Content warning: This story contains references to sexual violence.

More than half of sexual assaults among college students occur in the fall. Resources, survivor stories and investigation into what’s being done to protect those at risk in the Pittsburgh area. Explore the series.

I never thought it would happen to me. I had learned about sexual violence just about every year in my middle and high schools and then once more in my college orientation. I never paid much attention, though, because that could never happen to someone like me. 

I was the good Christian girl. I didn’t really go to parties. I didn’t run in circles in which that could theoretically happen. I would never get caught in any of the situations they warned against in each of those sexual violence awareness trainings. 

I was too naive to realize there isn’t a type of person to whom sexual violence does or does not happen.

On Oct. 3, 2021, that naivety left me. At 3 a.m., alone in my bedroom, I was trying to come to grips with what had just happened to me. I didn’t, however, have the language or framework to understand what it was.

“I was too naive to realize there isn’t a type of person to whom sexual violence does or does not happen.”

I had found four videos on my friend’s phone that night just one hour prior. I opened each one, only watching the first few seconds. They all started the same: his hands setting up his phone against the objects on my nightstand. I couldn’t bear to watch the rest of each video. I knew what I would find. I knew I would see the image of my naked body as I changed clothes. 

I didn’t know how he set up his phone without me knowing or when he started each of those videos. Just for a moment, I contemplated leaving them on his phone, so he wouldn’t notice I had found them. But I came to my senses, deleting each one before giving his phone back to him, saying, “You left your phone in my room.” 

“You could throw a rock and find a woman who has experienced sexual violence.”

I don’t know why I never said anything to him about it. Perhaps it was shock, but now, I think I wanted to hand his phone back and move on with my life as if nothing happened. I couldn’t.

I tried denial. I attempted to distract my mind and do my homework for the next day, but my mind still would not play along. I closed out of the homework on my laptop and opened Google. “Does being videotaped against consent mean sexual assault?” I typed in the search bar. 

The first link provided some answers. “Abuse using technology: Is it a crime for someone to take or record private or intimate video or images of me without my knowledge or consent?” the headline from WomensLaw.org read. To no surprise, what he did to me was illegal.

His crime would likely be covered under voyeurism, unlawful surveillance, violation of privacy or invasion of privacy.

It was a small comfort, but at the time, I didn’t know why it mattered. I deleted all the evidence off his phone. I wasn’t going to take it to the police. I didn’t think they would care about something so minor. What I really wanted was a label.

I felt so alone. I wanted a story like mine to comfort me, but my admittedly incomplete Google search failed to find one. 

He didn’t touch me; I wasn’t assaulted; I deleted all the videos on his phone. Ultimately, nothing happened, I thought. Yet, I still felt violated. A friend of mine tried to take something from me that night that I had never given anyone – something he knew I didn’t want to give away until marriage.

After that night, I immediately began to process what happened with family and close friends. I wrote my story for class. As I did so, people in my life and even a classmate, chimed in with their own stories — stories that I never knew about. A friend once told me, “You could throw a rock and find a woman who has experienced sexual violence.” Why didn’t we talk about it more? So, during an internship with PublicSource, I shared my story and a desire to collect others like it. I wanted people to know they are not alone and to know that no matter how “big” or “small,” what happened to them matters.

Jane fiddles with her fingers in an interview as she tells more of her story.

My friend, who I’ll refer to as Jane to protect her privacy, joined me in sharing her story. “I feel like I shouldn’t have to keep that to myself,” Jane expressed after asking her why she wanted to tell her story now. “And I think a lot of people can benefit from knowing and understanding that it can happen. Like sexual assault can happen in many ways. People can feel trauma in many ways, too.”

I had known Jane since she transferred into Pitt’s Film & Media Studies program her junior year. I never knew what happened to her.

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“I think I denied it because when you think of rape, you continuously always think like, oh, the guy drugs her and everything like that, like you never really think of like, oh, maybe it was consensual at first of and then that person took away their consent,” Jane explained.

