BYU, “Safe Walk,” and Rape Prevention: A Flawed Strategy

I recently began volunteering for a rape crisis team in the Provo/Orem area. My training experience, which I recently completed, helped me to realize (even more than I had before) that many in the BYU community unintentionally create a false sense of security concerning rape prevention.

The vast majority of rapes — in Utah County and elsewhere — are committed by acquaintances, whether it is boyfriends, first dates, old classmates, etc. The stranger-jumping-from-the-bushes rape scenario is very rare (though it does happen).

It is admirable that many BYU wards have implemented a rape prevention program; however, this program (“Safe Walk”) serves to prevent only the rare stranger-bush-jumping variety. In this program, male students take turns walking female students (from their ward) home from campus at night.

This program might offer a sense of security to certain women, as well as provide opportunities for people to get to know each other better, but it probably does little to nothing by way of rape protection. In fact, I would venture that the woman is more likely to be raped or abused by the man walking her home! Now, don’t get me wrong — the chances of this are probably very, very slim. But that’s exactly my point.

Now, I don’t see it as a problem that these wards have Safe Walk programs. But I wonder how much they serve to create a false sense of security (for ward leaders and male and female students) of rape prevention. As a result, the real issues of rape prevention might be avoided. Of course, many women (and men) do not need any training in this regard, but some do. If the time spent on all those Safe Walks is justified, then certainly some specific training regarding real rape prevention (from acquaintances) would be warranted.

In many communities, your local rape crisis center is probably happy to talk to church groups (for free) about rape prevention. In the Provo/Orem areas, you can contact the Outreach Office for The Center for Women and Children and Crisis at 801-227-5038.

Below is a list of a few things I’ll say about rape prevention in terms of acquaintance relationships. Before I get to this list, let me clarify that although there are things people can do to prevent rape, there is much that is out of a person’s control. It is very common for rape victims to feel bad or guilty (that God must not love them), and the last thing in the world they need to hear is a lecture of “if only you wouldn’t have …”. Rather, they need to be assured that rape can happen to anyone, and they shouldn’t feel bad or unloved or guilty because of it. Even if the person was drinking or promiscuous — NO ONE DESERVES TO BE RAPED. That being said, here is a list of suggestions (for women):

  • Always go on group dates for a first date and/or meet at a public place. Especially if you don’t really know the person or have met them online (be very cautious about online dating services and networking sites). Just because a person is a BYU student or a returned missionary doesn’t mean they are necessarily safe.
  • If a woman feels uncomfortable about a man (even a return missionary in her ward) who is asking her out — she should politely decline. Ignore the common folklore (in LDS culture) that you should give everyone at least one try. Not true. If you’re uncomfortable — politely, but firmly, say no.
  • If a man fails to give you much information regarding a date, politely press him for details. “Where are we going? What time will we be back? Are others coming?” If you feel uncomfortable with the details that are given (or lack thereof), politely let him know (you can do this in a way that doesn’t communicate disinterest or militant feminism). If he is not understanding of your concerns — RED ALERT! He probably is not worth going out with, and there’s a higher probability that he will abuse you. More on this in the next point…
  • Rapists prey on individuals who they can have power over — who cave under their pressure. If they see that you’re uncomfortable and then they say, “Oh, it won’t be a big deal — come on, what are you worried about?” and then you say, “Well, I guess, OK,” then they’ve won a minor victory. Throughout the date, they might try to do this little by little. If they put their arm around you and they can tell you don’t like it, but you don’t do anything about it — another victory. You need to let the person know, very firmly, that you are uncomfortable with something from the beginning. Be polite, but firm. In some cases, being “nice” is out of the question. Rapists prey on “nice” girls who can’t really say no.
  • Be very clear that “no” means “no.” “No” doesn’t mean “maybe” or “yes” like it does in the movies. Many rapists have the absurd belief that most women really “want it” or “want them,” and so even if they say “no” it really means “yes.”
  • Just because you’re OK with someone going so far with you doesn’t mean that you’ve given them license to go all the way. You can always tell them to stop. Even if you’ve consented to intercourse, but since changed your mind, you have the right to say “stop!” If you clearly express for the person to stop, and they don’t, it is rape, even if you were OK with going part of the way. (The same is true even in a marriage, usually as an ongoing pattern of abuse.) Ignore the false folklore that men can’t stop once they get started.
  • How you carry and express yourself (as discussed above) is MUCH more important than how you dress (though I would certainly advocate modesty for other reasons).
  • Don’t be afraid to call your rape crisis hotline with questions, or for support if you or a loved one has been raped or sexually abused. The hotline number for Orem/Provo areas is 801-356-2511. Crisis hotlines can help you to know what your options are, in terms of health care, prosecution, and protection. They can also talk to you about counseling options and other resources. One thing to be aware of — hospital tests need to be done within 72 hours of the incident to gather DNA evidence.

Anyway, I bring these tips up simply because I know there are many LDS women who struggle with these things. All the more reason for our wards — if we really want to prevent rape — to take them seriously.

