Being supportive key first step in supporting sex assault victims


Making sure survivors feel supported is the first step when someone chooses to talk to you about an incident of sexual assault or sexual harassment.

Nearly 70 members of the Pitt community signed on to an April 6 webinar, hosted by Pitt’s Title IX office and Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, to learn about ways to help sexual assault survivors.


Pitt Title IX Office: 412-648-7860, e-mail or

Pittsburgh Action Against Rape: 1-866-END-RAPE (363-7273), a 24-hour hotline; or

SHARE (Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education):

Pitt Police: 412-624-2121, or report through the online report system

The advice offered was particularly relevant to Pitt staff and faculty, who as responsible employees “have a duty to report any type of sexual misconduct to the Title IX office,” said Carrie Benson, prevention and education coordinator in that office.

Employees who are approached by survivors need to be upfront and honest about the reporting requirement, but that doesn’t mean the staff member is going to investigate the claim or even that the Title IX office will; that is up to the victim.

When you, as a responsible employee, report a case of possible sexual assault or harassment to the Title IX office, an interim measure specialist will reach out to the victim, usually via email. The victim can choose to ignore the email or can talk to the specialist about available resources and what the next step would be. Then, if the victim chooses to file a complaint, the case will be assigned to an investigator.

Because trauma often overwhelms the victim’s ability to have a sense of control, it’s important that they have control over what happens next.

Megan Zurasky, an advocate from PAAR, said studies have found that “the first response is critical.” If the first person a victim talks to is kind, supportive and validating, then the more likely the survivor will go to the next step in the process, such as getting a medical exam, talking to police or filing a complaint.

For Pitt staff members, it’s important to know what resources are available for victims of sex crimes.

PAAR’s services are completely confidential and free, Zurasky said. They offer medical and legal advocacy to help victims through the process, and crisis counseling, including individual, group and child and family trauma therapy.

Zurasky said that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted during their college years. Of those, 84 percent are committed by a friend or acquaintance and 50 percent involve alcohol consumption by the victim, perpetrator or both.

Many victims are dealing with issues that might keep them from coming forward. “They’re afraid they’re going to get in trouble” and they often blame themselves, she said, particularly if alcohol was involved. Some have been victimized before and have negative expectations about how family, friends and the police will respond.

Once a student decides to disclose that they’ve been victimized, the follow-up process can include a medical exam, and then talking to resident assistants, the Title IX office, police and family. “It’s really easy for young college students to get overwhelmed and just stop answering,” Zurasky said, noting that the student’s first six weeks of college are when they’re most at risk because of inexperience and not knowing who to trust.

That’s why encouraging students to contact PAAR is beneficial, she said. They can help the student walk through the whole process.

Symptoms of distress

There are some symptoms that faculty and staff can be looking for to indicate someone is in distress:

  • Inability to control emotions or being emotionally numb

  • Feeling isolated or unable to form connections

  • Unhealthy coping skills, such as drinking, drugs, OCD behaviors or eating disorders

  • Constantly on guard

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Chronic physical health problems

What can you say to help?

One common response people have when confronted by a survivor of sexual assault is, “why didn’t you fight back or flee?” Zurasky said. This question, she said, shows “a lack of understanding of how the brain works.”

During trauma, we don’t consciously choose fight, flight or freeze; our brain chooses for us, she said. It’s important to tell victims that it wasn’t a conscious choice.

Other ways to help survivors include:

  • Make sure they know they are not alone and there are services help. You might want to tell them, “I went to this training with PAAR, how about we call them together?”

  • Acknowledge their bravery in coming forward and point out their strengths separate from the assault, such as “You’ve always been smart and resourceful.”

  • Create a space that’s calm and comfortable. And make sure they know why you’re asking sensitive questions.

  • Be upfront about what you are required to report and what will happen next.

  • Be mindful of the language you use: i.e., sexual assault vs. had sex with.

Pitt departments can create inclusive spaces, Benson said, by knowing where to find information, posting contact information for the Title IX office and other resources such as SHARE (Student Affairs Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education), engaging in continuous education, consulting with Title IX or PAAR when you are unsure how to move forward and including a syllabus statement on sexual misconduct.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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