On summer break, before transferring to Pitt, Jane was assaulted by a friend. “I was in a state of shock,” she said, “because when it first happened, it was consensual.” However, after he refused to use protection, Jane withdrew her consent. He refused to stop. “I was screaming, ‘No,’” Jane recalled. “And like after it happened … I was like, did this really happen? Like, is this all in my head?” 

Jane, who wishes to remain visually anonymous, poses for portraits in her college dorm room.

All she knew after he left that night was that she needed to get herself Plan B, but after that, she didn’t think about what happened for a long time. “It literally took me months to really sit there to myself and be like, no, this actually happened to you. And so, I think after realizing that, I felt a lot of weight that I didn’t know I had been carrying seemingly fall off my shoulders,” Jane recalled.

Like Jane, my first instinct was to deny what I saw on his phone. At first, I would have preferred to act like those videos were an accident, so nothing would change. That didn’t last long, and I was able to process and heal with others, but it is not uncommon to see denial pop up in other people’s stories. 

“In a way, you’re running away from it, but in reality, it’s always going to keep coming up no matter what you do because it is going to influence some things in your life,” Jane told me.

Jane doesn’t view herself as a victim. “I am a survivor, and I also don’t blame myself because it was not my fault, and it never was my fault because I did say, ‘No,’ and it was his fault that he decided to continue.” 

“In a way, you’re running away from it, but in reality, it’s always going to keep coming up no matter what you do because it is going to influence some things in your life.”

Jane’s courage to tell her story inspired me. Our experiences are different, but we were able to find common ground — even though that connection is an unfortunate one. 

Telling our stories gives people the chance to realize that they are not alone, that what happened to them was not their fault, that it was real and was not just in their heads, and that they can seek help. My hope is that our stories will become a light to those seeking understanding, support and healing.

Kaycee Orwig graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2022 and is now a fellow at Urban Impact Foundation and a freelance photographer. If you want to send a message to Kaycee, email firstperson@publicsource.org.

This project has been made possible with the support of the FISA Foundation.

Our process:

For this project, conducted over six months, PublicSource held interviews in person, on the phone and via Zoom with survivors and then worked with them to corroborate their accounts to the extent possible. We asked for any notes, legal documents, journal entries, emails and texts and/or asked to be connected with people in whom survivors confided at the time. The provided documentation was used to further detail the survivors’ experiences and provide independent verification for our robust fact-checking process.

Reporting on sexual violence requires journalists to adhere to standards of accuracy and fairness while mitigating harm and the retraumatization of survivors. 

PublicSource reporters adhered to industry best practices for trauma-informed reporting, including those developed by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. From the onset, reporters strived to ensure survivors understood how their stories may be shared in the project and remained in touch as the reporting process continued. 

They practiced empathetic interviewing and worked with survivors to determine how they’d like to be identified. In journalism, anonymity is typically granted to people who have experienced sexual violence. PublicSource provided varying levels of anonymity to those who have shared their stories of sexual violence with us to respect wishes for privacy and to prevent further trauma. Their identities are known to us, and the information they’ve shared has been vetted.

The reporters also reviewed the profiles with the survivors, reading back quotes for accuracy, in an effort to ensure they felt in control of how their stories were told. They remained open to survivors’ comfort levels with participation changing and, as needed, provided opportunities to decide if they’d like to continue.

PublicSource is grateful to the survivors for going through this process with us and sharing their stories with the Pittsburgh community to improve understanding of the risks of sexual violence and its effects on college campuses.

Explore this series

The Red Zone

More than half of sexual assaults among college students occur in the fall. Resources, survivor stories and investigation into what’s being done to protect those at risk in the Pittsburgh area.

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First-person essay and photos by Kaycee Orwig

Kaycee began as a photo intern for PublicSource in September. She is in her final year at the University of Pittsburgh and will graduate the Film and Media Studies program in the spring. Kaycee is also...