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In the ongoing debate about sexual assault at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, this much is clear: Many readers and observers do not understand the term "rape culture."

It does not mean that rape is widespread and commonplace at a given university or in certain settings. It does not mean overtly promoting or encouraging rape. And it certainly does not mean that a society endorses or applauds rape.

No, rape culture is "made up of those elements in the college experience that increase the risk that women, and men, will be forced or coerced to have sex without their consent," college administrator and Mormon blogger Michael Austin writes at By Common Consent, "and decrease the likelihood that such activity will be reported so that it can be stopped."

Rape culture is "one of the most pervasive problems in the world of higher education today," adds Austin, warning that downplaying it is "designed to deprecate the notion that rape is a problem on college campuses and to delegitimize those who are trying to address it."

Mormon officials are unequivocal in their condemnation of sexual assault.

"There is no tolerance for sexual assault at BYU or in the church. Assault of any kind is a serious criminal offense, and we support its reporting, investigation and prosecution to the full extent of the law," the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints notes in a recent statement. "Victims of assault or recipients of unwelcome sexual attention should be treated with sensitivity, compassion and respect and should feel that those to whom they disclose the assault are committed to helping them deal with the trauma they have experienced."

In cases where there may have been conflict between meeting BYU's Honor Code and Title IX priorities, the statement says, the Provo school "is taking significant steps, including forming an advisory council [and launching a website for comments and feedback] to explore these circumstances and make recommendations for change, as needed."

So what makes BYU's rape culture — or enabling elements — stand out from secular schools?

Clayton points to the nature of Honor Code investigations, an innate sense of shame and guilt about any sexual interactions among Mormons, respect for and dependence on male priesthood authority, sexual naiveté, lack of female input in rule-making and lack of male empathy.

She then explores some of the myths about rape "with a unique BYU twist," including assumptions about male and female sexuality:

• "Rape is just sex out of control," which falsely sees assault as sexual. "Dominating and overpowering another person is what excites the rapist," she writes, "not the act of sex alone."

• "If you don't fight, it's not rape." Victims respond differently during violent clashes. "Some people fight; some freeze up," she writes. " ... A rape is a rape." Anyone who preaches that a victim should fight to the death rather than be raped makes every rape survivor suspect. By that logic, "if you survived, you weren't raped," Clayton notes. "That's a teaching I never want my daughter to hear."

• "Women often make false accusations of rape to avoid getting in trouble [with the school] for chastity violations." Says Clayton, "This myth is particularly galling when you phrase it another way, a way that reveals the misogyny behind the sentiment: 'She wanted it.' "

• "You should forgive your rapist," which she says seems to show more compassion for the rapist than the victim. "This downplays the importance for the victim to reclaim his or her power, an important part of the healing process," she writes. "It also enables future rape by preventing prosecution. Forgiving shouldn't mean enabling or excusing, not if we are serious about protecting people from rape.

• "If a girl lets a boy go too far, he can't stop himself." This assumption "is insulting to men," Clayton says, "and a dangerous victim-blaming belief. Both men and women are individually responsible for their actions."

Mormon writer and editor Kristine Haglund notes that BYU does have distinct rules and expectations about premarital sex — forbidding it and all forms of intimacy besides hugging and kissing.

For many believing young Latter-day Saints, Haglund writes for the online journal, Religion & Politics, "sexual encounters are complicated by all-or-nothing thinking that elevates virginity as the singular and absolute measure of morality," she writes. "Virginity is also frequently euphemized as 'purity.' "

Even on nonreligious campuses, though, false gender assumptions abound, Haglund explains, suggesting that men are driven by their libidos, while women must be the "sexual gatekeepers."

"Confronting the ideas about virginity, modesty and the varieties of male and female desire, made explicit in religious terms on some campuses," she says, "provides an opportunity to seriously examine similar lingering and often unspoken views that govern the expression of sexuality elsewhere. "

Like many others, Haglund, who lives near Boston, argues BYU should offer Honor Code amnesty in reporting sexual assault — a move sought in a petition signed by tens of thousands of individuals.

"After all, if a male student got shot at Starbucks," she writes, "nobody would check to see if the cup he was drinking from at the time contained coffee or hot cocoa."

Still, Haglund believes how any change comes about matters — whether religious conservatives feel it is the result of "shaming from the 'liberal media' and the machinations of federal government run amok" or because they have participated in "a respectful, collaborative process in which the shared interest of religious believers in protecting their youth is recognized."

Church and state battles should be put aside, Haglund says. "To grow up safe, whole and healthy requires wisdom from every available source."

Peggy Fletcher Stack