Discussions look at ‘Shattering the Statistics’ on sexual violence


“We have a lot of work to do,” said Elizabeth Miller, School of Medicine faculty member in Pediatrics and Clinical and Translational Science, one of six panelists opening a new series of discussions called “Shattering the Statistics: A Collective Effort Towards Ending Sexual Violence,” sponsored by Pitt’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Office.

The initial discussion on Oct. 15 focused on defining the problems faced by colleges dealing with sexual violence and the whole spectrum of sexual misconduct.

“We need to be thinking about sexual violence in terms of trauma-based” interventions, Miller said. The work of prevention means making everyone in the University community feel safe, especially when it comes to reporting sexual misconduct and seeking justice and counseling. “No longer should any survivor feel like the services on campus … don’t speak to them,” she said.

That can occur for students, said panelist Danny Jacobson Lopez — postdoctoral associate in the Graduate School of Public Health’s Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology — because “there are populations that are more likely to be subject to sexual violence or sexual misconduct,” including those in the LGBT community, people of color and those with disabilities.

Seeing one’s ethnic or racial group represented among those in health care, counseling and the justice system is an important factor in “meeting people where they are,” noted panelist Jasmine Riviera, director of Victim Response for Pittsburgh Action Against Rape.

“Frequently, people are thinking about rape and contact sexual assault” as the only things that constitute sexual violence and misconduct, said panelist Rachel E. Gartner, School of Social Work faculty member. However, discrimination, micro-aggressions and other negative environments can constitute other kinds of traumatizing sexual violence, she said.

“Sexual violence can happen to anyone,” added panelist Amy Filip, a Pitt student working as a SAFE (sexual assault facilitation and education) peer educator here. “Sexual violence is never the survivor’s fault. Survivors need to be believed.”

While it has been established through recent research, said Miller, that interpersonal violence and neglect can have long-term consequences on a person’s life, other factors, such as living among violence and experiencing racism, can have similar lengthy repercussions.

“We’re at a moment in out nation’s history where some folks have called it an awakening, some folks are saying, ‘What took you so long?’ ” to deal with these issues, she added. “Multiply marginalized students, faculty and staff” have been telling researchers “I feel like I don’t belong. The services don’t speak to me,” when counseling is offered in sexual violence cases, she said.

In response, Gartner urged universities to provide appropriate resources and research for those in the most vulnerable categories. Those in the LGBT community, for instance, should not approach counseling services with the thought: “If I can’t trust you with my pronouns, how can I trust you with my trauma?” And African-Americans should not have to face law enforcement while thinking: “If I’m going to be stopped by police officers around campus, why would I think I could engage in any legal process” concerning trauma?

Despite the #MeToo movement of sexual assault victims speaking out, rape culture is still pervasive, said Lopez, from not respecting survivors and giving too much leeway to perpetrators to people still telling rape jokes, creating “a climate in which rape and sexual assault is almost expected to happen.”

“It’s normalizing that inappropriate behavior,” said Riviera, or still hearing, about victims, “‘what was she wearing?’ or ‘what was she drinking?’”

Asked how Pitt’s University Counseling Center is handling students who have been sexual violence victims, panelist Jay Darr, its director, said he has been working to ensure it is a safe space for all: “How do we create in our language, language that is inviting?” he said. “Are we hearing what you are saying?”

“We do have questions that we ask that try to get to that” moment when students feel safe to tell a counselor of their own harmful experiences. “The thing is, folks have to be ready … As time goes on and a relationship builds,” then the subject may be broached. “We have to meet clients where they are.

“It’s about the survivor’s narrative, it’s about the survivor’s truth,” he added.

Although sexual violence is at base violence, not sex, Miller ended the session by noting the importance of being able to talk about sex in a positive way, as Filip does in a student seminar she runs.

“We absolutely have to reclaim sexuality, about sex being fun, pleasurable, safe,” she said. “It is one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity. We have not had these conversations in our community, and it’s just getting harder and harder.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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