Taking back the night: students share stories of abusive relationships

Students march through the streets of Oakland Tuesday during Take Back the Night. (Photo by Isabelle Glatts | Staff Photographer)

Dana Good held a handmade sign above her head that read “I’m not ovary-acting” as she marched through the streets of Oakland Tuesday night. More Pitt students walked alongside her, waving posters saying “reclaim the streets” and “I march for those who can’t,” while being escorted by Pitt Police.

“Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no,” the marchers chanted.

Good — a junior French and communications major — was participating in Take Back the Night, an annual international rally held to promote awareness about sexual harassment, abuse and assault. The rally — hosted at Pitt by the Campus Women’s Organization — kicked off in the William Pitt Union and included demonstrations, discussions and a parade through Oakland.

Good said she came to the event to support survivors of sexual assault and promote discussion about it.

“A lot of the time, there are misunderstandings or people are reluctant to listen to you because you’re emotional about something,” Good said. “I think that if people just sit down and start having discussions about it on a regular basis, it’ll hopefully enact some change.”

The club has hosted Take Back the Night since the early 1990s, according to CWO President Megan Heintz.

“We take back the night, and have this event, because no one should feel unsafe walking home alone at night,” Heintz said. “Regardless of gender or who you are, you should be able to feel safe at night.”

The march began outside of the union, wound through Oakland for about half an hour and returned to the union front entrance. Afterward, CWO served pizza and refreshments in the assembly room. Two Pitt peer educators then held a bystander training event, walking the audience through potential scenarios of sexual harassment and assault and instructing them on how best to intervene.

Megan Heintz, president of the Campus Women’s Organization, gives a speech to open Take Back the Night.(Photo by Isabelle Glatts | Staff Photographer)

Leading up to the event, several women shared their stories of abusive relationships with The Pitt News. At the request of the sources, their names have been changed for safety and anonymity.

Jane — a senior psychology major — said every relationship she has ever been in has been abusive. Her most recent experience with relationship abuse ended less than a year ago with a boyfriend she dated for three years and shared an apartment with, she said.

“It wears you out and it makes you tired. It makes you feel bad about yourself,” she said. “I remember calling my mom crying every day when he wasn’t around. But then when he was around, I had to act like everything was fine.”

According to a report by Knowledge Networks, 43 percent of dating college women have reported violent or abusive behavior in a relationship and 16 percent have been sexually abused within a relationship.

“College students are not equipped to deal with dating abuse — 57 [percent] say it is difficult to identify and 58 [percent] say they don’t know how to help someone who’s experiencing it,” the report says.

Jane said her ex-boyfriend would manipulate her by threatening to ruin his own life and blamed her for being the cause of all of his problems. She said he would also go through her phone and accuse her of cheating when he came across innocent messages between Jane and other men.

“I was depressed all of the time because he just blamed all of his problems on me and didn’t want to take responsibility for anything,” she said. “The easiest way for them to manipulate was to threaten ruining their life somehow.”

She thinks she stayed with him for so long because she was scared. To this day, she still feels like she has to constantly watch her back. She said having the support of her family and friends has helped her cope.

“I think me going out, and being able to work whenever I wanted to work and stuff like that,” she said. “Just being on my own and not worrying about another individual really helped me, because I wasn’t able to do it before.”

Her advice to anyone experiencing relationship abuse is to be surrounded by a support system and to have someone to talk to. She said they should find a way to get out and have the courage to leave, because no one is worth being treated that bad.

“Know that you don’t have to be treated that way. Nobody has to be treated that way,” she said. “Guys are replaceable. If a guy is treating you that bad, you can find somebody better.”

Jane is a member of Pitt Unmuted, a club in the process of becoming affiliated with the University, which has roughly 20 members. Unmuted was created to provide a platform for survivors of sexual assault, where they can share their stories and express themselves through works of poetry.

The group is hosting a three-meeting series on intimate partner violence in light of the death of Pitt junior Alina Sheykhet. The first meeting took place Oct. 16, and the next two will be Oct. 30 and Nov. 13.

Matthew Darby, Sheykhet’s ex-boyfriend against whom she filed a protection-from-abuse order in September, was charged with homicide Oct. 10. State Senator Jay Costa said he thinks this could’ve been prevented.

Costa is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 196, aimed at strengthening PFAs by putting an electronic monitoring device on the defendant if they pose a risk of violating the order.

“No victim of domestic violence should live in fear of their abusers, especially after they have gone to court and sought a PFA,” Costa said in an email. “I’m a cosponsor of SB 196 because I believe it could’ve helped Alina, and it should be enacted to help protect more potential victims of deadly domestic violence.”

(Graphic by Elise Lavallee | Contributing Editor)

Mary — a Pitt student and member of Unmuted — has had experience with both abusive relationships and sexual assault. During her first year of college, she started dating a close friend. Everything seemed fine at first, she said, but soon it became clear he was manipulative and abusive.

“He took advantage of me emotionally and physically,” she said. “I lost a lot of friends through that process, because I was only spending time with him.”

Mary said her boyfriend would guilt her into sleeping with him and would wait for her outside of her dorm, saying things like “I have to stay over tonight.” He would often make her question her own thoughts and feelings, she said, and his constant demands for her attention caused her relationships with others to deteriorate.

“I just started kind of going through the motions. I began to be really numb to feeling, in the sense that I didn’t really know what was going on and I just tried to avoid the problem to just kind of keep going,” she said.

Mary finally found the strength to break it off when she reached out to a few people who took her concerns about her relationship seriously. She also began attending sexual assault awareness events on campus that clarified her perspective on the abuse from which she was suffering.

“I think just talking to those people, listening to those presentations and getting those resources [helped],” she said. “Although I didn’t use the resources at the time, just having them on my phone if I needed anything was really useful.”

University spokesperson Kevin Zwick said Pitt has several programs that work to prevent abusive relationships, citing the counseling center and the Title IX office as places students can go with questions and to find resources. Pitt’s SAFE program is also premiering a new Healthy Relationship workshop Oct. 25. This workshop will teach students to identify characteristics of relationships through the use of an interactive presentation.

“Students will learn to recognize the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships,” Zwick said. “The Pitt Police and the Office of Student Conduct are also here to help.”

Mary said while the relationship has been over for a while now, it still brings back painful memories and feelings she’s trying to move past.

“I think it always sticks with you. You move on from it, you grow as a person. But it’s definitely difficult some days where you have triggers or something just really reminds you of it,” she said. “And it’s really important for me to remind myself that it’s OK, and that I need to heal.”

Mary often writes a poem or a sentence about what she’s feeling when she is reminded of the abuse. She sometimes returns to these “pocket poems” to examine her progress in healing.

“Even though there is still pain, I’m trying to cultivate the pain in a more positive light,” she said.

Mary said finding a way to channel negative emotions and accept what happened is key to moving on after abuse.

“Your validity as a person is not undermined by what you’re going through now,” she said. “You are strong, and even though it may not feel like there are people out there for you, there are.”


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