‘Vulnerability is not something to run from’: Students contemplate sexual wellness, intimacy through Circle Up conversations


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The School of Public Health.

By Anna Kuntz, Staff Writer

For Dev Hayostek, a masters student in the School of Social Work, the opportunity to forward conversations about sexual agency is something they do not take for granted.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be able to witness humans coming together to share their truths and speak honestly,” Hayostek said.

Hayostek is an employee at Circle Up, a program that aims to generate discussion about sexual agency through guided conversations in welcoming environments. 

Circle Up conversations are led by Hayostek and Willa Campbell, another graduate student in the School of Public Health. The conversations are structured in a circular format, and when students sign up, they commit to two 90-minute sessions with 10 to 20 other people.

Circle Up was created in the fall of 2022 by a team of students, staff, and faculty from the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the School of Medicine and the School of Social Work. Carrie Benson, senior manager for Prevention and Education at Pitt’s Title IX Office, was awarded a $75,000 Pitt Seed Grant from the University as part of the Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Office in OEDI, along with Dr. Lynissa Stokes of the School of Medicine.

Benson said the increasing cases of sexual misconduct on Pitt’s campus influenced the development of the Circle Up program.

“According to the Association of American Universities, sexual misconduct victimization was reported by 26% of undergraduate women [and] 29% of trans and nonbinary students…while attending Pitt in 2019,” Benson said. “These findings have highlighted the urgent need to implement new, data-driven, inclusive prevention initiatives.”

Each ‘circle’ is composed of students who already know each other through a sport, club or other on-campus student organization. The conversations begin with the facilitator giving the group a journal prompt to generate discussion.

“The tone of the circle really depends on the group,” Hayostek said. “How well do they know and trust each other? How willing are they to take a chance and be vulnerable?”

Campbell said the facilitators are there to guide the discussion while also letting it ebb and flow naturally.

“Dev and I are just there to help them along by asking questions, but it’s their conversation,” Campbell said. “They can bring up new topics and we can help the conversation by adding in new questions or ideas.”

Hayostek said facilitating Circle Up conversations has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be able to witness humans coming together to share their truths and speak honestly,” Hayostek said. “Of course it takes a little while to warm up, but I have been able to sit with students as they talk about really personal topics like sex, relationships, body image, eating disorders, sexuality, pleasure, kinks and exploring yourself as a college student.”

Hayostek described working with Circle Up as a monumental part of their Pitt experience.

“What I didn’t know when I applied and accepted the offer to join this team is that this would end up being one of my most meaningful projects I have been a part of in my professional and academic career,” Hayostek said.

According to Hayostek, most of the shame and stigma experienced by survivors of sexual violence stems from the fact that the assault occurred when they were alone, making them hesitant to seek help.

“Creating space for students to talk about tough or uncomfortable topics like sex and sexual violence teaches them skills to be able to hold space for their friends, and for themselves, to be vulnerable later,” Hayostek said.

Hayostek said the number one takeaway of students who participate in Circle Up conversations has been the realization that they are not alone in their feelings.

Someone else has thought the same thing as them, or has gone through a situation similar to them,” Hayostek said. “Watching that connection happen is such a privilege that I do not take for granted.”

Benson said the Circle Up program has offered college students a fresh perspective on sexual agency.

“Our team has been really excited about the Circle Up survey results,” Benson said. “Many participants have shared that they found it empowering to talk about boundaries, agency, and relationships. In college, there is so much emphasis placed on setting goals for the future, such as a major or career, but students are rarely asked to sit down and discuss what they want — or don’t want — out of their sex lives.”

Hayostek said feeling comfortable openly discussing intimacy is an important tool to utilize in all stages of life.

“Through the good, when sex and relationships are fun and exciting, and through the opposite end, when relationships are ending or causing harm, the circles teach us all how to be together and talk to each other,” Hayostek said. “These skills are priceless and necessary for every area in a person’s life.”

Hayostek hopes students leave their conversations with an understanding of the importance of community.

“We learn in community. We find safety and security in the community. We heal in community. And we change culture with community,” Hayostek said.