Illuminating the fallacy of ‘but what was she wearing?’

Illuminate, Portland State’s sexual assault prevention student group, hosted PSU’s first annual campus-wide Denim Day event on April 26 in the Park Blocks. The event aimed to show solidarity with sexual assault survivors and spread awareness of Illuminate’s sexual assault prevention efforts.

Denim Day is an international movement began in a courtroom in Rome in 1992. A 45-year-old driving instructor picked up an 18-year-old student from her house and raped her for an hour. The instructor, who threatened to kill the victim if she outed him, was later convicted. However, in 1998 the Italian Supreme Court overruled his conviction.

The court deemed that because the victim had been wearing tight jeans, the sex was consensual. “It is a fact of common experience that it is nearly impossible to slip off tight jeans,” the court explained. “Even partly without the active collaboration of the person who is wearing them.”

The ruling was not rescinded until 10 years after the rapist was released.

The day after the ruling, female members of the Italian Parliament donned jeans and held protest signs that read, “Jeans: an alibi for rape.” Thus began Denim Day.  

Illuminate staff, interns, and student volunteers welcomed PSU students to the event with free Voodoo doughnuts and Einstein bagels. One tent hosted a table stacked with over 100 pairs of jeans and a rainbow of fabric paints and permanent markers. Attendees wrote messages like, “No means no, no questions asked,” and “My jeans do not determine my consent” on pairs of jeans that were then hung from several clotheslines stretched between the Park Blocks’ trees. Some participants wrote personal stories that covered whole pairs of pants.

PSU Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Coordinator Amy Kayon said that while Illuminate leads workshops about sexual assault prevention, Denim Day is key for spreading awareness that sexual assault happens at PSU. “You have to do some awareness to create energy around prevention,” Kayon said. “But you can’t do too much awareness because it pulls away from your prevention effort. [Denim Day] feels like a really easy decision, to let people know in a fun and engaging way that Illuminate’s here.”

An intern signed up event participants for a raffle that included gift cards to Salt & Straw and PSU gear while handing out fliers for Illuminate’s upcoming bystander awareness workshops. The workshops are open to PSU students once per term and will be mandatory for first-year students, including athletic recruits and transfers starting fall 2017.

In weeks prior to the event, Illuminate asked all PSU faculty to sign a pledge that promised their participation in Denim Day. Over 200 faculty members signed, including PSU President Wim Wievel and many of his staff. Both pledges and Denim Day attendees received an “Ask me why I’m wearing denim” pin and an “elevator pitch” that explained how pledging meant showing solidarity with victims.

Tristan Stretch and Ashton Hesse, both students living in the Ondine Residence Hall, participated in a Denim Day “pregame” on the evening of Tuesday, April 25, where residents decorated t-shirts and buttons. Hesse’s t-shirt read, “Don’t get sensual unless it’s consensual.” Stretch and Hesse entered the Park Blocks with a squad of students dressed head-to-toe in denim.

Denim Day was particularly meaningful to Hesse. “Back in California, my mom’s a sexual assault detective and she was always on call with the response team,” Hesse explained. “So it’s always in my life. And I’ve had a few close calls myself.”

Although Stretch and Hesse both agreed that PSU could always do more to spread awareness of sexual assault, Stretch expressed a hopeful outlook. “Resources are more public than they used to be, and that’s huge,” Stretch said.

Dakota Tangredi, a resident assistant at the Broadway Residence Hall, lives with and supports PSU freshmen. Residence Life, which has hosted smaller Denim Day celebrations in the past, offered monetary support and materials to Illuminate for Denim Day this year. Tangredi led Broadway’s pregame event on April 25.

Tangredi explained his role as both a Denim Day volunteer and a residence hall leader. “[My role] is working as an ally,” Tangredi said. “[It’s] being there for resources and also just having discussions with folks.” As a self-identified male, Tangredi said he wanted to see male participation in supporting sexual assault awareness and prevention to become more “normal.”

While Denim Day presented a celebratory atmosphere with its games, raffle, free t-shirts, and life-size cutout of infamous denim-clad Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, it still hinted at the sad absurdity of the rape conviction overruling in 1998.

“How is it anyone else but the victim’s story to tell about what actually happened?” said Jessica Le, a peer educator at Illuminate. “[We are] standing up with victims to bring awareness that we’re standing with you, and we don’t believe in this rape culture [and] this victim blaming culture.”