How Jeans Became an International Symbol in the Fight Against Sexual Violence

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More than 20 years ago, the Italian Supreme Court made international news when it overturned a rape conviction by saying that the “tight jeans” worn by the victim — an 18-year-old — were to blame for her sexual assault. The flawed logic, according to the court, was that the woman “must have” not resisted and even helped her abuser perpetrate the violent crime.

If the idea sounds preposterous and offensive to you, you’re not alone. The case, dubbed the “jeans alibi,” spurred protest among members of the Italian Parliament. Men and women lawmakers marched to the steps of the Supreme Court wearing jeans, holding signs and chanting against the ruling.

Denim Day Is Now a Global Day of Resistance

It was the spring of 1999 and the first Denim Day was born, though it had not yet taken that name and it would be years before it became a global day of resistance. In Los Angeles, Patti Giggans saw one of a handful of demonstrations — among members of the California State Assembly — on TV and promised herself that it couldn't be a one-time or just-a-few-times event.

At a rally in a park that year, Giggins oversaw the first Denim Day of Los Angeles. It was a small, modest affair. Today, thanks to the work of Giggins and thousands of volunteer organizers across the country, Denim Day is an annual event each April — and in some cases in May — that millions of students, teachers, mothers, sisters, daughters, and men take part in.

“Sexual violence is an intersectional and urgent social justice issue,” says Giggins, the executive director of Peace over Violence, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit. Peace over Violence focuses on fostering healthy relationships and preventing domestic and interpersonal violence through services that include crisis intervention. Taking off from the original Italy and Sacramento rallies, the organization has promoted Denim Day each year during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

There Is More Work to Be Done

“To truly end it, we cannot separate it out from racial and ethnic justice, economic justice, disability justice, gender justice, etc.,” Giggins says. “We cannot separate it from improvements in our health system. There are still many dots to connect and complexities to appreciate. That’s what makes Denim Day a vibrant opportunity to focus on including all survivors and support the growing efforts for equity and justice.”

Denim Day has grown so popular that millions who now participate in the day across the globe, don’t even know Giggins is a founder of the modern activist holiday. In various interviews, Giggins — a practicing Buddhist who has spoken publicly about the personal role spiritual practice has played in her view on conflict resolution, human relationships and peaceful coexistence — has said that is precisely how she prefers it, with the focus staying on victims and assault prevention.

Students Often Host Denim Day at Their Universities 

“I’ve always known about Denim Day growing up,” says Jamie Danburg, a student who took part in recent actions this year at the University of Dayton, which has hosted Denim Day for several years. “I have friends who have experienced everything from rape to vicious cat-calling, and we need to stand up against the idea that this is the fault of anybody other than the person doing it.”

Danburg is among at least tens of thousands of students and thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. and elsewhere to host Denim Day this year. They include the University of New Hampshire, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan, among others. 

After the #MeToo movement’s rise on college campuses and in the workplace, in which administrators and CEOs have started over the years began to respond to long-term complaints about the culture around sex, drinking, and consent, Denim Day has especially taken off in universities and in professional communities.

The Bottom Line 

The national data on assault is bleak. Nearly 1 in 5 women say they have been raped, while nearly 1 in 10 women say they have been raped by an intimate partner, according to reports from the Centers for Disease Control. Seven out of 10 rapes are at the hands of an intimate partner, while 82% of sexual assault perpetrators know their victims, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Even more startling is that, on average, 994 perpetrators out of every 1,000 will walk free, RAINN says. “It’s absolutely horrendous,” Danburg says. “That’s why it’s so appealing that this ‘it’s your fault for what you wear’ idea is still going around today. How even? That’s why I do Denim Day. It’s the least I can do for this huge problem.”

Tags: Inspiration, Mental Health, Volunteering

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Written By

JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

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