeking to be the President of the United States should not suggest violence in any way.”

Gun safety advocates and liberal groups swiftly denounced Trump’s comments as violent and inappropriate for a presidential candidate.

“This is just the latest example of Trump inciting violence at his rallies—and one that belies his fundamental misunderstanding of the Second Amendment, which should be an affront to the vast majority of responsible gun owners in America,” Erika Soto Lamb, chief communications officer of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a Tuesday statement. “He’s unfit to be president.”

Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, also said in a Tuesday press release, “There has been no shortage of inexcusable rhetoric from Trump, but suggesting gun violence is truly abhorrent. There is no place in our public discourse for this kind of statement, especially from someone seeking the nation’s highest office.”

Trump’s comments engaged in something called “stochastic terrorism,” according to David Cohen, an associate professor at the Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, in a Tuesday article for Rolling Stone.

“Stochastic terrorism, as described by a blogger who summarized the concept several years back, means using language and other forms of communication ‘to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable,’” said Cohen. “Stated differently: Trump puts out the dog whistle knowing that some dog will hear it, even though he doesn’t know which dog.”

“Those of us who work against anti-abortion violence unfortunately know all about this,” Cohen continued, pointing to an article from Valerie Tarico in which she describes a similar pattern of violent rhetoric leading up to the murders that took place at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood.

What Else We’re Reading

Though Trump has previously claimed he offered on-site child-care services for his employees, there is no record of such a program, the Associated Press reports.

History News Network attempted to track down how many historians support Trump. They only found five (besides Newt Gingrich).

In an article questioning whether Trump will energize the Latino voting bloc, Sergio Bustos and Nicholas Riccardi reported for the Associated Press: “Many Hispanic families have an immense personal stake in what happens on Election Day, but despite population numbers that should mean political power, Hispanics often can’t vote, aren’t registered to vote, or simply choose to sit out.”

A pair of physicians made the case for why Gov. Mike Pence “is radically anti-public health,” citing the Republican vice presidential candidate’s “policies on tobacco, women’s health and LGBTQ rights” in a blog for the Huffington Post.

Ivanka Trump has tried to act as a champion for woman-friendly workplace policies, but “the company that designs her clothing line, including the $157 sheath she wore during her [Republican National Convention] speech, does not offer workers a single day of paid maternity leave,” reported the Washington Post.

The chair of the American Nazi Party claimed a Trump presidency would be “a real opportunity” for white nationalists.

NPR analyzed how Clinton and Trump might take on the issue of campus sexual assault.

Rewire’s own editor in chief, Jodi Jacobson, explained in a Thursday commentary how Trump’s comments are just the latest example of Republicans’ use of violent rhetoric and intimidation in order to gain power.

Culture & Conversation Violence

Survivor-Activists Ask Colleges to #JustSaySorry

Katie Klabusich

#JustSaySorry is calling on current and prospective students as well as alumni to post on social media that they will withhold donations until those institutions do the bare minimum: “Issue an acknowledgment and apology to students who feel or have felt less valued and less safe because of the way they’ve responded to campus sexual assault.”

A survivor-led and -centered anti-sexual violence campaign kicks off Monday as the organizers and participants ask college and university administrations to #JustSaySorry for failing to protect their students.

Kamilah Willingham and Wagatwe Wanjuki, co-founders of Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture (SERC), launched #JustSaySorry as a way to call out administrations that often technically have policies in place to address sexual assault, but in reality hinder survivors’ healing by never fully (or even partially) accepting blame for their part. Survivors often receive a monthly reminder of that betrayal in the mail or via email, in the form of a student loan bill or school donation request. (Full disclosure: I recently launched a project on which Wanjuki is participating, unrelated to this campaign.)

According to the campaign press release, #JustSaySorry is calling on current and prospective students as well as alumni to post on social media that they will withhold donations until those institutions do the bare minimum: “Issue an acknowledgment and apology to students who feel or have felt less valued and less safe because of the way they’ve responded to campus sexual assault.”

