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.
What happened to Melissa Ferraro 30 years ago fuels her purpose today.
She was a freshman when she was raped on campus at Penn State Altoona. She didn’t report it at the time. In fact, she didn’t immediately process exactly what had happened to her. But shortly after the assault, she couldn’t go on with her studies.
She felt depressed and began scratching her skin until she bled. That was her way of coping with these unfamiliar feelings. She had no support.
Not quite herself, she returned home to Pittsburgh. Her grandmother encouraged her to seek professional help. Grandma called what Melissa experienced “melancholy.” Melissa followed the advice; she says therapy “saved” her.
A native of Pittsburgh, she tells her story here because she wants it to interrupt the cycle of secrecy and guilt that many sexual assault survivors experience. She knows it well — from what she lived through and what she heard from others in her work.
In the beginning of her career, she worked at the Center for Victims in Pittsburgh. It troubled her to see many mothers bring in their children who had been assaulted and then reveal, for the first time in their lives, that they were survivors, too. Almost always they had not reported what happened and continued living with trauma. That’s what Melissa, now a mom herself, wants to change so that everyone has a chance to heal and have access to available resources.
Elizabeth, a 25-year-old, was also a freshman when she was assaulted. Like Melissa, she didn’t report what happened to authorities at the time. Yet she was knowledgeable about available resources.
Her friend worked with the Title IX office so she was familiar with the process and protections the federal civil rights law promises. Yet Elizabeth, who asked PublicSource to shield their identity, decided not to report what happened.
“I wasn’t ready to deal with that and then a friend who knew the guy and his girlfriend at the time said, ‘Don’t make this a big thing. I’m worried about negativity. This guy’s going to get kicked out of the fraternity’” that he was rushing. “And that threw me off so hard. I was just really confused at that reaction, and it made me second guess myself quite a bit.”
Data on the extent of sexual violence on Pittsburgh-area campuses and campuses across the country is hard to pin down. No one knows for sure how underreported it is. Some estimates say that 1 in 4 female undergraduates experience sexual violence during college. Among the student population surveyed in 2019 by the Association of American Universities, 13% experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent.
Although more than 20 years separate the violent experiences Melissa and Elizabeth went through as college freshmen, similarities in their stories shed light on trauma, stigma and the importance of support and awareness in healing. Their stories also suggest that in spite of protections and efforts by higher ed institutions to learn about preventing sexual misconduct, victim blaming, guilt and secrecy remain powerful forces that make it even more challenging for survivors of sexual violence on Pittsburgh campuses and beyond to report and heal.
PublicSource publishes selected extracts of their stories, in their own words, here.
It happened some time ago, I was 18. This year I am turning 48. I was attending Penn State Altoona and I was under the influence of alcohol at the time. The offender was known to me, but we were not in a romantic relationship. I knew his girlfriend. I was intoxicated to the point of not being able to give consent. And the offender lured me to a secluded location under the pretense of talking to me about something that was troubling him. I can’t recall what it was. He took me to a laundry room in the male side of the dormitory and then raped me without my consent.
I wasn’t sure, even later that evening, how to identify what happened. I tried to talk to a friend. But she didn’t respond in a way that made me feel like something bad had happened. I was so drunk I vomited, and I was not completely conscious. And that’s what happened in 1993.
I didn’t report it, not because I didn’t remember what happened. I remembered vividly what had happened, but there was no one around to really believe me or support me and help me to understand what had happened.
It was during my freshman year. I was a Pitt student. And we made friends with some guys on the floor below us. They were “rushing” this frat. The frat house was just outside of the campus and was not owned by the university. And I guess, they weren’t an official frat, but they brought everyone, you know, all the girls over there. I don’t remember anything. I’m not a big drinker in the first place, but I remember having one of the drinks that they had and totally nothing else after that. And I just remember waking up the next morning with someone behind me, and it actually turned out to be the boyfriend of this girl who lived next to me. But I wasn’t really quite sure what happened.
I didn’t want to think about it. I kind of wanted to just be like, “OK, well, that was done, you know, whatever.” But it impacted me more than I thought at the time. I think that was probably the last time I actively tried to be around men. Actually, I had been assaulted in high school as well. So, that didn’t help. Now I know I’m gay. But that was so solidifying that I became kind of scared of guys. And still, to some degree, I’m not necessarily scared anymore, but mistrustful. I just don’t trust men.
I remember later that year scratching my arm for a long time until I bled. I can see scars from that even now, but faintly, only because I know what I’m looking for. I didn’t know about self-injurious behavior at that time.
I took a class later that year to become a resident assistant in the dorms, and we were educated about rape. And that’s when I realized what had happened, that I was not able or I was not conscious enough to give consent. And then, again, I talked to a friend about what had happened and labeled it as what I thought was: “acquaintance rape.” She said that that wasn’t what it was. And so, it made me question myself even more.
I began to abuse alcohol and became so depressed and acted out. I never reported it to the authorities or to a college. And I ended up on academic probation from the school.
