Christian Colleges Have a Sexual Assault Problem

Stories of mishandling and outright ignoring cases of sexual assault within religious institutions go back decades.

Stories of mishandling and outright ignoring cases of sexual assault within religious institutions go back decades. Christian school via Shutterstock

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.