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BYU's e-Scarlet Letter

A peck on the cheek! Hand-holding! The male gaze! How a BYU-bred Instagram account made students featured in it quake.


  • Derek Carlisle

It took five minutes after the post went up for friends to start contacting Konner Wood. Someone unknown to the Brigham Young University freshman had uploaded a picture of him kissing a woman on the university's Provo campus. Wood was still with the woman. Neither of their faces were fully visible, yet people who knew him were able to clearly identify him. Woods was the latest tribute on the popular Instagram account @BYUpda. Wood, who no longer attends BYU, says he'd heard about the account before being featured. He always thought its feed was funny and harmless but never imagined he'd ever be a part of it.

"Well, you know in all things, I like it when it is applied to other people but I don't want the rules to apply to me personally," Wood says. "At first, I was a little surprised, 'cause I was just one-on-one with a girl, and then someone is taking a picture of me."

Many student-run social media accounts focus on the connections and constraints of the BYU experience, none of which have official ties to the institution. The mores of BYU are set by tradition as dictated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accounts such as Overheard@BYU_ push back at some of the absurd aspects of Mormon culture, and students make fun of themselves and the bubble they live in. Submissions to Overheard@BYU_ are anonymous and there are no identifiers as to who is saying what. But no other account had the power or the gravitas of @BYUpda. With only 308 posts, the account amassed some 43,200 followers. Post views could reach well within the 70,000 range with an engagement rate that any public relations firm would envy.

The account's tagline, "carefully curated campus cringe and more," accurately describes its raison d'etre. Documenting unsuspecting couples mid-embrace instantly created a campus-wide entertainment cottage industry. At any other college, the intimate snapshots of moments between consenting partners would be unremarkable. Yet, at this university, which is owned by the LDS church, being featured on the account doesn't equate to bragging rights. In fact, it could very well ruin your academic future.

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And the posts? They ran the gamut of what you would expect at a religious university that prizes modesty and heteronormative behavior. Couples kiss in a chemistry class while oblivious to those around them; a duo holds hands in a study hall under the table; a woman hugs a man outside a testing center. There aren't any videos or pictures with nudity or explicit sexual activity. Yet slick captions posted by viewers are notably less concerned with that. Not surprisingly, the comments appeal to a perverse sense of judgment. The post to receive the most vitriolic clout was that of a black man and a white woman kissing in a crowded room. The video elicited more than 50,000 views and garnered the most vomit emoji comments.

Wood says the anonymously run @BYUpda goes back a few years. Friends told Wood about the account long before he was ever featured in it. He wasn't even on Instagram back then, but all of his friends followed the account. Before its deletion in late June, following multiple interview requests by City Weekly, @BYUpda was the go-to account for communal denouncement.

But, was the account just a fun way for students to entertain themselves in a small city? Or was there something more sinister at play that even its account admins can't quite fathom? The school was aware of it and the administration voiced concern about the unintended consequences of accounts like @BYUpda and others like it that put students on display without their knowledge.

"It's clear that this account is in poor taste and appears to have the sole purpose of publicly shaming people for entertainment," BYU spokesperson Todd Hollingshead says. "It may seem harmless to many, but there are unintended ripple effects to posting images and videos of people without their consent."

In a telephone interview, Hollingshead says one student was so distraught at being recognized on the site, they had to relocate housing. Earlier in the year, Hollingshead says BYU's Title IX office—which enforces the 1972 legislation to eliminate sex-based discrimination and ensure both genders have access to an education—sent a certified letter to the masterminds behind @BYUpda, tasking the account to stop posting pictures of students without their consent. @BYUpda never responded. City Weekly asked for a copy of the certified letter, but it hadn't been received as of publication.

Steeped in Tradition
From medieval pillories to modern-day cancel culture, public shaming is nothing new. And the desire to conform to norms has a significant role in guiding cohesive societies. But hashtags and accounts like @BYUpda's that lead viewers to social media humiliation are at once more prevalent, scarring and potentially dangerous as it relates to students. Exposure of public displays of affection at BYU has consequences that go beyond an embarrassing digital footprint. Students must contend with the school's honor code and Mormon hyper-concerns over sexual sin.

