Ben Ogles speaks on agency, consent, sexual assault

Ben Ogles, Dean of the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, speaks on agency, accountability, and the atonement in regards to sexual assault in his Jan. 30 devotional address. (Savannah Hopkinson)

Ben Ogles spoke on how principles of agency, accountability and the atonement can be applied to cases of sexual misconduct.

Ogles, the dean of the College of Family, Home, and Social sciences, began his address by referencing the numerous stories published in 2017 regarding sexual harassment and assault.

“The #MeToo campaign in social media and Time magazine’s selection of the ‘Silence Breakers’ as the person of the year highlighted the increasing, sometimes controversial, focus on this issue,” Ogles said.

Ogles serves on the Advisory Council on Campus Response to Sexual Assault. Ogles said the council’s mission is to determine how the university can better handle the reporting process for victims of sexual assault.

The council set up a website where more than 3,100 people submitted feedback. The second committee he served on then surveyed all full-time students during Winter Semester 2017.

“Though it took many hours, we read every response, some of which described personal, heartbreaking experiences,” Ogles said.  

Their work resulted in 23 recommendations, which have been or are being implemented at BYU. These recommendations include developing an amnesty policy, changing organizational structure and creating a victim advocate position.

“Sexual assault is a difficult, highly charged, and sometimes political topic not easily discussed in any setting,” Ogles said.  “Yet my experiences led me to this moment where I feel an urgency to address this delicate topic.”

Ogles spoke about doctrinal foundations — agency, accountability and the atonement, and creative powers — before applying them to the issue of sexual assault.

Within this doctrinal context, it is easy to see why committing sexual assault is such a grievous sin,” Ogles said. “The perpetrator exerts power over another person disregarding their agency and depriving them of their right to control their own physical body while treating them as an object to satisfy their selfish desires.”

Ogles said the definition of sexual assault underscores the fact perpetrators deny the victim’s agency.

“Some may mistakenly believe I am describing situations that only occur with strangers suddenly assaulting unknowing victims,” Ogles said. “The data from the BYU campus climate survey, like national data, illustrate a very different reality.”

Of the 730 separate incidents of unwanted sexual contact reported, 52 percent were perpetrated by a current or former boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse. Thirty-seven percent were perpetrated by an acquaintance, friend or former friend. Only six percent of these incidents were committed by a stranger.   

“These findings suggest that some men, and I use men because the data clearly indicate men are far more likely to be the perpetrator than women, either misunderstand the nature of consent in a relationship, misinterpret their partner’s wishes, or understand their wishes and directly ignore them as they force their own will upon a partner,” Ogles said.

Ogles said he believes some instances of unwanted sexual contact at BYU happen because one person assumes the other is interested. He said he wishes people knew how to ask first instead of guessing or assuming what others want.

Ogles spoke with students in preparation for this devotional and said some were skeptical about seeking consent or asking first.

“They worried that asking for permission might ‘ruin the moment’ or feel awkward and embarrassing,” Ogles said.  “It would be convenient if consent for every attempt at physical expression of affection was intuitively known by both parties.  The problem is that not every kiss is wanted.”

Ogles said the pain of being physically violated is far worse than a brief and awkward moment when someone expresses interest in becoming more physically intimate.

“Those who violate another’s agency through force, coercion, ignoring, or naively guessing about their wishes regarding sexual contact will stand accountable for their actions,” Ogles said.

Ogles then shared his concern for those who have experienced unwanted sexual contact. He said there are many people concerned for victims’ welfare and victims are not alone in their experiences.

“You are children of God and He stands ready to assist you,” Ogles said. “You are certainly deserving of the title ‘survivor’.”

Because a victim is deprived of his or her agency, they are not accountable for what happened without his or her consent. Ogles said regardless of what the victim was wearing, where he or she was, or what happened beforehand, the victim “did not invite, allow, sanction or encourage the assault.”

He said through the atonement of Jesus Christ victims can find a way to heal. Additionally, there are several resources available to BYU students — they can see the victim advocate, receive a free medical evaluation at the BYU Health Center, seek help from the Title IX Office and receive confidential counseling at Counseling and Psychological Services. 

“It is my prayer that the doctrines and principles of the gospel shed light on this difficult topic in such a way as to bring hope rather than discouragement,” Ogles said. “If you are confused, uncertain, or disheartened, please seek out support and places to talk through your concerns.”

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