This story is part of “The Red Zone,” a PublicSource project. More than half of sexual assaults among college students occur in the fall. The series offers resources and examines what’s being done to protect those at risk in the Pittsburgh area. Content warning: This story contains references to sexual and domestic violence.
Before she experienced intimate partner violence during her freshman year, Eva Steele had never heard of the term. When the abuse began, she couldn’t recognize the signs. As she processed her experience, she felt uncomfortable pursuing resources on campus.
Now she wants her organization, Project Healing Sideways, to be “everything that I wish I could have had.”
Steele, a University of Pittsburgh senior studying social work, founded the project two years ago to provide community, information and resources to survivors of intimate partner violence. The organization has since presented at the university’s 2021 Diversity Forum, hosted educational events and launched an on-campus awareness week with discussions about stigma and policy.
She recognizes there’s a particular need for this work: People between the ages of 18 and 24, or of typical college-going age, generally experience some of the highest rates of intimate partner violence, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Nearly 60% of students who’ve experienced dating abuse or violence report that it happened in college. Overall, 57% of college students believe dating abuse is hard to identify.
“It’s usually, in the minds of the public, something that occurs between a heterosexual couple who lives together, who is often married,” Steele said. “Unfortunately, the case is that it’s most likely to be occurring on campuses like Pitt. And it’s not being talked about nearly enough.”
While intimate partner violence can include sexual violence, it can also involve physical, emotional and financial abuse. At Pitt, about 70% of students reported in a 2019 survey that they had been in a relationship since coming to campus. Among them, about 23% of women, 20% of transgender, gender-nonconforming or questioning students, and 15% of men said they experienced at least one form of intimate partner violence. Students said their partners threatened them with harm, attempted to control them or physically abused them.
At nearby Carnegie Mellon University, about half of students reported being in a relationship since freshman year. Of those, about 18% of women, 19% of transgender, gender-nonconforming or questioning students, and 17% of men said they experienced intimate partner violence.
But across both campuses, about 80% of survivors said they did not contact resources or programs, largely reporting that they did not view their experience as serious enough or believed they could “handle it myself.”
And in Pittsburgh, the largest share of residents who experienced intimate partner violence in 2021 — about 40% — were between the ages of 19 and 29, according to an annual report from the Bureau of Police. This violence appears to have worsened during the pandemic, with calls to the bureau increasing overall by about 7% since 2020 and 13% since 2019.
“I like to say: It’s a community I love dearly, but it’s one that I’m never happy to see other people join,” Steele said.
Vulnerabilities and warning signs
Teenagers and young adults may be vulnerable to intimate partner violence for a variety of reasons. It could be because they’re experiencing their first relationships and aren’t sure of the signs or they’ve seen such abuse normalized at home, local service providers told PublicSource. Young survivors may also refrain from asking for help to show that they’re independent and can handle relationships on their own, service providers said.
“You are really asserting yourself as an adult,” said Rhonda Fleming, chief of prevention, intervention and outreach at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. “You don’t want to go tell your parents, ‘Well, I was suspicious about this or this happened in the relationship, I’m not sure if it’s OK to continue.’”
Fleming said the shelter has worked with a “very low” number of college-aged survivors, but she added that stigma is often a barrier that prevents people in this age range from reporting to the police or their universities.
Ashley Woolheater, associate director of court and advocacy services at the Center for Victims, said her organization deals with people in that age range “all the time,” though she did not provide a specific estimate.
Woolheater has seen intimate partner violence among college-aged people more often involve mental, verbal and emotional abuse rather than physical abuse. She attributes this to the public nature of college campuses, where survivors and abusers still attend classes, see friends and serve in clubs.
“There’s more eyes on those individuals,” said Woolheater, who has worked at the center for a decade. “An abuser, they might recognize that and know that, ‘OK, I can’t be physical. So I have to find other ways to control that person and gain some power over that person.’”
An abusive partner may shame or belittle a survivor, control their decision-making, coerce them into engaging in sexual activity or prevent them from spending time with loved ones, according to warning signs from the National Hotline.
Steele viewed the abuse she experienced as normal for months before recognizing the red flags, an experience she said is common among the survivors she knows. Survivors frequently disassociate from their experiences to cope, and abusers will often manipulate survivors into believing that they deserved or consented to the harm they experienced, she said.
In her advocacy work, she aims to educate students on the signs of emotional manipulation, and she seeks to provide grace to those who are coming to terms with the abuse they experienced. She often hears survivors express frustration or blame themselves for not viewing their relationship as abusive sooner.
In response, she’ll explain: “You were in survival mode. You did not have time to see the red flags because you were running.”
Survivors as leaders
Steele founded Project Healing Sideways — which operates independently of the university and is not a registered student organization — around the idea that survivors of intimate partner violence should be leaders in their own healing. The project’s work changes slightly each semester as she encourages members to take on initiatives they find empowering. For some, that could mean bringing in speakers in their areas of interest; for others, that could look like focusing on advocacy or healing.
“The survivor in any situation is going to know their experience best,” Steele said. “They should be the ones that are allowed to talk about their trauma, if they would like, or not talk about it. They should be the ones that have these leadership roles in the Pitt community that are informing our practices.”
