Opinion: BYU-I should implement mandatory consent training

Photo from May 2021 of signs from the "We Demand to be Heard" march. Photo credit: Grace Wride

Over the past year through my reporting, writing and working at the BYU-Idaho Counseling Center, I have seen and heard a lot about sexual assault.

From students who have been assaulted and didn’t know the true meaning of the term until they were in the office of a counselor, to a police officer who can’t help but think of his daughter when he gets a sexual assault report. I’ve talked to counselors whose weeks are filled with sexual assault support appointments and students who have had personal experiences with the matter. I’ve overheard chatter, I’ve seen the confession posts, I’ve talked to the big guys about it.

I have come to the conclusion: everyone needs to be hearing this. Everyone needs to be talking about sexual assault. Everyone needs to be learning about consent.

It’s complicated, it’s heartbreaking and it’s uncomfortable for some. After researching for months, it still isn’t quite so clear for me.

What is so complicated?

BYU-I is a Church Educational System school or a representation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the majority of students who attend school here are members.

It is a school not like many because its mission is for students to become more like Christ. It is a school not like many because of the encouragement of marriage, family and dating that chimes throughout classrooms, devotionals and Sunday sacrament meetings.

It is well-known that members are asked to abstain from sexual activity, and because of this principle, it is part of BYU-I’s Honor Code. It is hopeful to assume that the majority of students are abstaining from sexual activity, and it is also hopeful to assume that members of the Church would never commit an act of sexual assault.

But this isn’t the case. The reality is that BYU-I students are dating, they are kissing and they are having sex … married and unmarried. And for some, this is their first time. With that, students are also harassed, assaulted and coerced into doing things that they don’t want to do by other students — by members.

At other universities, it might be easier to address these issues with consent training, safe-sex materials and more general awareness for sexual assault. Many universities have implemented consent training in their orientation for freshmen. They make it a requirement for students to take courses on consent, sexual assault and healthy dating.

But BYU-I wants to focus on gospel principles, so it is tricky to balance and encourage consent and safety in sexual activity when they believe that their single students shouldn’t be doing it all, even if many students get married while at BYU-I or soon after graduating.

Emily Brumbaugh, the sexual assault support counselor for BYU-I, and Nick Rammell, the Title IX coordinator, have both expressed to me the barriers that come along with the topic at our school.

Nick Rammell, the BYU-Idaho Title IX coordinator, speaking at the “Conversation about sexual assault” event.
Nick Rammell, the BYU-Idaho Title IX coordinator, speaking at the “Conversation about sexual assault” event. Photo credit: Julia Brunette

“What’s been a barrier for us is what the university is comfortable with as far as messaging and training and the subject matter, and what you can do with students,” Rammell said. “I think they felt like the majority of our students need to hear messages about the sanctity of human life and the blessing of God’s commandments, the protection that comes from commandments of obedience, chastity, reverencing our bodies and reverencing other people as children of God.”

While these topics may seem more suitable, they do not always help students who are struggling to understand consent, healthy dating techniques or how to heal from sexual assault. From what I’ve seen and heard, keeping hush-hush about these topics makes them all too mysterious to the minds of students who grew up only knowing to abstain from sexual activity and abuse.

While the Church, the school and members who represent the Church have taught against abuse in the past, what needs to be taught in the concrete is consent.

Being raised in a bubble

Imagine growing up and not knowing about sex (believe it or not, this is the case for some BYU-I students). Maybe your parents or family didn’t teach you because they felt like the less you know, the better. You grew up in a bubble, one that shakes and quivers from different interactions, like that R-rated movie you saw in the theater with your friend or that conversation you overheard in the locker room.

You have questions about sex, or maybe you don’t, because once again, the less you know, the better. Your only idea of it is what you’ve seen on TV, movies, books or even pornography.

When you put on your big girl or boy pants and head off to college, are you prepared? Not prepared for sex, necessarily, but prepared for those feelings? Those hormones, that will come up when kissing, cuddling, or whatever you end up doing?

Maybe for some this doesn’t seem common, but there are students who experience this. Back in early 2021, I interviewed Nicole Smith, who was at the time participating in the “We Demand to be Heard” march.

Photo from May 2021 of BYU-I students taking part in the "We Demand to be Heard" march.
Photo from May 2021 of BYU-I students taking part in the “We Demand to be Heard” march. Photo credit: Grace Wride

“I honestly didn’t know what sex was like,” Smith said. “My parents or teachers never told us. So I always wondered, ‘would I even know if it was happening if I was raped?'”

She thinks that because sex is a taboo topic in the Church, so is sexual assault. When she was assaulted, she didn’t think the school could be a resource for her, because of its Honor Code.

“I think for some people who are here studying or who have grown up in the Church, they believe that something like this won’t happen to them,” Smith said. “When in reality, it happens all over. I urge anyone and everyone: if you haven’t been taught about sexual assault or if you haven’t been taught about sex, please get educated. It is so serious and I wish I was better prepared for what happened.”

Not only do we have this responsibility in this, but BYU-I has the responsibility. This is something that is vital to our students because many of them haven’t had this understanding yet and it is clear that BYU-I students are having sex.

Photo from May 2021 of BYU-I students taking part in the "We Demand to be Heard" march.
Photo from May 2021 of BYU-I students taking part in the “We Demand to be Heard” march. Photo credit: Grace Wride

Mandatory consent training

How would this work for BYU-I? Just like students need an ecclesiastical endorsement or to fill out a health plan waiver, students could have a hold on their account until they have completed consent courses.

But how does a school trying to maintain its gospel values teach about consent without encouraging students to be unchaste? The complications lie within the ideology that these conversations are too taboo or not for BYU-I students, as discussed above.

Consent and creating boundaries are important at all levels of intimacy, from kissing to sex. With some students who may have not been exposed to these topics and with a school culture that encourages dating, marriage and family, proper consent education should be a priority.

This isn’t to say that there has been no effort to help students in this area. Rammell, counselors, and other professionals have hosted panels about consent on campus before. Rammell hosted one last semester, which was a great step forward in bringing more awareness to the topic.

On Dec. 1, 2022, the "Let&squot;s have a conversation about sexual assault," event took place in the Taylor Cultural Hall.
On Dec. 1, 2022, the “Let’s have a conversation about sexual assault,” event took place in the Taylor Cultural Hall. Photo credit: Julia Brunette

I believe that parents have a huge role in teaching their children about this subject. If you are a parent, older sibling or grandparent and you know a student in high school or college, make sure they know about consent. Consent should be taught far before the point of college.

But a place that’s nickname is “BYU-I Do,” a place that hosts blind-dating games in the middle of The Crossroads, a place that has a high rate of married students, needs to also have healthy dating resources and awareness for sexual assault. In a place where both married and unmarried students are being sexually violated, it should be appropriate to have resources and available — if not mandatory — training on consent.