With his right hand raised, Vice President Joe Biden put sexual assault prevention “on us,” leading several hundred Pitt students in a pledge Tuesday to eliminate campus sexual assault.
“I pledge to recognize that non-consensual sex is sexual assault, to identify situations in which sexual assault may occur, to intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given and to create an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported,” Biden said, instructing students to repeat after him.
Biden took the stage in the Petersen Events Center lobby around 12:40 p.m. as the first leg of a three-part tour of college campuses to promote the national It’s On Us campaign. The White House campaign started in September 2014 to fight sexual violence and eradicate rape culture on college campuses around the country.
“Everyone — I mean everyone — from new chancellor to dean of students, from coaches to band directors to members of the band to students — everybody has an obligation to speak out [against sexual violence],” Biden said.
Sharon George, a Pitt sophomore and national campaign representative for Pitt’s chapter of It’s On Us, said the White House chose to hold this event at Pitt because of the University’s recent focus on combating sexual assault. In the fall, Pitt formed a sexual assault task force, and in February, Pitt’s chapter of It’s On Us unveiled a paper chain made of 4,200 pledges students, faculty and staff made to fight sexual assault on campus, which it displayed during Biden’s speech.
On college campuses, Biden said sexual violence harms more people than just the survivors, and parents shouldn’t have to add sexual violence to their list of “nagging fears.”
“They may not have known the statistics, but they’d think the last place you’d have to worry about dropping your son or daughter off is a college campus,” Biden said. “That should be the safest place in the world.”
Biden’s speech came about six months after Pitt released the results of its 2015 Campus Climate Survey on sexual assault and sexual misconduct. The survey revealed that 21 percent of female Pitt undergraduates and 6.2 percent of their male counterparts experienced nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching during college.
“For too many parents, that fear has been realized or will be realized,” Biden said.
Biden discussed the U.S. Department of Education’s investigations into more than 100 colleges and universities for Title IX sexual assault violations, including Carnegie Mellon University, though not Pitt.
Gallagher said the It’s On Us pledge, which asks people to vow to fight sexual violence, is really a promise “that we will care for and respect each other.”
The victims of these violations have suffered in silence for too long, Biden said, as he called upon the crowd to shift the cultural tide.
“Ask yourself: are you doing enough to change the culture that asks all the wrong questions?” Biden said. “Don’t look to your left. Don’t look to your right. Look in the mirror.”
Biden said society must not criticize women for what they wear and or blame them for their own attacks.
“[We need to] make the abuser the pariah and stop focusing on the women,” Biden said. “What difference does it make what a woman is wearing [when she is victimized]?”
Biden told the stories of two rape survivors he knew personally, and who had faced victim blaming from their friends, family and society in general.
One of the survivors was a first-year student at Saint Francis University who went to a bonfire before a school soccer match. It was a cold night, Biden said, and a young man who dated a friend of hers told the woman he wanted to stop at his dorm to get a coat. There, the young man raped the student.
“She said, ‘I ran back to my dorm, took off my clothes and took a scalding shower,’” Biden recalled, adding that she had said, “My RA came in and said, ‘You’ve been raped.’ And I said, ‘No, I haven’t. I knew him.’”
Biden said it was essential to dispel the notion that the woman is to blame if she knew her attacker.
Security personnel admitted between 950 to 1,000 people to Biden’s speech, Student Affairs spokesperson Shawn Ahearn said, though Pitt released 1,791 tickets for the event.
Pitt spokesperson Joe Miksch said in a statement the Pittsburgh fire marshal ordered police and event staff to turn people away once the venue was at capacity. While students began lining up as early as 9 a.m. for the noon event, security began to stop admitting people around 11:15 a.m.
From the floor above the lobby, about 10 rows of students who couldn’t fit inside the security perimeter craned their necks, prompting further complaints. The White House, not Pitt, was in charge of choosing the venue for the event, Ahearn said.
While members of It’s On Us and other campus organizations stood behind Biden on the stage, student speakers, such as Pitt wrestler Dom Forys and Student Government Board President Nasreen Harun, addressed the pressing problems of sexual assault and rape culture on campus.
“Orange is the New Black” actor Matt McGorry, known feminist activist with the It’s On Us campaign, also stepped up to the podium to show his support for survivors of sexual assault and the terrible mental trauma it causes.
“Whether you’ve been able to speak out about your experiences or not, you’re not alone,” McGorry said. “I love you, I believe you and I stand for you. No matter what, it is never your fault.”
Introducing Biden, Mayor Bill Peduto said society must stop assuming all victims of sexual assault are female. Everyone, he said, has a responsibility to fight sexual violence.
“It is not [about] a change in policy. It’s [about] a change of culture,” Peduto said.
After Peduto, Gov. Tom Wolf expressed his commitment to ending sexual assault, for the sake of current and future generations.
“Safety is a fundamental civil right, and sexual assault is a clear violation of that civil right,” Wolf said. “I am determined to make Pennsylvania a shining example to the rest of the world as to what citizens can do to truly make the world a better place.”
For senior Luke Burke, having high profile celebrities and politicians like Wolf and Biden is a huge boon to the movement against sexual violence. Burke, an accounting major, said he came out for the “once-in-a-life opportunity” to see Biden speak.
“Everybody knows somebody that’s been affected by sexual assault,” Burke said. “It’s probably a bigger issue than I’m really even aware of. I can’t even imagine what it’s like [to be a victim].”
Lindsey Hern, Pitt junior and social work major, said sexual assault and rape culture need to be addressed throughout all of our society, not just at Pitt. Biden’s appearance, though, was a solid first step, she said.
“It’s good that he is here raising awareness of sexual assault,” she said. “We have to stop blaming the victims. We have to teach men not to assault women instead of teaching women it’s their fault.”
Above all, Biden said, students must understand that sex with anything other than clear, constant, informed, mutual consent is assault.
“It must be clear that no means no,” Biden said. “No means no whether it’s in the classroom, in the backseat of a car or in the bedroom when you start then change your mind.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.