She began developing what would become Project Healing Sideways before the start of her sophomore year, out of interest in creating opportunities for pre-health students to learn from survivors. But as she continued to build the project, she began to realize she had experienced intimate partner violence herself.
Her work in the project has allowed her to show others that intimate partner violence can happen to anyone — even people who are well-informed and engaged in advocacy work. In fact, as her work with Project Healing Sideways continued, she experienced intimate partner violence a second time. She opted not to invoke the Title IX process partly because the person began showing “extreme” mental health concerns, and she didn’t want to risk facing them again.
That second experience, and the factors influencing her decision not to report, were “very different” from her first, she said. After her first experience, Steele didn’t report to Title IX partly because — as is often the case for survivors who do not immediately recognize they’re being abused — she lacked evidence.
Still, she wanted to ensure that Project Healing Sideways had a working relationship with the Title IX office to meet other survivors’ needs.
Through that relationship, Steele has been able to serve on the university’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month Committee and its Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force, and she’s had opportunities to share survivors’ perspectives on campus policies.
Carrie Benson, senior manager for prevention and education in Pitt’s Title IX office, said the university has seen students form a “tremendous” amount of organizations to address sexual and intimate partner violence, particularly in the last year. Steele has done “some really great programming” at Pitt, Benson said.
“All of these organizations, while doing very different types of work, are essential to campus. And also, that peer education piece is huge,” Benson said. “Students are frequently going to feel most comfortable having these conversations with one another.”
Steele values that Pitt has provided her with opportunities to speak up. Survivors’ advocates noted that universities can help prevent intimate partner violence by educating students on healthy relationships, being transparent about available resources and empowering them to seek help — without taking away their sense of control.
“They need to be more out-front with it and be open with it, so students do know they have somewhere they can go to come and talk about concerns of the relationship,” Fleming said. “They may not be at the point where they want to consider it dating violence — they just may have concerns; it doesn’t feel right.”
To tackle sexual and intimate partner violence at Pitt, Benson said the university focuses on awareness building and cultural change. The university needs to inform students about policies, resources and definitions of intimate partner violence, but it also should facilitate conversations among students about healthy relationships and boundaries, she said.
The university has trained 18 students to conduct workshops and speak with their peers about sexual and intimate partner violence, among other efforts. The students held about 25 workshops last year about healthy relationships, Benson said.
“They’re very dialogue-oriented, so very much encouraging students to think about: What feels good? What feels comfortable in a relationship? What are your boundaries?” she said.
A model for reform
The Women’s Center and Shelter provides programming to local colleges and contracts with Carlow University, where the shelter has met with incoming students and conducted training with campus police. Fleming has also seen students across colleges attend the shelter’s batterer intervention program, which seeks to help perpetrators recognize their triggers and change their behavior. Participants join through voluntary admission or court referral.
Overall, she’d like the local universities to offer more prevention programming of their own.
She pointed to the city and county Intimate Partner Violence Reform Leadership Team, created in May, as a vessel for broader reform. The team includes attorneys, police officials and service providers, including the Women’s Center and Shelter, and the members aim to improve what a press release described as “a complex and fragmented system for intimate partner violence victims” through collaboration.
The task force will work on advancing reforms and policy changes while also examining domestic violence cases in Pittsburgh, Fleming said. The team met for the second time in mid-July and plans to gather for quarterly meetings starting in mid-October.
“They’re going to sit at the table and actually look at what happens in Pittsburgh,” she said. “That’s brand new.”
Nicole Molinaro, president and CEO of the Women’s Center and Shelter, serves on the leadership team. The group has not yet identified any trends regarding college students and intimate partner violence or started work in that area, but she said the team expects to work with children and young adults.
Speaking up and measuring success
Steele grappled with uncertainty over speaking about her experience for a long time. She knew that people would likely question her experience, try to pry information from her or pity her.
“The reason I did it was really not for myself, but more for the people that I love,” Steele said.
Two years later, Steele has found healing and empowerment through her work — but she’s also identified areas for improvement. For example, she would like to see Pitt offer more accommodations and flexibility to survivors without documented or chronic disabilities. She recognizes, however, that some issues may outlast her time as an advocate at Pitt.
“The best that I can do is continue to talk about it and hope that people hear me out, even if things don’t change.” Steele said, “It gets people thinking. …
“The world of advocacy in this area does not lie on my shoulders. But it is my job to help people recognize that it does lie on everyone’s shoulders.”
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
This project has been made possible with the support of the FISA Foundation.
A note about PublicSource’s process:
For this project, PublicSource conducted interviews in person, on the phone and via Zoom with survivors and then worked with them to corroborate their accounts to the extent possible. We asked for any notes, legal documents, journal entries, emails and texts and/or asked to be connected with people whom survivors confided in at the time.
In journalism, anonymity is typically granted to people who have experienced sexual violence. PublicSource provided varying levels of anonymity to those who have shared their stories of sexual violence with us to respect wishes for privacy and to prevent further trauma. Their identities are known to us, and the information they’ve shared has been vetted.