There’s something that stands out about the crowd that gathered in front of Los Angeles City Hall this past Wednesday. But it’s not the supporters holding signs high, or the stoic security guards lurking on the sides, or even the congregation of news reporters vying for a space at the front. If you look closely, it’s apparent: the whole crowd is wearing jeans.
This isn’t something from your run-of-the-mill “Casual Day” at work. This is Denim Day, a campaign that strives to raise awareness of the detrimental attitudes towards sexual harassment and assault. I had the privilege of talking with the project director of Denim Day, Shirley Alvarado del Aguila, from Peace Over Violence, about the campaign and its evolvement over the years.
Grace Hirai: Alright, to start off: for people who don’t know, could you tell us a little about the history behind Denim Day?
Shirley Alvarado del Aguila: In the early 90s, there was a rape case that took place, which was reported, and the rapist was convicted. However, the rapist challenged the conviction, and the case was taken to a higher court. There, the judges in the Italian Parliament overturned the conviction on the basis that at the time of the rape, she was wearing very tight jeans, and for there to be, I’ll be blunt, penetration, he couldn’t have removed the jeans on his own. Therefore, they concluded that it was no longer rape, but consensual sex. It became known as the “denim defense,” which was a legal term that was used in many rape cases. After hearing this verdict, many women in the Italian Parliament were naturally very upset, and there was a lot of outrage at the decision to overturn. In response, they stood on the steps of the court in jeans as a symbol of solidarity and protest, saying that the denim defense was flawed and not based on fact.
GH: What were the beginnings of the Denim Day movement?
SAA: So this court case, and more importantly, protest movements against it, made global news, and women legislators in Sacramento decided to follow in their footsteps and wore denim to show their support as well. This spread to the executive director of Peace Over Violence, Patti Giggans, who saw all this happening and decided that there should be a day dedicated to helping combat the misconceptions surrounding sexual violence. Thus, Denim Day was born. 1999 was its first year, in Los Angeles, and since then it has only grown.
GH: It’s certainly become a very successful movement since its beginnings. Why did you decide to do a press conference for this year’s event? How did you decide on the speakers for this year’s Denim Day?
SAA: We have actually have held press conferences for a long time. Ever since the first Denim Day, we hold a conference to connect with local officials. It is usually held at the Los Angeles City Hall, which we do to make a statement and declare that the entire city of Los Angeles supports and observes Denim Day. We always try to have a survivor as a speaker, as well the mayor of Los Angeles and community members that are dedicated to the cause, in order to give a voice to the people who are involved.
GH: Besides Denim Day, what are some other ways that people can get involved on a more regular basis?
SAA: One of the first things you can do is contact your local rape crisis center and see what kinds of opportunities they have there, like volunteering or fundraising. It’s never too early to take action. Whether you’re in high school or college, you can reach out and link up with groups that are looking to break norms—groups with a strong commitment towards the prevention of sexual violence.
GH: In some ways, the sociopolitical climate of today is a lot different than that of the past. How do you think recent events have impacted our perceptions of sexual violence?
SAA: Because of all the movements that have developed and evolved this year like #MeToo and Time’s Up, there has been a lot more attention on the issue of sexual assault, so there are more survivors and people who have been coming forward, people who’ve been speaking up.
GH: Yeah, I definitely agree. People are a lot more aware of what is happening around them, and survivors are more empowered to come forward…
SAA: I don’t think it’s necessarily that they are becoming more empowered. It’s that more people are listening, more people are believing them and not dismissing what they have to say. We have always been empowered, always been talking, but now there [are] more people paying attention. It used to always be other people talking for survivors, but going forward, it’s imperative that we devote a space [to] survivors. We need to give them the chance to speak up for themselves and provide them a platform to do it.
GH: And Peace Over Violence is a big leader in the continual push for that. Going forward, especially with everything going on in today’s day and age, what else do you hope to see happen in the near future?
SAA: I think that we should build solidarity across movements, that’s very important. As we gain attention and are put more into the spotlight, a lot of people who didn’t really think about sexual violence and the like are becoming more aware of these issues, and of the fact that all types of violence are linked. Gang violence, homelessness, substance abuse, these are interconnected—we have to have an intersectional analysis of this. It’s not about the individual, we have to tackle all these issues within the community. We are either a part of the problem or the solution. We need to galvanize the power that survivors have. Their voices need to be at the forefront. People like Tarana Burke have been so instrumental and active over the past 15 years, but because of all the attention that has recently come about, more people are listening than they were, say, a decade ago.
GH: Here’s to the future. Okay, what do you believe are the best ways that people can combat the stigmas and misconceptions associated with sexual violence?
SAA: All of us, well, in particular, men, should try not to just be bystanders, but upstanders; it’s imperative to speak up when you see something that is wrong or suspicious. Power is in our actions, in what we do. When you see sexual harassment, or abuse, or anything, you need to do something about it. In addition, always try to believe survivors’ stories and give them the support that they need. Getting educated—being informed on the meaning of consent, healthy versus unhealthy relationships, and so on—is so important [in breaking] the social stigmas and norms surrounding, and help end the prevalence of detrimental attitudes towards, sexual assault.
It’s been said that every minute, someone somewhere in the world is sexually assaulted. If you or anyone you know is in need of help, there are always places you can turn to. Peace Over Violence is a sexual and domestic violence prevention center; you can visit their website or call their 24/7 hotlines. In addition, you can contact RAINN, the nation’s largest anti sexual violence organization; their hotline is 800-656-4673, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.