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The more immediate concern to students is a potential violation of the university's stringent honor code. Per the school's website, all faculty, administration, staff and students are required to sign it. The morality contract promotes modesty in dress and action. It also prohibits and punishes premarital sex, consuming alcohol and coffee and growing a beard. Consequences are meted out on an individual basis. The school hired a new director for the office this spring and the school has since announced changes to some of its enforcement policies, according to Still, consequences of violating the code can include mandatory religious instruction, community service, withholding of diplomas, temporary removal from school or expulsion.

Asked if the behavior displayed in @BYUpda's posts violate the honor code, Hollingshead says it wasn't something he could discuss, as he had not gone through all the posts.

But what is most troublesome, is the lasting impact accounts like these have on students' still-developing sexual identities and habits. As a religion, Mormonism straddles a traditionally patriarchal past, while trying to keep abreast of and adjust to a modern world. Students enrolled at BYU are placed in an environment where they're expected to develop marriages that extend beyond Earth and into the afterlife. The bane of that dream is that they're young adults armed with the same hormones as other collegians in secular universities.

"We live in a culture in Provo, where all the students are very horny but the school is set up in such a way that there is not a lot of privacy," Wood says. "All the kids want to touch each other, but there is no way you can do it privately. So they all end up doing it publicly, which is kind of a problem cause it can get a little awkward at times if they are doing it in a very public spot."

Even after being dragged in the account himself, Wood says he saw some good in it. "@BYUpda was kind of a way to balance that and kind of holding people in check. It's kind of a good thing," he reflects.

It's a balance that comes at a price.

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Arrested Development
Along with being the founder and executive director of Salt Lake City's The Healing Group mental health clinic, certified sex therapist Kristin Hodson is the co-author of the book Real Intimacy: A Couples Guide for Genuine, Healthy Sexuality. She says the user-submitted videos speak to students' "under-developed emotional maturity and sexual development"—something, she says, that has a very BYU feel to it.

"It feels exploitative," Hodson notes. "That account, to me, is so unique to BYU culture, in the same way that premarital exams for girls are before they get married. Like, sexuality is taboo."

In Utah, it's not uncommon for health providers to administer a premarital exam to prepare women for vaginal sex. Doctors provide women with dilators—a medical device meant to stretch the vagina and get it used to penile penetration.

"If you look at the flip side of that, it is the opposite of a dildo," Hodson says. "Most of the women and girls are getting sex education. Boys aren't having to go to the doctors to make sure their penises are going to function and that they are ready to be prepared for their wife."

Shifting back to Insta-shaming, Hodson says accounts like @BYUpda—as well as the school's puritanical culture—foster ignominy around healthy sexual expressions. So, instead of using PDA to express their sexual desires, students will invent elaborate methods of getting around premarital sex prohibition.

"Developmentally, at that age, having relationships and consensual sexual behavior that doesn't have to include intercourse, is really normal," Hodson explains. "I find as a sex therapist, that students of BYU are the most creative at coming up with sexual work-arounds outside of intercourse."

Hodson recalls armpit sex, an act that was in vogue for BYU students last year, as a way around the chastity rule. Urban Dictionary defines the act as one "where a male repeatedly slides his penis under a female's (or male's) armpit; an alternative to penis in vag intercourse."

Inventiveness aside, the sexual suppression and emotional restraint practiced by BYU students seems to extend beyond observing the restrictive code. In 2016, the university's disparate treatment of women who reported sexual assaults, drew national scrutiny after a few of them came forward at a campus rape awareness conference and then unto The Salt Lake Tribune. More than two dozen women claimed the university had investigated them for potential honor code infractions that occurred around the time of their sexual assaults after the assaults were reported.

"I mean, BYU is having trouble with consent, right?" Hodson laments. "The real issue is tackling, fundamentally, that sexuality is healthy."

Social Control
When the 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham died, he willed that his body should be dissected and put on display. His mummified corpse now sits in an enclosure at the University College London sometimes with a secret web camera hidden inside his cadaver. The purpose? To test surveillance algorithms and to illustrate Bentham's most lasting ideological legacy: the panopticon gaze. French philosopher Michel Foucault revitalized interest in the panopticon in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish. Foucault used the panopticon to show how disciplinary societies subjugate its citizens.

For Foucault, a panopticon was best illustrated by a building surrounding a central tower. From the tower, it is possible to see into each cell a prisoner occupies. The prisoner's visibility then becomes a trap. The success of the tower relies on the prisoner being isolated while knowing they are being constantly watched. The panopticon creates a sense of permanent awareness of a visible yet unverifiable watcher active in the prisoner's mind. The prisoner can always see the tower but never knows from where they are being observed, so they police themselves and others better than if they had a guard intermittently checking in.

