Christian Colleges Have a Sexual Assault Problem

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.

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.

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  • fiona64

    I read an interview with former President Carter just this morning about his new book, which deals quite specifically with the abuse of women. One of the things he talks about is how a culture that says men are superior to women (and he addresses the evangelical and military cultures specifically in this regard) is a culture that allows sexual assault to be blamed on the victim or swept under the rug. This article bears out just what he is saying.

    • VeggieTart

      I would argue that a culture that promote male superiority *encourages* rape. After all, if men are superior to women, then women must do what they say and submit; it’s “God’s will”. They don’t see women as humans but as objects.

  • Just Thinking

    There is much you say that I know is true and it angers me to think about this form of cruelty…I being a man and attended a similar school as these (not as strict) and having met, dated and married my wife over 30 years ago I believe I have a valid perspective…the part that I think is being overlooked here is that when a person sees their sin (could be lying, disobeying parents, coveting other peoples things, stealing – even the smallest things) and the Holy Spirit reveals to them the coming judgement where they will be punished for their many sins and they turn to Jesus Christ and His substitutionary payment for their sin, they will become what the Bible calls a new creation…as it did with me a drug addled teenager who God mercifully saved, I didn’t become perfect (by far); however, if those of us who did go through this radical change of perspective about sin and anything that God calls “missing the mark” sat down and were asked what type of code of ethics they would like to see at a college they attend would be almost be identical. The problem I see is the leadership of these institutions are so hungry for influence they turn a blind eye to young people who have grinned and nodded about “accepting Jesus as savior”; however, nothing changed in their lives slip into these schools. Also, I can speak from experience that when an individual is put into an environment where they are not exposed to much other than the Word of God, it seems the enemy works extra hard at tempting us to do things that normally we would be repulsed by. But since scripture clearly says that we all are evil and sinful many times we don’t need any help from the enemy. Paul said something that resonates with me over the years and that is “within me lies no good thing” indicates anyone who has truly been changed see if we drift very far from our good shepherd we find ourselves in very very ugly places. These schools are a battlefield…a brutal battlefield where we find ourselves behaving in many ways we know in our hearts is wrong…so as much as it makes us feel good about ourselves by looking at others “missing the mark” we are basically suffer from textbook Parochialism…you too have done many things that you regret and kick yourself for doing or allowing to happen to you or someone you love…no one gets off the planet without many, many regrets. So if none of this makes any sense to you take some time and shut everything off and immerse your mind in the Bible for 30 days and see if everything doesn’t look different at the end…start with an ESV or NLT version of scripture and start in the book of John.

    • goatini

      TL: DR

    • Ivy Mike

      Wow. All that crap for a fictional character in a 2000-year-old Middle Eastern tribal myth.

      Perhaps you should be considering the utter uselessness of such mythology, and the harm it causes on a daily basis, in the 21st century.

      Your scripture causes these assaults. It does this by asserting that men own women. Quit the whirewashing.

    • L-dan

      This makes zero sense. Do you have a point?

      Somehow I think your last lines regarding looking at the Bible in order to make sense of your ramble isn’t going to help at all since I’m not remotely Christian.

      Now, if you decided that an article about how badly Christian colleges fail survivors of sexual abuse was the proper soapbox for urging readers to turn to Christianity and read their Bibles, you may want to just fuck right the hell off.

    • grantal

      I am a Christian that is I believe in Jesus. I do not believe in the Bible because it was written by and for men nor do I follow any religion also written and controlled by men.. However Jesus was a great man/God and women sat at his feet. He treated them fairly and justly as He wanted all to be treated. He was crucified for doing so. Not much has changed in our world despite this great Man/God sacrificing His very life for us shameful humans!
      My point is that if more men were like Jesus they would have women sitting at their feet too. Think about it.

      • loretta

        Yes–those men are commonly referred to as “liberals” today.

    •!/dameocrat Dameocrat

      I am a christian myself so I don’t view the Christianity blaming as being constructive. I do think that there are some common views within Christianity that are unnecessary and problematic. No preacher can make anyone convert that does not want to. Even if they could there is not guarantee their interpretation of Christianity would eliminate this behavior. Many preachers from Pensacola Christian do preach that women can cause rape through their dress and behavior and that man have no control of themselves under these circumstances.

      • JamieHaman

        So, those preachers are teaching that men are animals, unable to control themselves, instead to teaching that men should keep their hands to themselves.
        Infuriating that those preachers think so little of men.
        There is no excuse for teaching that crap unless you indulge yourself in that crap. Start looking for the victims of those preachers, because they are there.
        Get those preachers of brutal cruelty out of the pulpit.

        • Amanda Kazarian

          What I don’t get is that they teach men that they are not above animalistic sexual urges, yet at the same time they are the only ones who should be in a place of control over others. The irony..

    • Arekushieru

      I am Christian. It’s the reason I DON’T read the Bible. But, you are comparing sins to something that is completely INHERENT within the structure of the Bible, itself. Therefore, not only did you miss the point, entirely, but, because you put rape/rape apology/sexual assault on the same level as simple regret and being evil and sinful, you are a disgusting example of an excremental excuse for humanity.

      • JamieHaman

        Nailed it.

    • JamieHaman

      The big problem I have with Christianity is this, “But since scripture clearly says that we all are evil and sinful…” To believe people are evil from birth is insanity. No child starts as evil. His or her parents, or parochial, to be punished after death based society teaches it.

      Until we as families, as churches, as societies, teach respect for girls and women, for their decisions, until we admit rape is a problem of MEN, not women
      until we as families, as churches, and societies teach boys and men that rape is wrong, that it is vicious, that consensual sex is NOT a woman smiling, saying hello, or dressing in any manner whatsoever

      until men quit blaming every one except themselves for their willingness to harm others
      we are going to continue down this road.
      There are sins, and there are sins. Rape, like murder is at the top of the list.

