For example, it was the nationwide campaign highlighting the startling number of traffic deaths that got us to change our habits and wear seat belts. When a concerted campaign showed us the insides of our bodies and the harm done by cigarettes our national smoking rate began to plummet. And when drinking and driving, once tolerated and hardly punished, became the cause celeb of a group of women called Mothers Against Drunk Driving the rest of us began to change our thinking about this now taboo practice. So, it’s with great fascination that I watch another group of women and their current campaign to change the way we view sex crimes and domestic abuse against women. Will their movement to stop the violence get traction?
Interestingly, their crusade revolves around something that happened thousands of miles across the ocean a decade ago. A young woman in Italy took a driving lesson. Her 45 year-old instructor guided her to drive to a lonely country road. There, something terrible happened. She called it rape--he called it consensual. After he was convicted of rape his lawyers appealed all the way to Italy’s Supreme Court (which continues to express strange rulings about women and sex). In an astonishing turnaround, the justices ruled that since the 18 year old woman had been wearing “very tight jeans” it could not have been rape. She, they concluded, would have to have helped remove the jeans before any intimacies could occur.
When this true story made it to America, women’s groups here were outraged at the stupid notion that a woman wearing jeans cannot be raped. They began to discuss what they could do to show solidarity with the Italian woman and to educate people about sexual and domestic violence. In planting the seeds of their idea for a national campaign, they discussed different teaching tools they could employ. The jeans, they thought … the campaign had to revolve around those jeans!
Ten years later, the disciples of the movement have gotten the month of April declared “Sexual Abuse Awareness Month,” and during this month “Denim Day” will be marked in cities across the country. It’s a day during which all Americans are asked to wear jeans to work or school to spark a conversation about the problem.
If you think this movement has nothing to do with you, take a look at the bone-chilling government statistics on sexual assaults against both women and men. The FBI reports one in six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Imagine that - one in every six women! Most of the time it’s not the scary stranger who attacks, it is someone known to the victim. And the Centers For Disease Control reports 22% of victims are men. Your sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and spouses are all at risk.
This month, Denim Day will be observed (on various dates) in states from Hawaii to Connecticut, from New York to California where April 22nd has been declared Denim Day. In Los Angeles the victim’s rights group Peace Over Violence is organizational ground zero, having inspired more than 250 thousand supporters to participate in last year’s event there. Nationwide, more than 600 thousand individuals and organizations signed up and this year organizers hope to double that figure. It’s beginning to look like a bona fide national movement.
Peace Over Violence Executive Director, Patti Giggans tells me, “Our goals are to support survivors, it’s never too late to heal … and to educate the public to prevent and end sexual violence.” Their slogan, which has now gone nationwide, is: “There is no excuse. There’s never an invitation to rape.”
But can a designated month and supporters wearing jeans really change human behavior? Can these groups attach enough shame to the act of sexual and domestic abuse to actually curb it? Are our children absorbing the lessons to never resort to physical assault? Are grownups that grew up with violence in the home suddenly able to turn on a dime and stop the ugly cycle? In a day and age where singing sensation Rihanna can be brutally pummeled by her boyfriend, Chris Brown, followed by teen age girls exclaiming, “Well she probably did something to make him mad,” I have my doubts.
Then again, I never thought I’d see the day when attitudes changed about seat belts and cigarettes.