Speak Out event addresses sexual assault

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Speak Out event addresses sexual assault

Sunday's Panther Speak Out Day started conversations about campus sexual assault. Edward Major / Staff Photographer.

Sunday's Panther Speak Out Day started conversations about campus sexual assault. Edward Major / Staff Photographer.

Sunday's Panther Speak Out Day started conversations about campus sexual assault. Edward Major / Staff Photographer.

Sunday's Panther Speak Out Day started conversations about campus sexual assault. Edward Major / Staff Photographer.

By Wesley Hood / For the Pitt News

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Youth leadership mentor Tabitha May-Tolub told Pitt students Sunday morning that through personal growth and conversation, they could begin to change the atmosphere on campus.

May-Tolub, co-founder and CEO of Roots and Wings, Training and Consultation, a Boston-based agency that provides training and consultation for youth, spoke to about 30 students at the inaugural Panther Speak Out Day.

The event, held on the third floor of the Cathedral of Learning, aimed to initiate conversation about sexual assault on campus. Students Engaging in Conversations About Consent and Sexuality –– a student-led organization that hosts these and similar conversations –– partnered with Roots and Wings and the Title IX office to host the speaker.

“I really love being present for events like these, because they help not only individuals grow, but also campuses grow as a whole,” May-Tolub said. “That is really something I aim to have happen when I consult with organizations like SECCS.”

Sexual assault has become an issue at the forefront of American higher education — sparked by widely-covered incidents like that of Brock Turner, the Stanford student who sexually assaulted a woman behind a dumpster after a party.  

According to the Association of American Universities’ 2016 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, 10.1 percent of female undergraduates and 6.2 percent of male undergraduates on Pitt’s campus have experienced forced sexual penetration or sexual touching.

Last fall, the AAU climate survey of Pitt also reported that 59.2 percent of female undergraduates and 38.9 percent of male undergraduates have reported experiencing sexual harassment on campus, and that those numbers are even higher in the LGBTQ+ community.

“We want to get to the point where we no longer have to have conversations about these statistics and these topics,” said James Kirwan, a senior political science and religious studies major.

The theme of the day ––  “to be” ––  encouraged students to be more than just themselves, by becoming a voice, a communicator or simply a supportive friend, according to May-Tolub.  

Jillian Bunis, a senior nursing major and Kirwan formed SECCS in October 2015 with five other students after noticing what they said was a lack of space on campus to speak openly about these issues.

“We weren’t happy with the fact that there wasn’t really any discussion-type forum relating to sexual violence, assault and consent on campus,” Kirwan said.

Kirwan, president of SECCS, said the organization’s goal is to eliminate the discomfort surrounding open discussion of sexual violence and related issues by making these conversations commonplace.

The four-hour event was broken down into hour-long group lectures, followed by smaller, more intimate group conversations with about 10 people.

Within the small groups, several ice-breaker activities that started out with simple introductions encouraged attendees to open up and feel comfortable. The ice-breakers continued later with activities such as a “If You Really Knew Me” discussion in which students sat in smaller groups and finished the statement with “You’d know that…” and then something personal, often relating to sexuality, harassment or assault.

Christina Potenza, a first-year art history and neuroscience major, said that speaking openly has helped her cope with her own experiences and motivated her to reach out to others.

“Being a survivor of sexual assault makes me want to not only help facilitate the conversations about it but also ensure that they are happening more and more,” Potenza said.

Just over 12 percent of transgender, genderqueer and gender nonconforming undergraduate respondents to the AAU survey reported forced sexual penetration or sexual touching, a percentage that doubled that of cisgender respondents.

For this reason, Sara Yablonski, a junior, said it’s important that everyone is included wholeheartedly in participating in conversations like Sunday’s.

“I want to see how conversations about these topics are progressing and if they are inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community,” Yablonski said. “I want to be able to show that these conversations are not only important for heterosexual individuals, but individuals of all orientations.”

Despite increased media coverage on the issue, and more programs dedicated to addressing sexual assault in college, SECCS leaders pointed to a lax culture on campuses that still downplays the severity of sexual assault.

“Campus culture is currently one of complacency, and that needs to change in order to help these conversations happen,” Bunis said.

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