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.

Commentary Race

Have a Problem With Black-Only Spaces? Get Over It

Ruth Jeannoel

As the parade of police killings of Black people continues, Black people have a right to mourn together—and without white people.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Dear Non-Black People:

If you hear about a healing space being organized for Black folks only, don’t question or try to be part of that space.

Simply, DON’T.

After again witnessing the recorded killings of Black people by police, I am trying to show up for my family, my community, and victims such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I am tired of injustice and ready for action.

But as a Black trans youth from the Miami, Florida-based S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective told me, “Before taking action, we must create space for healing.” With this comment, they led us in the right direction.

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Together, this trans young person, my fellow organizers, and I planned a Black-only community healing circle in Miami. We recognized a need for Black people to come together and care for each other. A collective space to heal is better than suffering and grieving alone.

As we began mobilizing people to attend the community circle, our efforts were met with confusion and resistance by white and Latinx people alike. Social media comments questioned why there needed to be a Black-only space and alleged that such an event was “not fair” and exclusionary.

We know the struggle against white supremacy is a multiracial movement and needs all people. So we planned and shared that there would be spaces for non-Black people of color and white people at the same time. We explained that this particular healing circle—and the fight against police violence—must be centered around Blackness.

But there was still blowback. One Facebook commenter wrote,

Segregation and racial separation is not acceptable. Disappointing.

That is straight bullshit.

To be clear, Black-only space is itself acceptable, and there’s a difference between Black people choosing to come together and white people systematically excluding others from their institutions and definitions of humanity.

But as I recognize that Black people can’t have room to mourn by ourselves without white tears, white shame, white guilt—and, yes, white supremacy—I am angry.

That is what racist laws have often tried to do: Control how Black people assemble. Enslaved people were often barred from gathering, unless it was with white consent or for church.

Even today, we see resistance when Black folks come together, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, in Nashville, Tennessee, Black Lives Matter activists were forced to move their meeting out of a library because it was a Black-only meeting. Last year, students at University of Missouri held a series of protests to demand an end to systemic racism and structural racism on their campus. The student group, Concerned Students 1950, called for their own Black-only-healing space, and they too received backlash from their white counterparts and the media.

At our healing circle in Miami, a couple of white people tried to be part of the Black-only space, which was held in another room. One of the white youths came late and asked why she had to be in a different room from Black attendees. I asked her this question: Do you feel like you are treated the same as your Black peers when they walk down the street?

When she answered no, I told her that difference made it important for Black people to connect without white people in the room. We talked about how to engage in political study that can shape how we view—and change—this world.

She understood. It was simple.

I have less compassion for adults who are doing social justice work and who do not understand. If you do not recognize your privilege as a non-Black person, then you need to reassess why you are in this movement.

Are you here to save the world? Do you feel guilty because of what your family may have done in the past or present? Are you marching to show that you are a “good” person?

If you are organizing to shift and shake up white supremacy but can’t understand your privilege under this construct, then this movement is not for you.

For the white folk and non-Black people of color who are sincerely fighting the anti-Blackness at the root of most police killings, get your people. Many of them are “progressive” allies with whom I’ve been in meetings, rallies, or protests. It is time for you to organize actions and events for yourselves to challenge each other on anti-Blackness and identify ways to fight against racial oppression, instead of asking to be in Black-only spaces.

Objecting to a Black-only space is about self-interest and determining who gets to participate. And it shows how little our allies understand that white supremacy gives European-descended people power, privilege, and profit—or that non-Black people of color often also benefit from white supremacy just because they aren’t Black in this anti-Black world.

Our critics were using racial privilege to access a space that was not for them or by them. In the way that white supremacy and capitalism are about individualism and racing to the top, they were putting their individual feelings, rights, and power above Black people’s rights to fellowship and talk about how racism has affected them.

We deserve Black-only community healing because this is our pain. We are the ones who are most frequently affected by police violence and killings. And we know there is a racial empathy gap, which means that white Americans, in particular, are less likely to feel our pain. And the last thing Black people need right now is to be in a room with people who can’t or won’t try to comprehend, who make our hurt into a spectacle, or who deny it with their defensiveness.

Our communal responses to that pain and healing are not about you. And non-Black people can’t determine the agenda for Black action—or who gets a seat at our table.

To Black folks reading this article, just know that we deserve to come together to cry, be angry, be confused, and be ready to fight without shame, pain, or apologies.

And, actually, we don’t need to explain this, any more than we need to explain that Black people are oppressed in this country.

