April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As a new contributor to the HuffPost blog, I decided to dedicate my first writings on this platform to all survivors of sexual violence. To begin, I’d like to tell a story. Storytelling is an important vehicle for communication, safety planning, and the spread of information and knowledge. Because sexual violence happens most often behind closed doors, in the shadows, and without witnesses, most survivors of assault are left with the burden of proving that violence that has been perpetrated against them. In a world where victims’ words and accounts of violence are not considered enough, survivors of sexual violence are often not believed or supported regardless of facts, experiences and trauma. Through their experiences survivors are often able to educate, spread knowledge, and seek out help through narrative, verbal communication, and by telling their story of assault or abuse with trusted friends, family, advocates, and support people. Where there are no photos, no physical evidence, and no witnesses, there are memories, words, flashbacks, remembering, and retelling. It is our duty as a community to bear witness and listen.
25 years ago in Southern Italy, a young survivor of sexual assault disclosed that her married, 45 year old driving instructor had raped her during their first driving lesson. Her story would shake up decades old conversations about rape culture in Italy and shine new light on archaic understandings of sexual violence in the Italian Judiciary. During a driving lesson, the 45 year old instructor took the young woman to an isolated location, removed her jeans and raped her. After the assault, the instructor threatened to kill her and made her drive the car back to the driving school to complete the day’s lesson. The young woman told her parents about the rape, and they reported it. The instructor was eventually charged, convicted, and sentenced to time in prison. Appeals were filed on his behalf, and the guilty verdict was eventually overturned by the Italian Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s legal reasoning for overturning the conviction included a discussion of the woman’s clothing as having had something to do with whether or not she had consented to the assault. They determined that because jeans are “difficult to remove”, there was no way he could have removed her jeans without her ‘help’. The court argued that, “because the victim wore very, very tight jeans, she had to help him remove them, and by removing the jeans it was no longer rape but consensual sex.”
“Because the victim wore very, very tight jeans, she had to help him remove them, and by removing the jeans it was no longer rape but consensual sex.”
Word of the overturned conviction made its way to the Italian Parliament and other sectors of Italian society. Hearing the victim blaming language employed by the Justices in their arguments, female members of Italian Parliament and the Judiciary expressed their disappointment, anger, and concern that rape culture continued to be upheld in the nation’s courts. This argument set a legal precedent known as the “jeans alibi.” As a symbol of protest, women in the Italian Parliament began showing up to work in jeans. In choosing to wear jeans, they stood in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence who were assumed to have consented based on their clothing as opposed to their words. Anti-violence advocates, activists, and lawmakers in the U.S. also began to participate in the denim protest acknowledging that institutionalized rape culture did not only exist in Italy, but across the world. This survivor’s story was heard loud and clear by many. In the United States, Patti Giggans, a feminist leader in Los Angeles, California, inspired by the California Senate and Assembly thought everyone should be wearing jeans to protest rape culture and the myths that are perpetuated because of it. This is how the first Denim Day in Los Angeles was born. Organized in April of 1999 by Peace Over Violence, a dual rape and domestic violence crisis agency which provides free, 24/7 emergency response services to survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Eighteen years later, Peace Over Violence continues to organize the Denim Day campaign throughout the United States and now, globally
Much like the Italian Supreme Court Judges and their use of the “jeans alibi”, justifications for rape, backed by legislation, persist to this day enabling and excusing sexually violent behavior perpetrated by men against women, children, and other men. It wasn’t until 1993 that rape within a marriage was considered a crime. Just last year in 2016 an Oklahoma judge dismissed sexual assault charges by ruling that if a person is unconscious and unable to consent to sex due to alcohol consumption, that it is not possible for forced oral copulation to be committed against that person while they are unconscious. The survivor in that case was an underage girl. Also in 2016, Brock Turner was found guilty of three felony counts of rape of an unconscious woman yet Judge Persky ruled that Turner would only spend three months in jail. For many years, legislation was written and enforced which explicitly stated that Black and Native women could not be the victims of rape, setting the legal groundwork for a nation where women of color experience fatally high rates of sexual and domestic violence with little to no consequences for their attackers. Legislation and the justice system has the power to shape the social, economic, and environmental conditions of entire communities. The “jeans alibi” that allowed the Italian Supreme Court to overturn a rape conviction might have sparked outrage, but it was not the first time nor the last time that the legal system has failed to hold perpetrators accountable while blaming survivors for violence perpetrated against them.
The fight against sexual violence continues today, as it has for centuries. It is our duty to name, organize against, and eradicate sexual and gender based violence. Not only is this work important, it is essential and life-saving. In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, there are a number of ways that allies can take action against institutionalized and interpersonal rape culture. This month, rape crisis centers, community groups, high schools, and universities throughout the United States will participate in anti-violence actions and events. They will come together to declare that sexual violence will not be tolerated on their campus, in their city, in their locker rooms, in their families, anywhere.
This April, I encourage you to SPEAK UP: take an active, intentional role to stop sexual violence. You have a voice. Use it. SUPPORT: support and believe survivors of sexual violence! Challenge practices and comments that perpetuate rape culture and sexism. PREVENT: commit to having respectful, healthy relationships; connect with your local rape crisis center for resources. Pledge never to commit or condone acts of violence.
To get involved and learn more visit denimdayinfo.org