April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and on April 24 the worldwide movement against sexual assault known as Denim Day will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Denim Day is a movement that was born from a decision rendered in 1998 by the Italian Supreme Court which overturned a rape conviction. In the case, an 18-year old girl was picked up by her 45-year old driving instructor for her first driving lesson. The driving instructor then took her down an isolated road, pulled her from the car, and forcefully raped her. The driving instructor was reported, arrested, and prosecuted. He was convicted of rape and sentenced to time in jail. He appealed his sentence and in a shocking turn of events, the case made it all the way to the Italian Supreme Court and in a matter of days, the case was overturned, dismissed, and the driving instructor was released.
What could possibly justify this overruling? According to the Chief Judge sitting at the time, “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.” The ruling quickly became known among Italian lawmakers as the “jeans alibi” and the “denim defense.”
Women in Parliament launched a protest in response in which they wore jeans to work and swore to continue to do so until the ruling was changed. The protest spread to the California Senate and Assembly.
The protests eventually reached Patti Giggans, who was, at that time, the CEO of Peace Over Violence, an organization which strives to “build healthy relationships, families, and communities free from sexual, domestic, and interpersonal violence” according to their website’s mission statement. The birth of Denim Day in LA followed in April of 1999 as an organized campaign to dedicate a Wednesday in April as Denim Day. Giggans hoped to spread a message that sexual assault would not be tolerated anywhere.
“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.”
– Chief Judge, 1998
“Programs like these are extremely important to have because sexual assault is still a very prevalent issue, especially on college campuses,” said Daria Gill, a member of the Women’s Advocacy Club here at Florida Southern.
Following the ruling and the protests, Italian lawmakers began drafting new laws which sought to transition rape from a moral offense against the honor of the victim to a criminal felony under which a perpetrator could be held accountable.
20 years later, the campaign still encourages all supporters to wear denim in solidarity with the survivor who was denied justice by the Italian Supreme Court’s ruling. It has created an international platform to declare that sexual assault has no place in our communities, schools, workplaces, or our world, and encourages everyone to take a stand for survivors against rape culture. Demonstrations have spread to become a world-wide campaign, with allies all over the globe taking a visual stand against sexual assault.
Florida Southern College has been a part of facilitating dialogue surrounding sexual assault with year-round programs hosted and supported by the Women’s Advocacy Club, Peace River Center, and Alpha Chi Omega. These programs include events such as Take Back The Night, hosted in October during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the “What Were You Wearing?” exhibit hosted in the Roux Library, and the Clothesline Project, held on April 12.
“We want to bring awareness to the problems of sexual assault and domestic violence to show everyone that these issues affect so many people, and to help survivors know they are supported and loved,” said Gill.