PROVO — The Mormon doctrine of agency requires consent for all sexual contact, and sexual assault victims are never to blame since a perpetrator deprived them of their agency, BYU's dean of Family, Home and Social Sciences said Tuesday during a campus devotional.
"The very definition of sexual assault underscores the idea that the perpetrator is denying the agency of the victim," Ben Ogles said.
"If the other person does not agree to, or does not willingly and freely agree to, touching, kissing or other sexual behavior, they have not given consent," he added. "Consent cannot be given when the person is asleep, unconscious, intoxicated or does not have the intellectual capacity to agree, including when they are minors. Similarly, just because a person stops resisting or freezes in response to pressure, manipulation or coercion, does not mean that the person has consented to sexual contact."
A psychologist and president of the Provo Young Single Adult 17th Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ogles outlined the core Mormon doctrines of agency, accountability, the Atonement and the creative sexual powers during his devotional address in front of 1,781 the Marriott Center.
He also told victims of unwanted sexual contact that they are never to blame and are not alone.
"Let me be very clear about the responsibility for sexual assault," Ogles added. "The perpetrator is responsible for their actions. A victim was deprived of their agency and they are not accountable for what happened to them without their consent — no matter what they were wearing, where they were or what happened beforehand. They did not invite, allow, sanction or encourage the assault."
Between the counseling he does in his job and his church calling and his work in two recent special assignments at BYU, he said it was clear to him that BYU students needed to hear more about consent and victim blaming.
The message was welcomed by students.
"I didn't realize how much I identified with this," said Desiree Jensen, 21, a sophomore in human development from Herriman, Utah. "I usually tap out when I hear about sexual assault because I don't think it pertains to me. I think it's just about rape."
Her fiancee noticed the devotional's impact on her, she said.
"I told him I have had less serious but still-unwanted experiences that I have blamed myself for," said Jensen, a returned LDS Church missionary who described the devotional as a spiritual experience. "It was good to hear the speaker say it really wasn't at all my fault, that the Atonement applies to me and that I don't have to carry that on my own anymore. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who had that experience today."
In 2016, Ogles served on the Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault that delivered a 34-page report with 23 recommendations to BYU's administration.
In 2017, he helped conduct a survey of BYU's full-time students about sexual assault. The survey of 12,602 students found 475 who reported 730 separate incidents of unwanted sexual contact. Of those, 52 percent of the incidents were perpetrated by a current or former boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse and 37 percent were perpetrated by an acquaintance, friend or former friend.
Six percent were perpetrated by a stranger.
BYU released those statistics last year, but several students said they weren't on campus yet or were away serving LDS missions. Aleah Frederickson, an 18-year-old computer science freshman from Sacramento, California, said she was grateful the devotional opened the door for more discussion about the facts at BYU and the issue overall.
Ogles said he read heartbreaking experiences of sexual misconduct among the work of a colleague at Ohio University and in submissions made to BYU's advisory council during its work. He has closely followed the stories and impact of the #MeToo movement.
"What added to my sorrow was the fact that here at BYU, even though we have high standards for our conduct, there are individuals who perpetrate and experience unwanted sexual contact. This was discouraging."
The BYU survey indicated that some students don't understand consent.
"Accordingly," Ogles said, "I wish that all people knew how to ask first. Instead of guessing or assuming, we can rely on direct information. For example, one possibility is to ask first, and if consent is given, then you kiss. It might go something like this: 'I like you. I really enjoy being with you and getting to know you. Would it be all right if I kissed you?' Then you wait to hear the response before acting."
The suggestion drew some laughter and whispered comments. Women welcomed the statement.
"My favorite line was when he said, 'The pain of being physically violated is much worse than the brief and potentially awkward moment when someone lets you know that they would like to be more physically intimate,'" said Audrey White, a 19-year-old freshman in illustration from Park City, Utah.
Her friend Madi Sabey, a 19-year-old freshman in Latin American studies from Saratoga Springs, Utah, said that was critical.
"It's important for boys to know that girls really do appreciate when they respect us," she said. "We do want the awkwardness over the hurt."
Ogles suggested BYU students find "creative, fun, romantic ways to ask for permission that may even improve the moment."
Ogles said Jesus Christ's Atonement provides healing from pain and abuse caused by others.
"Even so," he said, "it is upsetting, sometimes agonizing, to experience the evil, ignorant or naive acts of some that harm us or our loved ones."
He suggested victims, whom he said qualify for the title "survivor," look to LDS.org for help and resources, seek out professional help and access the resources offered at BYU, such as the victim advocate and counselors. He encouraged friends to listen to survivors and help them find help.
BYU President Kevin Worthen, an LDS Church Area Seventy, presided and introduced Ogles.
The devotional can be viewed on byutv.org.