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.
Assaulted by a friend or a crush. Coerced with alcohol or manipulated with persistent advances. Left confused and ashamed.
College students in Pittsburgh have experienced a spectrum of sexual violence.
While processing trauma, students are faced with decisions and logistics. Do they report or not? Can they continue their studies? How can they avoid the person who violated them?
Six people shared their recent and ongoing experiences of sexual violence or consent violations and the aftermath with PublicSource. One reported to a Title IX office but felt confused and traumatized by the process. Another is only beginning to process the consent violations they experienced as a freshman. A third is in a better place now but is “nowhere near being healed.”
Their stories — most of which are shared publicly here for the first time — illustrate the challenges in awareness among college-age peers and within higher education institutions as well as the barriers to support and healing.
Nearly all of the students featured in this story attend the University of Pittsburgh. Of the nine colleges and universities included in the project, Pitt’s student body on its Pittsburgh campus accounted for about 41% of the overall student population as of fall 2021.
PublicSource spoke with and sought survivors who represent other institutions as well, and we’d still like to hear from you.
If you are a survivor of sexual violence and would like to share your story, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out this online form. We’re also available through the Signal app at 412–432–9669.
- When friendship turned into sexual assault, the survivor had her ‘head on a swivel’
- Is it OK to change your mind? Consent violations and ‘the tease’ label
- Closure or dead end? Reporting assault as an imperfect victim
- The shame and guilt that leads survivors to question their experiences
- After her assailant lawyered up, the Title IX process slowed to a crawl for Pitt student
- Struggles with getting university support, accessing Title IX
When friendship turned into sexual assault, the survivor had her ‘head on a swivel’
The two had spent nearly every day studying in the library after class and would hang out on the weekends. She had always made it clear that she saw him as just her friend. Then, last winter, he assaulted her at a party.
“I just felt very, extremely betrayed by this person, and I also felt kind of scared,” said the University of Pittsburgh student, who asked to remain anonymous. “I was kind of sketched out by the way that he treated and acted around other girls, but I didn’t realize that this could potentially harm someone, until now.”
After her experience, she tried to tell all of his female friends what had happened to her. She doesn’t regret sharing her experience, despite how difficult it was to recount — but she didn’t get the response she expected. The friends she knew independently of the student supported her, but those she had met through him continued to spend time with him, she said.
“It was kind of just tough that it didn’t seem to make much difference,” she said.
She also chose to report to the Title IX office in January. Though the subsequent investigation has been uncomfortable, she said the investigators have taken her experience seriously and handled it professionally. She’s had the final opportunity to review and submit evidence — and now, she’s waiting for the outcome.
Justice, in the short term, would look like the student facing consequences for his actions, she said. But overall, she’d like sexual assault to no longer be a survivor’s burden to bear.
Though she had a no-contact order, she felt unsafe at her university for months — “I would spend so much time with my head on a swivel,” she said — and she was afraid to run into the student or his friends.
“Justice would be after something like that happens, people like me feeling safe being here and feeling supported being here.”
In her view, though, he was able to continue his life and education as normal.
“That’s not justice. That is what it is not,” she said. “Justice would be after something like that happens, people like me feeling safe being here and feeling supported being here.”
As time has passed, she doesn’t feel like she has to be as vigilant on campus anymore, but she’s still processing her experience and working toward healing.
Parties have been a source of discomfort because of how some of her peers treat each other. And she still struggles with unease and uncertainty over how her male classmates view her. Do they truly respect and see her as a friend or do they only see her as a potential sexual partner?
Though universities should play a role in educating students, she said, the majority of the responsibility falls on students to treat each other with respect. She’d like her peers to learn from her experience that, while anyone can become a survivor of sexual violence, anyone can be a rapist, too.
“I think people should be less afraid of that word and more aware that they can make that mistake,” she said. “People just need to be really aware of their actions, how they affect the people around them, how they’re making the other people around them feel.
Is it OK to change your mind? Consent violations and ‘the tease’ label
As Mayka Chaves has gotten older, she’s realized that some of the sexual experiences she’s had in college may have been violating.
After her very first relationship ended — a person from high school whom she thought she’d marry — she found herself as a freshman at Pitt in a campus culture of casual sex, unprepared to navigate it. “Open season, if you will.”
“It’s very, like, ‘Who can have more sex than another person?’” said Chaves, who is now a fourth-year student. “When I then started to engage in that, being so naive, I was really kind of swayed by anything that I thought that a person that I could trust would tell me.”
That year, she experienced consent violations with a male student she was seeing. When she’d express her discomfort, he’d sometimes become upset and question why she’d come over. In college, Chaves said, men often expect women to have sex with them if they’ve previously expressed interest, even if they change their minds.
