Update Dec. 16: This article has been updated to correct the following factual error. Cedarville University is no longer under review by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) for possibly violating Title IX procedures. The complaint was resolved on June 23, 2014.
Melissa Tanis knows the "abstinence speech" very well. She heard it at home, in church and in high school. And it didn’t stop when she reached college.
“Ladies, you're princesses, and when you give pieces of your heart away to boys, you only have half a heart left. And what kind of prince wants half of a heart? No, you need to keep yourself pure. You need to keep yourself whole. Because you can't get those pieces of your heart back. So think twice before you kiss a boy,” Tanis, 25, said, remembering the sermon she heard as a student at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
On conservative Christian campuses across the U.S., the refusal to admit that their students have sex is hurting victims of sexual abuse.
According to a recently released report by an independent watchdog group, Bob Jones University, a leading conservative Christian university in South Carolina, discouraged victims from filing police reports, rarely punished the abusers and blamed victims for their "involvement" in the crime. “Deal with your own sin” and do “not be selfish” were some of the comments students said they heard from school counselors when denouncing sexual assault.
“At many conservative Christian colleges, identifying what the victim is responsible for becomes a central part of how administrations interact with them,” Samantha Field, a writer who previously belonged to an Independent Baptist church, a fundamentalist offshoot of the mainstream Baptist denomination, wrote for Relevant Magazine. “Counseling processes and disciplinary actions all have a common bent: 'What do you, the victim, need to repent of? Where are you at fault?'”
At Ozark Christian, “sex was never talked about in a healthy way,” Tanis said, responding to the report, which described Bob Jones University representatives purporting the belief that all sexual “sin” is equal. “They wouldn’t dream of talking about consensual sex vs. sexual abuse because students weren’t supposed to be having sex.”
Now a pastor in New York City, Tanis said she never spoke much about some of the tougher memories from her time at Ozark. Students, she said, came to her to confess sexual abuse they suffered as children; others were expelled for reasons like mental illness, being gay, and having sex.
Tanis knew firsthand that some of her friends would take that mentality to heart. As a resident assistant at the school, many students confided in her that they had been victims of sexual assault growing up.
Conservative Christian colleges anchor themselves in the biblical notion that “every person is culpable,” Field said, which can lead faculty to assign partial or all blame to the victim of sexual abuse.
This line of reasoning was described by several contributors to the Bob Jones University report. One survey taker said, “I was abused from the ages of 6 to 14 by my grandfather. When I went for counseling, I was told, ‘Did you repent for your part of the abuse? Did your body respond favorably? If it did, then you need to repent.’”
“The entire time [during the abstinence speech] my eyes were just glued to this girl sitting close to me that I knew had been raped for 10 years by her brothers and father. I wondered how in the hell she was supposed to find some kind of comfort or feeling of empowerment from this sorry excuse for a ‘sermon,’” Tanis said.
While Tanis did not suffer sexual abuse nor did any of her friends, she remembers the hostile environment that her college fostered. Professors, she said, often went on “rants” about the evils of promiscuity. This led many students to keep their experiences to themselves.
“Students felt like they couldn't talk to anyone because of the fear of getting kicked out and then their whole family finding out they're gay or having sex,” Tanis said.
Sexual assault on college campuses isn’t limited to religious institutions. In May, a federal list was released of 55 colleges with open “sexual violence investigations.” Only four of the schools are Christian institutions: two Roman Catholic, one Southern Methodist and one Quaker. Conservative Christian colleges were not listed in the report. Since most do not receive federal funding, they are not legally bound to the accountability standards by which federally funded colleges must adjudicate sexual assault claims on campus and file campus crime reports with statistics on sexual violence.
However, that has not stopped sexual assault claims from going public. In the past year, four conservative Christian colleges, including Bob Jones University itself, have made headlines after victims have come forward.
Pensacola Christian College
At Pensacola Christian College, students must follow “the Pathway,” a policy that students sign when they enroll, as well as an agreement that they can be expelled at any time for any reason.
Students, as Christians, “are expected to maintain the highest moral standards as a reflection of God’s holiness and as a protection against the effects of sin.”
On March 11, Field wrote a blog post on Slacktivist about three students who spoke with her under the condition of anonymity, claiming school administrators expelled them for various reasons after they were sexually assaulted.
One woman, who attended the school in 2002, says she was restrained with a bungee cord, beaten and raped by her then-boyfriend on campus. Within 24 hours of filing a police report and seeking treatment at a hospital, her family was told by the dean of women that their daughter was expelled “because she is a fornicator.” The school did not discipline her abuser, Field wrote.
In another instance, a male student said he woke up in the middle of the night in his all-male dorm restrained and gagged. His roommates reportedly gang-raped him. When he told his floorleader about the incident, he called him “deceitful” and gave him the maximum number of demerit points. He was later expelled by the dean of men.
“He kept quoting passages from the Bible about the evils of lying,” the student said.
The school responded with two statements. The first said the college was “being harassed and victimized through recent online accounts” and that no PCC student has “ever been expelled from PCC for being a victim of rape or any other crime.” The second, by Pensacola Christian College President Troy Shoemaker, said “reports of harassment in any form have been quite rare.”
Patrick Henry College
In February, the New Republic published an article on sexual assault cases at the fundamentalist Christian school nicknamed “God’s Harvard.” The article follows a student named Claire who was sexually assaulted twice by another student in his car.
“I was afraid that it had something to do with my sinful nature,” Claire said in the article.
“In the Christian world Claire had been brought up in, men only do bad things to impure women who have tempted them. She blamed herself, tried to act normal, and told no one,” the New Republic wrote.
When she reported the assaults, the administration “basically told me that they couldn’t do anything because none of the details of my story could be proven,” Claire said.
In October, Patrick Henry College President Graham Walker resigned. The school is now undergoing an independent review process on how it handles sexual assault allegations.
Cedarville University, an Independent Baptist school in Ohio, was under review by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights for a possible violation of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender at schools receiving federal funds.
The investigation, which was announced in July 2013, was reportedly initiated by an alumna of the school. In an anonymous article written in the college’s independent newspaper, the woman said she was a victim of an attempted rape and was "never informed of the university's reporting policies and processes. In my experience, this contributes to a profoundly hostile campus environment and actively threatens the safety of Cedarville University's female students."
At the time of the investigation’s announcement, university president Dr. Thomas White said "We will review the issues to make sure Cedarville University is in compliance and that our campus is a place where everyone feels they can have related concerns appropriately addressed."
On June 23, 2014, the university received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights stating that the complaint was resolved. The OCR investigation found that at the time of the complaint the university's Title IX policies and procedures were not readily available nor was there an an individual designated to investigate sexual harassment complaints. Since then, the university has worked with the OCR to resolve these issues.
“Cedarville University is committed to following biblical principles that shape how we care for others,” Thomas White, Cedarville University's president, said in a statement. “This approach to honoring others, I believe, was evident by the way we worked with OCR on this matter.”