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7 Responses

  1. What’s interesting is how many guys that I don’t know very well balk when I insist, “Choose the time. Choose the public location. I’ll meet you there. And you’ll have no more than 2 hours.”

    “But I need to pick you up!” Nope, I will provide my own transportation (and “escape route”) on this one, thank you. I will be in a place with a group of other people. And if you don’t already know where I live I will work to keep that private information. When I get to know a person better, sure, this can change, but until then safety ranks over etiquette.

    “Two hours? That’s unheard of!” (Whoever started the trend of spending 7 hours with a virtually unknown person ought to be ashamed of themselves.) Two hours is plenty of time to enjoy an ice-cream and exchange some (hopefully) intelligent conversation. Besides, for met-online dates I typically have a friend on alert that something may be wrong if I don’t call them by a specific time.

    Have I lost dates because of this? Yup. However, I figure if a person can’t follow the rules I use to help ensure my safety they’re not worth getting to know.

    Thanks for the list and reminders Dennis, they’re appreciated.

  2. Smart, practical, respectful and unsensationalized suggestions, Dennis. Because I live alone, I follow many of your suggestions for non-romantic appointments anyway, and you’ve suggested at least one new idea that I need to adopt. Thank you.

  3. Janell, I agree that the guys who question your expectations are completely wrong and not worth your time. To me it seems natural to actually appreciate it when someone you are dating holds you to high expectations– for one thing, it shows how you respect them in turn. So someone who is genuinely respectful of you wouldn’t respond that way.

    I really like the time limits. Don’t people realize we can only build up relationships gradually, and that kind of first date would be pretty artificial?

    Dennis, I think this is great advice. The advice that if a girl doesn’t feel safe around someone, they should say no is greatly needed in our culture.

  4. Question, do any BYU “safe walk” programs coordinate groups of people rather than focusing on pairing a man to escort a woman?

  5. Janell,

    Your remarks on the length of dates is important for a number of reasons — from my experience, my better dates were ones that were shorter. The adage “less is more” certainly applies here. I wonder why so many feel the need for the marathon date? Perhaps it carries over from the spend-all-day-with-your-prom-date tradition in Utah (and in other Mormon circles)?

    Regarding your question about safe walk: I’ve seen a few things done. One involves a calendar in which there is always a man who is signed up to meet women in the ward at certain times and places on campus. The other is that the women are simply instructed to call a particular young man (whoever is in charge of safe walk) on an as needed basis, and this man coordinates for someone (a man) to be there to walk someone home (probably one of their home teachers if possible). From my experience, this latter option doesn’t work too well — women report that they would like to have someone to walk home with, but it’s not worth bothering anyone to walk with them. It’s nice, though, for them to know that in the event that they are concerned, they can turn to someone. I’m uncertain how much a formal program is needed for this, though.

    My hunch is that many priesthood leaders would respond to your question in a similar way as I would have: “Hmm, never thought about that.”

    Really, the group coordination makes the most sense. It could actually be a great way to get to know people (including for dating purposes) but without the awkwardness of a solo mini-date (with all due respect to Elder Oaks). If the members of your ward simply had an understanding from the ward who is at the library at closing time should meet by the entrance. Makes a lot of sense.

    I really wonder how much “safe walk” is (consciously or unconsciously) motivated by a desire for single members to hook up. I must admit that when I used to participate in this, I would hope that so-and-so would be the lone woman from the ward who I could walk home.

  6. Dennis –

    I think you’re spot on with those suggestions. Interesting how you put much of the pressure back on the women. Perhaps within the LDS culture (especially in relatively “Safe” places like BYU campus) women don’t realize how preventative that situation can be. I state that with all the caveats necessary for rape, that its not the woman’s fault, she shoudln’t have to control him, etc.

    But the suggestions you make are reasonable, and good common sense I might add. Here’s to you getting that list out to more of the public

  7. brandt,

    Thanks for your comments. I suppose the “pressure” on women was simply by way of emphasis for this post. I could certainly write one for men — though it would certainly escape the most important audience (rapists). As far as men as victims, I simply don’t know enough about that topic. It does happen, but at a much, much lower rate.

    I do think, though, there are many things that men can do to help in this situation. Many are implicit in the recommendations I have given for women (e.g., be clear about date information, be considerate of safety issues, “no” means “no, etc.). Many of these things might not make a big difference in terms of rape, but they might make a minor difference in terms of sexual or emotional abuse. Perhaps as much as anything, they could help tremendously in terms of women’s sanity. If we can, for sake of this example, compare men as car drivers and women as pedestrians: most drivers have no intention of hitting pedestrians, but the pedestrians don’t always know that. In other words, a driver might be totally in control in stopping for a pedestrian, but the pedestrian is nonetheless scared because the car seems to be approaching awfully fast. Thus, it’s important for men (or anyone “in the driver’s seat”) to not only be in control but ensure your date that you are.

    And, of course, another really important way that men can help is to realize that rape can happen to anyone, and that a woman who has been raped should not be blamed (it is ALWAYS the rapist’s fault and no one deserves to be raped), but needs tremendous love and support. Men who are in intimate relationships with these women also need to understand that something like a rape can have a significant impact on intimate relations.

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