“Sometimes when I get there, I’m very, very anxious. It’s very hard for me to actually want to do it and sometimes I don’t want to. And I feel like there’s a very generalized, like, ‘Ugh, you’re a tease,’ like, ‘Ugh, here it is again, of course,’” she said. “There’s a very base level of coercion that I feel that exists.”
“I was really kind of swayed by anything that I thought that a person that I could trust would tell me.”
At the time, she didn’t view her relationship with the student as abusive or disrespectful. She recalled that a resident assistant she trusted, then a senior at Pitt, told Chaves that what she had experienced was wrong. Chaves brushed off the entire conversation, she said. It wasn’t until she got older and started going to therapy that she began to think differently.
Chaves believes that college students face a culture that’s unlike anything they have or will ever experience again. She isn’t sure what the university could do to better educate students on consent, sexual assault and the Title IX process, but she said that resident assistants in the dorms could facilitate conversations and relate to students better than university authority figures.
During Welcome Week — the period leading up to the fall semester where new students get acclimated to campus — resident assistants discuss Title IX and sexual misconduct with students at residence hall floor meetings, a Pitt spokesperson said.
“In college, people experience often a lot of sexual encounters that they were just never prepared for experiencing before coming in,” Chaves said. “I feel that a majority of my friends have experienced some sort of sexual harassment or violence.
“This is sad, but it’s almost like a rite of passage.”
Closure or dead end? Reporting assault as an imperfect victim
Stickers around Chatham University’s campus pronouncing “I love consent” looked especially jarring to Katherine after she was assaulted in a dorm there during her freshman year. She knew the perpetrator. She liked him even and thought that he liked her, too.
For two years, she didn’t report what happened. She treated it as a fluke: “It sucks that it happened, but I pretended like it didn’t happen.”
The other reason she couldn’t exactly reconcile her experience with the context of sexual violence was because she wasn’t “a perfect victim,” as she put it. She wasn’t drugged or assaulted at a party or attacked on the street. She felt like it was her fault. Katherine went to her perpetrator’s place.
Afterward, she was silenced by a lot of shame.
“And even more shame because I continued to speak with him afterwards,” said Katherine, who asked PublicSource to conceal her identity. “They tell you — I basically did the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in a situation like that because I thought that if I pretend like nothing happened, and if I pretend like it’s my fault, then I’m in control of the narrative.”
Later, she started hearing stories from other survivors of sexual violence. It wasn’t just her; there were other people at Chatham who were assaulted, harassed, stalked — from misogynistic comments all the way to rape.
“We were basically victims of sexual violence of varying degrees,” she said. And in that light, some of the anti-sexual violence campaigns looked performative to Katherine because they didn’t target the perpetrators. It felt like it was all on the survivor.
It was no longer abstract for her. Sexual violence really happened at Chatham.
Katherine grew up in Pittsburgh and chose to go to Chatham because its community feel resonated with her. Students seemed to form real relationships with their classmates and faculty. Here, she would be more than just a number in a lecture hall.
Chatham’s dean of student affairs, Chris Purcell, said the university’s job is to inform students about sexual violence and prevent it to the extent possible. The data reported to the feds shows seven incidents of rape at Chatham from 2018 to 2020. “We want folks to report so we can get them the support, resources and interim accommodations they need,” Purcell said.
Katherine remembers how explicitly university officials said, in orientation, that they support sexual assault victims. They talked about Title IX extensively, and she felt safe. She even kept the Title IX booklet they gave out during orientation and found it helpful when she decided to report two years after she was assaulted.
She thought reporting what happened to the Title IX office would help her find closure. But although everything was “very professional” and the coordinator was kind, she didn’t feel better.
She sought academic accommodations and received them, such as extensions on a couple of assignments, because she was having flashbacks and difficulty sleeping or focusing.
That was the extent of it, she said, and the case closed. The Title IX process ultimately felt like a dead end to Katherine. She said she would have appreciated check-ins or support groups to join after reporting.
“I don’t know what happens to that report now … it’s probably still in the records or something, but I wish it wasn’t,” Katherine said. “It was like, I talked about something very embarrassing and then it was never spoken of again.”
The shame and guilt that leads survivors to question their experiences
At first, Pitt sophomore Mia Larkin questioned whether it was sexual assault. Was it my fault? It seemed to have happened too easily, they said. And, the assault wasn’t violent as it’s often portrayed.
“I’m like, ‘I am wrong. I’m in the wrong for this. This was my fault for letting him in,’” they said.