So, it's no surprise then that BYU students would want to police their behaviors as well as the behavior of others. When asked what makes a perfect BYU student on, a question-and-answer website, the most common reply is that students there are Ivy League material who want a Mormon-based education. And the BYU Facts and Figures page boasts the high scores of incoming freshman: an average ACT score of 29.5 and an average high school GPA of 3.86.

Social media feeds like @BYUpda co-opt the panopticon according to CoCo James, a Ph.D at the University of Utah. A former member of the LDS church, she studies sexual violence and has written a research paper on shaming and modesty. The paper has not yet been peer-reviewed. She also produced a content analysis on all references to modesty contained in the three official church magazines between 2000 and 2017.

Mormonism, James says in email exchanges and by phone, relies on an ever-watchful eye and explains why accounts such as @BYUpda became a campus hit. "The purpose of posting these pictures and videos is social control—both through shaming the behaviors and through reifying the disciplinary, panoptic gaze that all Mormons are taught is prevalent. That Mormons, and women in particular, must stand as witnesses of God at all times, and in all things, and in all places."

James says the fact that a new copycat Instagram account @pda_byu, which was created immediately after @BYUpda was deleted and picks up where its predecessor left off, indicates students' desire for some type of outlet to report on others. A female student commented on one post that her "entire goal for college is not to get on this page."

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Essentialist beliefs, James says, about gender and sex drive, pervade Mormonism and it's the exposed women who have the most to lose on shaming accounts. James adds that women experience exposure differently from men "in every way, and queer people would experience backlash times 10," as any queer on-campus public display of affection would be panic-inducing.

"Mormons believe men naturally have their foot on the gas, thus women must have their foot on the brakes," James notes. "This is seen in myriad ways throughout the faith, but is easily observable when hearing old men tell young women that they become 'living pornography' when they show their shoulders; that they invite temptation; and that they are responsible to anticipate and accommodate a sexualized male gaze."

Thus, @BYUpda and the ilk are a natural byproduct of that teaching, which for many starts in early childhood and is cemented during church-mandated worthiness interviews as pre-teens.

Those interviews are a longstanding church policy, wherein children are interviewed by adult male church leaders. Often times, the conversation takes place without the oversight of another adult or the child's parent. These one-on-one conversations cover not only spiritual topics but also personal issues like sexual behavior. The church has since updated some of the policies surrounding these exchanges. But critics say the interviews prep children to accept the behavior as part of ministry and open the doors to sexual predators.

"Mormons are conditioned to talk about their sexual behavior and their undergarments from an early age," James points out.

It is no surprise then that BYU students would engage in spying on people and uploading it for the entire school (and beyond) to enjoy, he says.

"Encouraging others in their commitment to the standards is not synonymous with turning someone in," BYU's Hollingshead says. "We don't encourage an environment of turning others in, and we don't act on anonymous reports, unless, of course, it involves the safety of a member of our campus community."

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A No-brainer
James finds that the public nature of students' affection is largely due to the housing rule that prohibits students entering the housing complexes of the opposite sex; the parameters of the honor code; the age of the typical college students; and the forceful push of the Mormon church for individuals at that age to find their eternal heterosexual companion.

"They combine to make PDA a no-brainer," James says. "Of course, this is what is going to happen, given the social milieu. My concern is, that shame and fear are knit with pleasure in this milieu. They say it is a productive shame, because they want to stop the behavior because it is sexually dangerous. That may be, it may function in that way but then it begs the question, 'How did people experience that and is that traumatic?' I would argue that people experience that as traumatic."

BYU student Keli Fossett says she didn't think beyond the entertainment value when she uploaded a picture of a couple embracing on the second floor of the Wilkinson Student Center. For her, that was normal. Such public displays aren't something she could do herself but thinks it "depends on the person and their own moral choices."

But after @BYUpda posted the picture and tagged her as the submitter, Fossett says she regretted it.

"At the time, I didn't think I was really invading their privacy but later I thought about it and I kinda feel bad for taking the picture without them knowing it," Fossett says. "In other cities, they just date casually. Just for fun. It's not like it is here in Provo. Here, sometimes we date a little too seriously."