Victoria Brown had only been home a few months from Brazil when a returned missionary from her mission made his move.
She said the man believed that God had confirmed to him that she was the girl he was going to marry. The problem? This was the first Victoria heard of it. The two weren’t even dating.
While the man pursuing Brown lived on the East Coast, he continued to contact her against her wishes via text, email and Skype while she was attending BYU.
“I closed myself off, but he continued to message me, even though I wasn’t responding,” Brown said. “He even came out to Provo to try to talk to me. I made it clear I was seeing someone and that this wasn’t an option.”
Brown, a sophomore from Virginia attending BYU, is the victim of stalking, but she’s not the only one. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 15 percent of women have reported experiencing stalking in their lifetime, although it is a vastly underreported crime.
Women can also be the initiators of relationship mismatches, which play on mutual cultural or religious beliefs.
BYU’s experiences with “religious stalking” typically involves men who have experienced some sort of “spiritual answer” telling them they are destined to marry a particular woman. Women can also be the initiators of relationship mismatches, which play on mutual cultural or religious beliefs. While usually not malicious, unwanted and continuous contact is technically stalking.
John Kwarm works at BYU’s Title IX office, which works to end sexual discrimination and promote gender equality on campus. “We need to make sure students understand what stalking is, even when it’s couched in different terms.”
Such terms certainly include a person pursuing another under the context of divine revelation.
BYU was recently ranked as the safest college in the United States by Niche and Business Insider, and it follows that most stalkers at BYU are fairly benign.
“We get stalkers who just have very poor social skills, we have the religious guys who believe God told them to marry this girl. And sometimes those two merge: the social skills and the religious angle,” said University Police Lt. Arnold Lemmon. “And then you get those who for whatever reason are criminally stalking someone. Stalkers can range from being just a nuisance to a real danger, and we focus on all of these.”
A freshman from Costa Rica, Tatiana Brenes has also experienced religious stalking. Brenes said she receives almost daily contact from a man convinced that she is the one he needs to marry.
“A man is supposed to be the head of the household and receive revelation,” Brenes said. “It made me feel pressured; he said he’d received a revelation so I felt I needed to receive one.”
However, Brenes feels a resigned sympathy for what she feels like these men are going through. “They are trying to follow God by finding a mate,” she said. “They think they’re following revelation.”
It’s statements like these that make apparent how multifaceted the problem is. After serving missions for the LDS Church, returned missionaries are often bombarded with messages encouraging them to quickly find a spouse and build a family. And many Latter-day Saints are used to making big decisions aided by prayer.
Professor Michael Goodman, who teaches a marriage and family course at BYU, has sympathy for both men and women on the issue.
“I believe that a lack of understanding the role and interpretation of revelation leads some well-meaning people to mistaken assumptions about what their feelings mean,” Goodman said. “It is important to remember that a prompting to pursue a relationship does not mean that the other person necessarily feels, or even should feel, the same way. Both people have a right to decide whether to pursue a relationship and to receive their own spiritual guidance as they do so.”
Goodman believes young adults need to respect each other’s agency while trying to follow the counsel of God to the best of their abilities.
“How far you proceed depends not only on your desires and inspiration but that of the other person. As Elder (Boyd K.) Packer taught, ours is the right to invite, not coerce or compel,” Goodman said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Marriage and Family Therapy Director Lauren Barnes, an assistant clinical professor at BYU. Like many others, she has heard of plenty of these cases at the university and advises women to “know their options.”
“This has to be a joint decision; this is marriage,” Barnes said. “It’s for life, and if they’re LDS, for eternity.” Barnes counseled that any woman experiencing such pressures should meet with the Women’s Resources department in the Wilkinson Center.
Additionally, the University Police offer a no-contact letter that prohibits further contact between the two parties and can lay groundwork if a future stalking injunction is necessary.
“Over the years, those have been very, very effective,” Lemmon said.
Provo divorce lawyer Darin Featherstone has seen the wreckage of too many marriages built on false pretenses. “They feel like they’ve been manipulated,” Featherstone said. “In my experience, I’ve seen these marriages turn into really abusive situations.”
Featherstone feels honesty from the beginning of a relationship is the bedrock for a successful marriage. Claiming to have received a revelation in order to deceive will only lead to problems further down the line.
Featherstone has a knowledgeable perspective. Some 14 years ago, Featherstone told his now-wife, Jana, that God had revealed to him that they were going to get married. Jana, five years his junior, was shocked.
“I never saw myself getting married young,” she said. “When he confided I was the one for him, I was almost going to break up with him.”
For the two, patience and understanding helped their relationship progress.
“It was never used as a means to an end,” Darin said. “It was something we had confided in early on but never really spoke of again until she felt the same.”
They married after a year of dating and have two children.
“He never at any point pressured me,” Jana said. “He waited until I came to the decision and came to him about it. He knew from the very beginning he wanted to marry me, but he waited until I knew that I was ready.”