In December, a student Larkin matched with on a dating app came over to their dorm to study. Larkin was reluctant to invite him, they said — there was a physics final in the morning. As the student made escalating sexual advances, Larkin felt “very uncomfortable.” They asked the student to leave multiple times, but Larkin ultimately felt that they had to continue for him to leave.
“It was just very manipulative,” they said.
The student eventually left. Larkin removed the sheets from their bed and slept on the mattress with a blanket. They took their final the next morning.
As Larkin processed what had happened, they came to understand their experience as assault. They shared their experience with friends, who were supportive. Then, in January, they posted about their assault on Instagram.
“I feel like I’m trapped and I wanna do something about this, but I’m not sure where to start,” they wrote.
“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t crazy or anything, just saying, ‘Hey, this happened to me. If anyone needs help, reach out to me.’ And we could, not go through this together, but be each other’s support system,” Larkin said.
The post received about 60 comments, affirming Larkin and their experience.
“Mia, you are so brave for sharing your story and raising awareness on matters like these. Sending you unconditional love and support.”
“Thank you so much for sharing your story. I hear you and believe you. Sending so much love and strength.”
“If anything, the Title IX office will give you accommodations with school. Push for them to give you them, it’ll help with the sleepless nights and the brain fog …”
Larkin filed a report with the Title IX office early in the spring semester, and their case is ongoing. They had declined a no-contact order as of February, but the university later issued one in August.
Larkin has since begun seeing a therapist to deal with their experience and other personal matters. They’ve come to terms with realizing that it was wrong.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t think it’ll happen to me.’ But then it happened to me, and I know a few people that it did happen to, so I think it’s pretty common,” they said. “I feel like most people on Pitt’s campus are sweet, but then you never really know until you know.”
After her assailant lawyered up, the Title IX process slowed to a crawl for Pitt student
The University of Pittsburgh told Beth they would get her an adviser to navigate through her Title IX case. She was told the case would take 60 days overall. But delays, broken promises and inconsistent communication turned her into a pessimist.
She filed her assault complaint in early 2022. After the drawn-out process, which Beth called “retraumatizing,” her assailant was found responsible earlier this month.
Beth was assaulted on Pitt’s campus at the end of 2021. In February, she went to the Title IX office to file a complaint.
The person she met there “said all the right things” — that they believed her, made sure she was physically OK, and it all sounded “very caring.” She was concerned about moving forward with the case if she didn’t have an adviser or access to legal help. She couldn’t afford a lawyer.
The person she talked to assured her: Pitt would provide an adviser for her.
Beth, who asked PublicSource to conceal her identity, gave her testimony and began the wait — what she was told would be about two months. It would be almost eight months.
“…I hope I can finally come out of my shell that I went into this past year.”
Early in the process, Beth kept contacting the Title IX office to get an update. There was no adviser available, she was told.
Pitt does not comment on past or current Title IX cases.
Katie Pope, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Civil Rights and Title IX at Pitt, talked broadly about the timeline saying that, according to the 2011 federal guidelines, universities were expected to aim to investigate cases within 60 days, but it’s no longer the case. Trump’s 2020 guidelines are vague about it, and a number of things can affect the timeline.
Notably, finding an adviser can be challenging and can cause delays, she said. Pitt has worked with volunteer advisers from the Allegheny Bar Association and an on-campus group, and has started conversations with some of its professional schools that may provide graduate students to serve in that role, she said.
Beth, a University of Pittsburgh senior, stands for a portrait on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
“We cannot make a promise as to how long the investigative process is going to take,” she added.
Beth said that at one point, the contact officer told her the person who assaulted her had a lawyer and that she should probably get someone with law experience if she can.
Her assailant’s graduation was fast approaching.
Beth started scrambling, asking friends who studied law, searching online, even though she knew that under Title IX, Pitt had to provide her an adviser if she didn’t have anyone.
Thirty days after she filed, she still didn’t have an adviser. The investigation by a Pitt investigator at that point was complete.
On an acquaintance’s suggestion, she connected with the Marsh Law Firm. Pitt agreed to cover their services initially at a reduced fee.
“I thought the university would protect me, because that’s the language they use, and that they would have an adviser for me. And I thought that it would all be kind of under control,” Beth said.
The Marsh Law Firm lawyers reached out to Pitt several times. They asked if the perpetrator’s degree was going to be withheld until the process was complete, or if Pitt could put a notation on the transcript that a disciplinary proceeding was pending. They never received a response.
It can be a confusing and traumatic time. This guide can answer some questions about medical care, Title IX and counseling.
Beth followed up with her own email to Pitt, copying her lawyers. All they got in response was Pitt’s Student Code of Conduct in a PDF document that had no information relevant to her case.