    • Amanda Kazarian

      I’m sick and tired of the “not all Christians are rapey weirdos” argument. The “good” Christians should be standing up to violent freaks on campus if it’s that important to you. Leave the rest of us that don’t care out of it.

      • Mindy McIndy

        I am more sick of the “those people who aren’t true Christians” argument. Just because they don’t follow the bible the same way as you doesn’t make them any less Christian. I have very loving, accepting family members who are Catholic, and they go to a liberal Catholic church with an inclusive priest. That doesn’t make them more or less Christian than the Westboro Baptist Church nutjobs. The “no true Scotsman” fallacy gets tiresome after awhile.

        I agree though. Just like people want the devout peaceful Muslims to stand up against those who use their religion to promote terror and violence, liberal Christians should do the same when we are inundated with hate from the right wing Christians.

  • Carla Talbott

    This is so depressing for someone my age as it shows so little change since I was growing up a long time ago. Fundamentalists’ attitude toward and treatment of women is mostly abyssmal . It’s built into their belief system. Every fundamentalist group, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, is bad for women and children as the male is believed to be superior and the ruler over women and children. What a coincidence since these religions were invented and documented by males and the Judeo Christian God represents the absolute worst male characteristics.

  • katydid41

    Christianity is a boys club religion based on the traditional view that men are superior spiritually and in all other ways. Under the skin it supports the “boys will be boys” stance vav sexual violences and under the skin it is hostile toward the female. After all, just think about it: “In the beginning,” Adam raped Eve and then blamed her. If that doesn’t sound familiar then you’re not paying attention to current events.
    All of these Judaic/Christain bases (no matter where they started or emerged) are permissions for male “entitlements” in this world. Rape is one of those “entitlements”.

  • ar-girl24

    Unfortunately I experienced a similar situation to Field’s. I went a christian university in Portland OR and was raped. because I didn’t have definite proof and only an eye witness that saw “fishy activity,” my case was dropped and he served a minor punishment that they can’t inform me of, due to student confidentiality. They told me that they were going to do a conference for all the students about sexual abuse in my honor because of my courage. THANK YOU? I have never felt more alone and not herd!

  • Mindy McIndy

    I didn’t even go to a Christian school and had a severe sexual assault problem. It started in the eighth grade with verbal harassment, and then in the ninth grade it escalated to physical and sexual assault. I would be pushed into lockers, with my breasts and crotch being grabbed. He’d put his hand up my shirt and down my skirt and the people who saw it would laugh. He would tell me I was so ugly no one would rape me in one breath, then threaten to ‘f*** the d***” out of me in the next. In the eleventh grade, he wrote up a manifesto saying that he was going to come to school, kill me first, then shoot as many people as he possibly could. When he heard the police sirens, he would turn the gun on himself. I found the manifesto online, turned it into the director of the school and you know what happened? They had him delete the blog so my mom couldn’t print it out and take it to the police, they suspended him for one week, they told him I was the one that turned him in even though they promised they wouldn’t, they suspended him for one week (he got longer suspensions for fighting in the halls) and they tried to make me feel bad for him because of his supposedly crummy home life. They also lied about calling the police to report it, and i know this because my aunt worked in juvie and she looked his name up every day for months to find such a report. When he returned from his suspension, the abuse and torments got worse, and I had to not only leave the school, but change our home phone number and live at my aunt’s house for several weeks just to feel safe. The school system, whether it is a religious school, a public school or a charter school, is only after their bottom line and good publicity for themselves. They didn’t care about my abuse, they only didn’t want their name tarnished in the news media. If we’d been able to print out that manifesto, I would have called all four local news agencies and told them the other three were running the story so i could burn that place and the treatment of their students to the ground.

  • Ivy Mike

    Part of the overall problem is , of course, that as a society in general, we have not yet come to terms with exactly how horrible a crime rape really is.

    Oh, sure, everyone, from politicians to pundits says that “of course rape is a terrible crime blahblah…”, but one gets the sense that, for most, the statement is merely obligatory and not heartfelt. It sadly goes for women as well as men.

    Think about it. We see it constantly…the excuses for star athletes and celebrity rapists and assaulters. The suggestions about what the woman was wearing, drinking, etc.

    The attitude that I personally see from the chattering class, as well as law enforcement and university administrators, is that they truly do not see why women get so darn upset about being raped. After all (they think), women are built to be fucked, aren’t they? It’s not like any PERMANENT harm has been done, right? Guy was just horny and drunk, she was looking hot, etc.

    Then, there’s the athlete/celebrity rapist-defenders. “Why, this guy is a star quarterback! Have you seen his numbers? Why shouldn’t one of our modern gladiators have the RIGHT to a bit of fun, huh?

    Until we confront and destroy these medieval notions about rape, female sexuality, consent, and entitlement, as well as the repressive religious beliefs that give rise to them, we will continue to see these events and responses.

    My apologies to all, I neglected to include a trigger warning.

  • BJ Survivor

    Color me outraged but totally not surprised. The Wholly Babble espouses a vicious male supremacist philosophy that simply cannot be redeemed. It is women and LGBTQ that pay the highest price for believing that pile of manure.

  • crash2parties

    If you wanted to control large populations (and you were evil) you’d find a way to do so based on the largest division, sex. If you can posit that one is superior to the other and get everyone to believe it, you’ve already controlled half of the people who might otherwise oppose you. All that’s left is bribing the ego of the other half that they can have more than non-believer or anyone less pious than themselves. While requiring they submit fair amounts of their income to you, of course.

  • blfdjlj

    No surprise here. These schools impose Taliban-like restrictions on adults seeking contact with individuals of the other sex.