By Elizabeth Limbach
In 1999, the Italian High Court gave new meaning to the classic blue jean. They overturned a rape conviction because it was obvious, they said, that the victim’s jeans were too tight to have been removed without her help.
Thus, they said, she must have consented to sex.
This past Wednesday, and on every Apr. 25 since the ruling, people around the world wore denim to protest the rape myths and injustices embodied by the case.
Allison Chermak Strull, a UC Santa Cruz rape prevention educator, feels that the case remains as much an outrage and a relevant issue today as it was eight years ago.
“Even though it’s becoming an older case as years go by, the message and the stigmas around rape and our discussion of rape haven’t changed,” Chermak Strull said.
The UCSC Rape Prevention Center was prepared with 70 pounds of blank T-shirts along with sponges, paints and stencils to help the UCSC campus make this “Denim Day” a more interactive time to challenge rape ideologies, such as those displayed by the Italian High Court.
“We make T-shirts, in part, because Denim Day is about clothing and the rape myths surrounding the victim’s clothing,” Chermak Strull said. “Wearing T-shirts and denim is to be in solidarity with the victim of that crime in 1999.”
Free of cost, students made shirts bearing bold statements—stencil options included “680,000 Women Raped Each Year” and “No Does Not Equal Yes.”
Gillian Greensite, director of the UCSC Rape Prevention Center, hoped that the walking statistics, in the form of T-shirt-bearing students, would allow Denim Day to serve as a vehicle for rape awareness on campus.
Although only about five rapes are reported to the UCSC Police Department each year, she says the actual number is undoubtedly much higher.
Greensite attributes the low rate of reported rapes on campus to several factors, but most notably one that is also the prevailing theme of Denim Day: blaming the victim.
“Most students on this campus blame the victim of rape, even people who call themselves feminists,” Greensite said. “It is so ingrained in all of us that we are doing it when we don’t know we are.”
Whether it is the Italian judicial system blaming the victim’s choice to wear tight jeans or students believing that the only way to prevent rape is to not “ask for it,” Greensite sees this tendency as a problematic obstacle in rape prevention education.
Women are advised to take self-defense, not to walk alone at night, and not to leave a drink unattended. But with 98 percent of rapes committed by males, Greensite worries that these precautions place the responsibility of prevention on the wrong sex.
“We have not yet solidly got in our thinking that the ‘hes’ shouldn’t be doing this,” she said. “Women should not have to limit their lives around the fear of rape.”
However, she went on to warn against overgeneralizing against men and said that “there are plenty of men who would also like to dismantle male dominance and the culture of masculinity and violence.”
One such individual is Kitaro Webb, a UCSC fourth-year and rape prevention educator who has helped organize Denim Day for the past three years.
Webb says his involvement in rape prevention has been a unique and eye-opening experience.
“It’s hard to recognize male privilege,” Webb explained. “It’s been a way to expand how I think about the world. If I go outside I don’t have to think, ‘do I need to bring my mace with me?’ I don’t have to worry about walking around the streets at night.”
Webb hopes that events like Denim Day will help include more male students in the dialogue on rape, and notes that there is already a significant amount of male involvement in rape prevention at UCSC.
“The majority of people in this world don’t rape, but 98 percent of those who do rape are male,” Webb said. “The more we talk about it, the more we can understand our role in it.”
In light of April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the educators at the Rape Prevention Center will be hosting more events like Denim Day to spread rape awareness to all sexes on campus.
“It’s not necessarily a male or a female issue,” Webb said. “Rape affects everyone.”