She still wanted to push forward. Pitt sent her lawyers a request to sign an engagement contract because the university was covering the legal fees.
The conditions in the letter required Beth and her lawyers to share all of their communications with the university. The contract barred Beth and her lawyers, as Pitt contractors, from speaking publicly about the matter.
“I don’t know many survivors that would be willing to come forward … if they knew that every single thing that they said would be subject to the university’s control and that the adviser would be basically required to sign a gag order,” said Katie Shipp, Beth’s attorney at the Marsh Law Firm.
The lawyers decided to work with Beth pro bono.
To Shipp, this case presented a stark inequity. “So really, the only difference is somebody who’s able to afford an attorney is guaranteed a private communication with their adviser,” she said.
Weeks passed after her assailant’s graduation. Another school year was about to start. Beth’s lawyers kept asking for an update on the case.
The hearing took place on Aug. 10. Beth’s semester started Aug. 29. The decision by a third party in her Title IX case was issued Sept. 6.
The defendant was found responsible for rape. The disciplinary action: He is not allowed to enter university property without expressed written permission. A few days later, Beth’s assailant appealed the decision. Beth is not sure how long the process is going to take now.
“Once the appeal is done, I hope I can finally come out of my shell that I went into this past year,” she said.
Struggles with getting university support, accessing Title IX
Alysia C. feels as though she’s taken about “three steps forward” in processing her experience of sexual assault. But she thinks she should be further along on her healing journey than she is. She attributes part of that to inconsistent help and support from the University of Pittsburgh.
“I was like, ‘I don’t have time to sit here and cry about it like I want to.’ So I just never did,” said Alysia, a Pitt senior. PublicSource is not using Alysia’s full name to protect her identity. “I really didn’t start dealing with it until April of this year. And I’ve still barely spoken about it.”
During her sophomore year, Alysia was assaulted by a non-student on Pitt’s campus. The person coerced her, she said, and sought to get her drunk.
What followed, Alysia said, was an “awful” week of trying to receive support from the university. For about two to three days immediately following her assault, Alysia was unable to reach the Title IX office by phone or in person, she said. Then, she emailed the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion — which oversees the Title IX office — about extensions in class through Title IX and interim supportive measures.
Meanwhile, she contacted her professors directly to share that she was struggling to complete her coursework.
“I wanted to tell them, ‘I literally can’t get anything done right now,’” Alysia said. “‘I’m quite literally going through one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I can’t focus on school. I can’t even focus on getting out of bed.’”
Not all of her professors were as understanding as she’d like. When she asked one professor for additional time to finish her coursework due to “recent traumatic events,” he asked her to elaborate on the challenges that were preventing her from completing her assignments, emails show. She explained: “Something happened that’s essentially left me bedridden … I lack concentration, motivation, and energy to complete my assignments. I’ve been unable to get in contact with any resources on campus.” The professor offered an extension on a paper and shared information on campus resources.
Alysia heard back from an official with Title IX three days after her initial outreach, and they scheduled a one-on-one meeting for a few days later. By that point, Alysia said, she had already figured out her accommodations by herself.
“I’m quite literally going through one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I can’t focus on school. I can’t even focus on getting out of bed.”
The next academic year, Alysia heard from the Title IX office again. The email came after she had visited the university’s Disability Resources and Services department to request accommodations for the PTSD she now experiences.
Alysia replied to the email. She told the office to never contact her again.
“I did not interact with them because that week was so awful for me,” Alysia said. “I was calling everyone, like I called almost every department in my school, to try to figure out how to fix this.”
Katie Pope, associate vice chancellor for civil rights and Title IX at Pitt, said it’s difficult to hear that a student faced challenges in getting in touch with the office. The office is working to improve its visibility and has moved three times, most recently to the Cathedral of Learning in November, she said. But she added that the office is still figuring out how to ensure the information students receive about Title IX stays with them beyond freshman orientation.
“We never want someone to be in that situation where they’re dealing with trauma and trying to navigate all those pieces on their own,” Pope said. “I’m sorry to hear that that was an experience that someone had shared.”
The move to the Cathedral of Learning has allowed an advocate with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape [PAAR] to come to the office and speak with students confidentially, Pope said.
Alysia gives herself credit for the progress she’s made. She’s told her therapist about her assault — “It only took me a year,” she said — and she’s seeking a support group that she hopes will help her heal and connect her with people who understand her experience. She recognizes, however, that she hasn’t fully processed her trauma.
“Because of everything that happened after the fact,” she said, “I’m where I am.”
Illustrations by Andrea Shockling.
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Mila Sanina is an independent journalist and assistant teaching professor of journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.