Italy, 1992. A 45-year-old driving instructor picks up an 18-year-old girl for her first lesson, takes her to an isolated road, pulls her out of the car, wrestles her out of one leg of her jeans and rapes her. She courageously tells her parents. They help and support her in pressing charges, leading to the perpetrator's arrest and prosecution. He is convicted of rape and sentenced to jail.
He appeals. The case reaches the Italian Supreme Court, which overturns his sentence and releases him. "Because the victim wore very, very tight jeans," the Court notes in their decision, "she had to help him remove them, and by removing the jeans it was no longer rape but consensual sex."
For people around the world appalled by the way criminal justice systems treat survivors of sexual assault, the judges' words became a rallying cry. Within hours, the women in Italy's Parliament organized a protest: they wore jeans to work. Not long after, California's State Legislature wore jeans to their legislative session. And in April of 1999, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Peace Over Violence held the first official Denim Day in Los Angeles. Denim Day now spans the nation and has grown into a powerful national movement about sexual assault prevention and education. A movement committed to empowerment.
But today, on the eve of Denim Day 2012, the same pernicious myths, misconceptions and victim-blaming attitudes that motivated the first Denim Day persist. Experts agree that these myths contribute heavily to the stark realities of sexual violence in the United States: nearly one in five women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime; most rapes are never reported; and only an estimated 6% of perpetrators ever spend a day in jail.
For proof, look no further than last month's headlines.
While a 25-year-old woman waited for her ride to work, Michael Pena, an off-duty New York City police officer, approached her, displayed his 9mm pistol, led her across the street to a courtyard and sexually assaulted her at gunpoint. Though he was convicted on three counts of predatory sexual assault, the jury deadlocked on the gravest charge: rape. Despite unwavering testimony from the victim, multiple 911 calls from a witness who reported the attack -- and evidence that showed three separate acts of oral and anal contact with Mr. Pena's penis -- the jury held out on a rape conviction. Why? Because they doubted her memory -- she failed to recall that a car was parked in the driveway Pena led her across -- and because when police officers arrived on the scene, she ran towards the male police officer rather than the female officer.
She didn't remember. She should have behaved differently afterwards. The misconceptions are beyond dismaying, and the rape myths are many. There's the myth that by wearing a particular piece of clothing, a victim invited a rape, or made it "easy." "Safety from rapists" focuses on the stranger in the street, with little attention paid to acts perpetrated behind closed doors by those we know and trust. And the burden to alter behavior is placed on the survivor, and not where it belongs: with the way society responds to survivors -- and with perpetrators.
The way our society thinks about rape and receives survivors is not only tragic, it's dangerous. Fearing that they won't be believed, survivors are less likely to report their rapes, which means rapists stay out of jail, which means they are free to rape again.
Denim Day is about coming together as a community that has no tolerance for sexual violence, a community that commits its resources -- intellectual, financial, emotional -- to responding differently to survivors and making their healing a priority.
Last year, Denim Day reached 2.6 million participants. Our goal for this year's 13th Annual Denim Day is to surpass that number. And with our collective voices and commitment, we can. In New York City, for example, a coalition of organizations and agencies has come together to bring Denim Day into schools, streets and beyond to engage both adults and youth with activities and workshops in all five boroughs.
Our goal is to inspire more partnerships that drive this campaign, like the one between Peace Over Violence and Joyful Heart. Our goal is to inspire courageous, transparent, accountable leadership within the many institutions that have failed to acknowledge and respond to sexual violence -- schools, corporations, places of worship, families.
Our goal is to inspire you. We hope you will join people across the country tomorrow who will be wearing jeans as a show of their confidence in the power of an enlightened, courageous community that stands together and declares: "There is no excuse for and never an invitation to rape."
To register as part of the Denim Day community and for more information and materials about Denim Day, visit www.denimdayusa.org and facebook.com/denimdayinlaandusa.
Mariska Hargitay is the Emmy-award winning star of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on NBC and the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation. Joyful Heart's mission is to heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and to shed light into the darkness that surrounds these issues. Mariska can be seen on Law & Order: SVU Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET on NBC.
Patti Giggans in the Executive Director of Los Angeles-based Peace Over Violence and founder of Denim Day. Peace Over Violence is dedicated to building healthy relationships, families and communities free from sexual, domestic and interpersonal violence.
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