Emily Ahlin said three years ago, no one at the University of Pittsburgh really talked about sexual assault.
“But I helped lead orientation week this year,” said Ahlin, a junior. “One of the things we had the kids do was a bystander intervention training. That didn’t exist my freshman year, and that exists now.”
Videos and flyers representing the prevalence of sexual assault on campus pepper common areas and precede major events. The danger isn't hidden anymore, she said, and victims shouldn't be ashamed.
Vice President Joe Biden echoed Ahlin in his visit to Pitt on Tuesday as part of the White House’s multi-city “It’s On Us” campaign.
Biden smiled, yelled and threw up his hands -- frustrated, he said, with the still too-common notion that women encourage acts of sexual violence with their actions or clothing.
“What difference does it make what a woman was wearing … these were questions that angered me then and anger me now,” he said.
The Scranton native harkened back to his days as a U.S. Senator from Delaware as he and his staff researched and wrote what later became the federal Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994, which organizes and helps fund criminal prosecution of accused perpetrators of sexual assault.
One young woman, then a model in Manhattan, had her face cut with razors after rejecting the advances of her landlord, leaving her unable to work. Another was raped in college by a young man who was walking her back to her dorm, but she thought she couldn’t call it a rape, because she knew her attacker.
“She said, ‘I ran back to my dorm. It was on the fourth floor. I took off my clothes and took a scalding’ – I’ll never forget the phrase – ‘scalding shower,’” Biden said.
Biden challenged the crowd at Petersen Event Center -- roughly 1,000, according to Pitt Director of News Joe Miksch -- to ask themselves if they're doing enough to change the culture of sexual violence.
“How will I know when we’ve succeeded? Well, I’ll tell you how I’ll know: when there’s not a single solitary woman who asks herself, ‘What did I do?’” Biden said.
He said that although domestic violence cases have been reduced nationally by about 64 percent over the past 20 years, sexual assault against women and girls aged 14 to 24 has remained level over the same time period.
Biden reminded the crowd of an oft-repeated statistic adopted by the "It's On Us" campaign that about 20 percent of college students will be sexually assaulted before graduating. Most, he said, will never come forward.
At Pitt, Clery data show 37 people reported an on-campus or on-campus residential rape in 2014, barely one-tenth of a percent of the school's more than 28,000 students that year.
Pitt joined "It's On Us" with 199 other colleges and universities at the program's inception the same year. The program both promotes sexual assault education and offers tips on how to intervene.
Alison Hall, the executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, said empowering bystanders is an important step in reducing instances of sexual assault.
“Men, of course, want to do something,” she said. “And most people want to do something. And sometimes they don’t have the skills to do that or know that it’s OK to do that.”
Biden and others previously hosted virtual town hall meetings where moderators asked thousands of women and girls what the government could do to prevent rape.
“The overwhelming response we got back from young girls and women was, ‘Get men involved. Get men and boys in my high school involved,’” Biden said.
Sexual assault education is especially pertinent to college campuses, according to Suzy Hinkle, president of Pitt’s Women’s Organization. She said there needs to be more focus on helping victims.
“Victims shouldn’t be blamed for their experiences and for their assaults,” Hinkle said. “And that it really is a community responsibility to make sure that this sort of violence is not accepted and isn’t just brushed off.”
National “It’s On Us” Campaign Director Kristin Avery said students have been receptive to the program, creating their own campus-specific groups to help educate their peers.
“They really are taking up that mantle and really creating their own programs on their college campuses and pushing for change on their college campus,” Avery said.
Beyond specific policies, Avery said schools can help prevent sexual assaults through education and making sure there are resources available, such as a public website and task force.
Pitt students were receptive to Biden’s speech.
“I think he definitely inspired a lot of people to realize that is on us to stop sexual assault,” said senior Danielle Quigley.
She said a close friend of hers was raped last year.
“You can tell that he really, really cares about this issue,” Ahlin said.
Biden will visit the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and the University of Colorado in Boulder at stops next week.
WESA reporter Sarah Kovash, fellow Mora McLaughlin and the Associated Press contributed to this report.