Commentary Contraception

For Students at Religious Universities, Contraception Coverage Isn’t an Academic Debate

Alison Tanner

When the U.S. Supreme Court sent a case about faith-based objections to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate back to lower courts, it left students at religious colleges and universities with continuing uncertainty about getting essential health care. And that's not what religious freedom is about.

Read more of our articles on challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit here.

Students choose which university to attend for a variety of reasons: the programs offered, the proximity of campus to home, the institution’s reputation, the financial assistance available, and so on. But young people may need to ask whether their school is likely to discriminate in the provision of health insurance, including contraceptive coverage.

In Zubik v. Burwell, a group of cases sent back to the lower courts by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, a handful of religiously affiliated universities sought the right to deny their students, faculty, and staff access to health insurance coverage for contraception.

This isn’t just a legal debate for me. It’s personal. The private university where I attend law school, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., currently complies with provisions in the Affordable Care Act that make it possible for a third-party insurer to provide contraceptive access to those who want it. But some hope that these legal challenges to the ACA’s birth control rule will reverse that.

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Georgetown University Law Center refused to provide insurance coverage for contraception before the accommodation was created in 2012. Without a real decision by the Supreme Court, my access to contraception insurance will continue to be at risk while I’m in school.

I’m not alone. Approximately 1.9 million students attend religiously affiliated universities in the United States, according to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. We students chose to attend these institutions for lots of reasons, many of which having nothing to do with religion. I decided to attend Georgetown University Law Center because I felt it was the right school for me to pursue my academic and professional goals, it’s in a great city, it has an excellent faculty, and it has a vibrant public-interest law community.

Like many of my fellow students, I am not Catholic and do not share my university’s views on contraception and abortion. Although I was aware of Georgetown’s history of denying students’ essential health-care benefits, I did not think I should have to sacrifice the opportunity to attend an elite law school because I am a woman of reproductive age.

That’s why, as a former law clerk for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I helped to organize a brief before the high court on behalf of 240 students, faculty, and staff at religiously affiliated universities including Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount, and the University of Notre Dame.

Our brief defended the sensible accommodation crafted by the Obama administration. That compromise relieves religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations of any obligation to pay for or otherwise provide contraception coverage; in fact, they don’t have to pay a dime for it. Once the university informs the government that it does not want to pay for birth control, a third-party insurer steps in and provides coverage to the students, faculty, and staff who want it.

Remarkably, officials at the religious colleges still challenging the Affordable Care Act say this deal is not good enough. They’re arguing that the mere act of informing the government that they do not want to do something makes them “complicit” in the private decisions of others.

Such an argument stands religious freedom on its head in an attempt to impose one group’s theological beliefs on others by vetoing the third-party insurance providers’ distribution of essential health coverage to students, faculty, and staff.

This should not be viewed as some academic debate confined to legal textbooks and court chambers. It affects real people—most of them women. Studies by the Guttmacher Institute and other groups that study human sexuality have shown that use of artificial forms of birth control is nearly universal among sexually active women of childbearing years. That includes Catholic women, who use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics.

Indeed, contraception is essential health care, especially for students. An overwhelming number of young people’s pregnancies are unplanned, and having children while in college or a graduate program typically delays graduation, increases the likelihood that the parent will drop out, and may affect their future professional paths.

Additionally, many menstrual disorders make it difficult to focus in class; contraception alleviates the symptoms of a variety of illnesses, and it can help women actually preserve their long-term fertility. For example, one of the students who signed our brief told the Court that, “Without birth control, I experience menstrual cycles that make it hard to function in everyday life and do things like attend class.” Another woman who signed the brief told the Court, “I have a history of ovarian cysts and twice have required surgery, at ages 8 and 14. After my second surgery, the doctor informed me that I should take contraceptives, because if it happened again, I might be infertile.”

For these and many other reasons, women want and need convenient access to safe, affordable contraceptives. It is time for religiously affiliated institutions—and the Supreme Court—to acknowledge this reality.

Because we still don’t have an ultimate decision from the Supreme Court, incoming students cannot consider ease of access to contraception in deciding where to attend college, and they may risk committing to attend an university that will be legally allowed to discriminate against them. A religiously affiliated university may be in all other regards a perfect fit for a young woman. It’s unfair that she should face have to risk access to essential health care to pursue academic opportunity.

Religious liberty is an important right—and that’s why it should not be misinterpreted. Historically, religious freedom has been defined as the right to make decisions for yourself, not others. Religious freedom gives you have the right to determine where, how, and if you will engage in religious activities.

It does not, nor should it ever, give one person or institution the power to meddle in the personal medical decisions of others.