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.
At Chatham University, a student-run committee connects classmates with resources for safe sex and information about Title IX.
At the University of Pittsburgh, a group of friends shares information about unwanted interactions and a list of students to stay away from.
At Carnegie Mellon University, a graduate student would like to see more constructive conversations about preventing sexual violence and harassment.
Sexual violence is prevalent on college campuses nationwide. In Pittsburgh, students and recent graduates are stepping up to support survivors, educate their peers and keep one another safe.
A Pitt friend group’s circle of support
When one of Disha Aggarwal’s friends sent her a dating app profile, she and her other friends immediately responded out of concern. Don’t talk to him, they said — he’s assaulted someone before.
That conversation led to the friends creating a list of men to stay away from, which Aggarwal said has mainly spread through word of mouth. Some of the women memorize the names, while others like Aggarwal keep the list on their phones. It’s one way that Aggarwal, a junior at Pitt, has sought to protect herself and her friends from sexual violence.
“It has come in handy because there have been many instances where I’m at a party, and I spot a guy across the room, and I recognize him and I know not to go near him,” she said. “I think it has given a lot of power to make me feel more comfortable in going out.”
Yet she still worries about sexual violence, which she said several of her friends have experienced. One friend reported to the Title IX office — “and I’m extremely proud of her for doing that,” Aggarwal said — but others did not, instead dealing with their trauma alongside those who support them.
Her advice for supporting friends who experience sexual violence?
“Listen to them and support them no matter what decision they make, whether that’s to report it, to not report it, to go seek counseling for it,” she said. “Everyone has their own journey with it. Everyone has their own process of sort of grieving what happened to them.”
Teaching safe sex sooner at Chatham
At Chatham University, sophomore Annabelle Butts serves as the community outreach chairperson for the Sexual Respect Committee. The committee offers information on Title IX and where to access testing for sexually transmitted diseases as well as sexual protection, such as condoms and dental dams.
When Butts came to Chatham, she had a basic understanding of sex, gained partly through her friends who attended public school. She went to a public school before switching to a Catholic high school, which she said didn’t offer sex education. In a late August interview, she said that she’s hoping to work with local high schools to allow the committee to provide presentations to help students learn safe sexual practices before college.
While she said some schools are responding to her requests by stating that they already offer sex ed, Butts still sees gaps in the understanding students have when they start college.
“We all want to teach how to protect yourself correctly,” Butts said. “And we want schools to teach their kids that, ‘Yes, we know you’re going to have sex. Here’s how you prevent anything from happening.’”
Taking back the night
Hope Karnes, a sophomore at Pitt, serves as president of the campus chapter of Take Back the Night, an international movement against sexual violence. In April, the Pitt chapter organized a march on campus in support of survivors, with Karnes making flyers and helping to spread awareness of the event.
This year, Karnes hopes to grow the organization and work with the university to provide a student voice in discussions of sexual violence, she said. The university invited the Take Back the Night club to table at an event for freshmen this semester, Karnes said, and the club held its first meeting of the semester in mid-September. She’s pleased with how Pitt has received the club.
“Survivors standing alone can be really scary, really intimidating and really unrealistic,” Karnes said. “I think that, having us as kind of a united front, we can tackle a lot more.”
Having inclusive conversations
Nadiyah Fisher, a senior and president of Pitt’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, believes that the campus culture around sex and consent is improving, partly through the work of student organizations.
The organization hosted a sexual assault awareness program last year, where Fisher and other students shared their stories as an invitation for survivors to talk and seek resources, if they choose to.
“I can provide peer support, but I make sure they know this is not professional help. And I kind of try to find resources for them to do so as well,” Fisher said.
The club also sought to highlight men’s experiences with sexual assault, as that’s often ignored or stigmatized, they said. About 9% of male college students experience sexual assault or rape through force, incapacitation or violence, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Pitt is making an effort to teach students about sexual violence and available resources, too, Fisher said. But they said the education that the university provides students sometimes feels “cookie-cutter” and impersonal, and they think the university could do more to connect with the student body during these discussions.
Helping incoming students adjust
For the last two academic years, Chatham senior Ashley Pesarsick has served as an orientation leader, helping incoming students acclimate to campus and guiding them through the mandatory training that covers topics such as sexual assault prevention. She believes the university takes sexual violence seriously, and she feels safe on campus and knowledgeable about available resources.
“I personally love working with incoming students. There’s something just really special about having a first-year come in, they don’t know what the heck’s going on, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I want to get you through,’” she said.
During her first year as an orientation leader, Pesarsick met with students before their mandatory training on sexual assault prevention, providing trigger warnings and informing the students about what they’d be discussing. After the training, Pesarsick asked the students to share what they’ve learned and ran through practice scenarios.
“I think for the most part, everyone comes in and they don’t really know what to do,” Pesarsick said. “So I think that’s why it’s really important for us to be there.”
Questioning the systems
Divyansh Kaushik, a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University and president of the Graduate Student Assembly, has been following the developments in Title IX procedures and policy.
In 2019, together with student representatives from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and CMU’s GSA, Kaushik submitted a comment to the Department of Education expressing concerns about the upcoming changes to the Title IX rules proposed by the Trump administration. Earlier that year, CMU’s GSA also sent a separate letter denouncing a live hearing protocol for the Title IX cases and especially cross-examination of the complainant: “Questioning the survivors of assault can retraumatize them, especially in a live hearing,” they wrote.
Divyansh Kaushik, stands for a photo on campus on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Kaushik would like to see the Title IX office at CMU more vocal in what’s being done for the community to combat sexual violence and harassment. Although he recognizes the progress, he thinks it does not seem prioritized enough.
“One of the biggest concerns we had earlier in the pandemic,” Kaushik said, “was around the kinds of resources or support we are going to provide to the students who are in domestic relationships, who might have issues with domestic violence to deal with. I just don’t know, like, what’s happened there or if anything happened at all.”
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mila Sanina contributed to this story.
This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.
A note about PublicSource’s process:
For this project, conducted over six months, PublicSource held 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 in whom survivors confided at the time. The provided documentation was used to further detail the survivors’ experiences and provide independent verification for our robust fact-checking process.
Reporting on sexual violence requires journalists to adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness while mitigating harm and the retraumatization of survivors.
PublicSource reporters adhered to industry best practices for trauma-informed reporting, including those developed by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. From the onset, reporters strived to ensure survivors understood how their stories may be shared in the project and remained in touch as the reporting process continued.
They practiced empathetic interviewing and worked with survivors to determine how they’d like to be identified. 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.
The reporters also reviewed the profiles with the survivors, reading back quotes for accuracy, in an effort to ensure they felt in control of how their stories were told. They remained open to survivors’ comfort levels with participation changing and, as needed, provided opportunities to decide if they’d like to continue.
PublicSource is grateful to the survivors for going through this process with us and sharing their stories with the Pittsburgh community to improve understanding of the risks of sexual violence and its effects on college campuses.