I moved back home to Pittsburgh. My grandmother saw that my behavior had changed a lot. And she recommended that I go and see her doctor. And so when I went to see her doctor, I told her a little bit about what had happened to me. And she put me on an antidepressant, and she recommended that I go to Pittsburgh Action Against Rape [PAAR] to see one of their therapists there. And so I did. And I think that that was a game changer for me. I don’t think I would have been able to move forward in a more healthy manner without the support of the therapist there and without the help of the antidepressant.
I think a lot of women experience this: not really knowing what constitutes an assault. I think we just get this image in our head of someone popping up from the bushes and like, you know, grabbing you. So, I wasn’t really quite sure what had happened.
Again, there were girlfriends who were saying, “No, I think that was an assault.” But I don’t think I invited a lot of conversation about it because of the girl who lived next to me; the guy was her boyfriend. I was friends with her roommate. We were sexually intimate, actually. And that friend turned out to not be a good friend. After this incident, she was like, “I don’t want my roommate to be upset. I don’t want her and her boyfriend to get into a fight.” She was not worried about how this impacted me and what happened to me.
I never reported what had happened. I’m very much a compartmentalizer. If something happens, I can be OK and I will deal with it like six months from now, you know?
Plus, I think reporting and trusting is a little difficult, especially with freshmen. It’s like you don’t have that solid of a friend group. My friend, the roommate of the girlfriend, was kind of my reference point for what was normal and what was not. I for sure wasn’t going to report after that. That was like a nail in the coffin. I’m not doing it.
I was very alone. And I also felt out of my comfort zone and out of a culture that was familiar to me there. I was around people who were from a different social class than I was, and they did not have the kind of experiences in life that I had. So I had a really hard time identifying with them. And drinking was sort of an equalizer.
I became a big party girl because it was really the only way I knew how to manage in that environment. And I did poorly at school. I didn’t even know how to study. I was completely unprepared. I was from a low-income background with no support.
I was a good target. I don’t know how he decided or when he decided he was going to rape me, but I see now how I was vulnerable to having something like that happen. I was perfect in terms of not having support, being a loner and living a life that was sort of risqué. So if you are looking at it like a herd, in a way, I was that perfect animal in the herd to attack.
I had a lot of guilt for a very long time. I felt this sense of comparison, comparing it to child sexual assault and, you know, serial offenders. Like, who has it worse, you know? I felt that I had culpability in what had happened. I was the kind of person and I behaved in the kind of way that I deserved something like that to happen to me. And because I put myself in that sort of a situation.
I have teenagers now. It’s very important to me that I educate my children about all sides of sexual assault and rape.
My parents divorced many years ago. I think my dad still carries some guilt about not being more of a father earlier. We have a good relationship now. But he’ll pull this just overprotective, like weird man stuff, where he’s like: “I’ll kill someone for you.” OK, so you have no idea what life is like. He just has no clue. And when you hear that, you realize he just doesn’t have any understanding of probably a lot of the women in his life, or about assault, that he wouldn’t just go out and kill every single one of their assailants. That’s not how that works. It’s not what your daughter needs.
And it’s showing up in really weird places. Like one of the things I’m really struggling with now, and I don’t know if this is like due to the assaults or something else, but I am struggling with my sex life. I’m also struggling with even my gender identity, where it feels weird now. And I’m trying to talk to my therapist about it, wondering do I feel nonbinary or do I just not want to be looked at? And it’s tough. It’s becoming a really big kind of presence in my life. I can’t tell if it’s me fighting back against gender norms. Or is it me being really afraid to be looked at as a woman. Maybe I don’t want to be looked at as a potential target?
Therapy helped me understand and define what had happened and recognize that I didn’t do anything to deserve what happened. That was huge. Because of the depression and the trauma, the place where I was living was very messy. I was still doing all sorts of self-destructive behaviors. I gained a lot of weight.
I can remember the therapist talking to me about how having that messy apartment, not doing the dishes and not having things organized, that when my environment was like that, I was going to feel like that in my head, how it was going to contribute to that out-of-control feeling. And so if I could keep it clean and keep up with the dishes and have things organized, that would help my brain to feel less anxiety, more in control. That was a small thing that I could do to feel more in control of things in my life.
I started exercising. I became healthier all around. At PAAR, they were very accepting of me. The organization and the therapist treated me with dignity, not blame, and gave me tools and ideas about how to move forward.
And the other thing — they were never saying, “Well, why don’t you press charges? Or why were you drinking so much?”
When I began to think about what pressing charges would be like, what that experience would be like for me, this was still at a time in history where there was — and there still is — a lot of victim-blaming. And I was sort of ripe for that kind of criticism. I honestly was also afraid that my dad would hurt, injure or kill the offender and that I would end up with my dad in jail. And I felt like the whole process would be awful. I didn’t think anybody would believe me.
Therapy was all about healing and recovery. They also explained to me about how when you have one trauma, that it can bring back memories or trigger other past traumas. It was one of the most important things I learned. It’s essential, you know, it’s like a vital service, helping people recover from a traumatic event like this.
Mila Sanina is an independent journalist and assistant teaching professor of journalism. She can be reached at email@example.com. PublicSource partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.
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.