“We want to educate the world about the power of apology and just how deep institutional betrayal hurts us,” Wanjuki told Rewire. “It will also show the true motivations of schools—do they care that survivors are carrying the weight of the harm they caused? Or were we just a number to them, despite what they claim in brochures attracting new students, wooing parents, and soliciting donations? No matter the outcome of the campaign, the true colors of schools will be revealed.”

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The campaign ignited with a Facebook livestream of Wanjuki setting literal fire to an item from Tufts University—the school that used a sudden drop in her GPA due to the trauma she experienced following her assault to expel her rather than support her after she reported her rapist. Six years after her Title IX complaint was filed, Tufts was found in violation of the federal gender parity in education statute for its mishandling of her case. Yet, the university continues to be silent on culpability, fueling ongoing trauma for Wanjuki. She’s set to burn as much Tufts gear as necessary to get its attention and solicit at least an apology.

“Schools have so much power over the course of our lives. When they refuse to support the most vulnerable in our society, they are not being the beacons of knowledge and nurturing that they claim to be. They are merely reinforcing the harms and inequalities that plague our communities,” Wanjuki told Rewire.

Willingham’s story was one of those chronicled in the powerful documentary The Hunting Ground. Still, Harvard’s administration continues to add insult to injury, so she has publicly called it out by name.

“Harvard Law already knew they were violating Title IX when I filed a complaint against them. And when they were eventually found in violation, they were forced to change the procedures through which they readmitted my assailant,” said Willingham.

For her, #JustSaySorry is a “common sense” campaign born out of the repeated disappointments that she and Wanjuki have experienced.

“My rapist just graduated while 19 of my former professors very publicly retaliated against me for speaking out,” she explained.

Willingham acknowledges that there’s no “easy fix” for that trauma, but every healing process needs a first step. She says the campaign will give survivors and allies a way to express their expectations while impressing upon administrations how hurt survivors are when their schools don’t respond appropriately or supportively.

While she concedes it’s possible that administrations who think they’re just protecting their schools might not realize they’ve done anything wrong, Willingham isn’t absolving them.

“Maybe there simply hasn’t been enough incentive for them to apologize,” Willingham said. “They don’t apologize for or acknowledge past failures, but we’re supposed to trust that they’re devoted to changing the administrative culture that has failed and hurt students survivors for so long? Nah. Sounds like institutional gaslighting to me. And gaslighting is an effective way to maintain control over the status quo in unbalanced relationships—which makes me think that schools won’t apologize as long as they think they can get away with it.”

Anyone and everyone is encouraged to participate using the hashtag, watch for on-fire livestreams, pledge a university-related item burning, publicly tell your school that you are diverting donations to #JustSaySorry until they apologize, and stay connected with the campaign for other actions and survivor stories. Survivors and allies will be encouraged to share their stories and create calls to action as the campaign evolves and picks up steam.

“I want to highlight and center the stories of the people who are largely overlooked by the media and society as a whole: the survivors of color, gender-nonconforming survivors, poor survivors, immigrant survivors, the ones who had to drop out of school, and the ones who have a low GPA,” Wanjuki told Rewire.

Both women know from their work on campuses nationwide that apologies have power. So many survivors fall through the cracks, so few administrations do the simplest thing to temper their trauma: apologize.

“I know it would mean the world to me if Tufts just acknowledged that I—someone they were supposed to have nurtured academically—felt discarded and betrayed,” said Wanjuki.

Willingham said she reported her assault because she had faith in the administration at Harvard—that with her assailant’s partial confession in writing it would be a straightforward process resulting in justice.

“Wagatwe and I are both very hurt by and very angry at our alma maters—and still struggling to heal from the trauma of sexual assault that was compounded and extended by institutional betrayal,” she said. “There’s no easy fix for that, but an apology would feel so nice. An apology might help relieve me of the burden of wanting to set fire to every student loan bill or fundraising mailer I get from my school.”


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