Emory's Denim Day supports survivors of sexual assault, violence

By Alma Hill, Contributing Writer, Campus Life | Emory Report | April 10, 2019

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Emory students, faculty and staff are encouraged to wear denim on Wednesday, April 17, for Denim Day, an annual event intended to show support for ending sexual violence.

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Blue jeans might be the unofficial uniform on most college campuses, but on April 17, the Emory community is encouraged to wear them in honor of Denim Day, an international movement to show support for survivors of sexual assault and sexual violence. The event is timely; April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“Denim Day has a special meaning for me because it’s a way for people who have experienced sexual assault and people who haven’t to have conversations,” says Christine Ristaino, a senior lecturer at Emory who teaches Italian Studies and a course on Italian memoirs.

“Conversations have changed my life,” adds Ristaino, a sexual assault survivor.

Denim Day was launched 20-years ago by Patricia Giggins, a Los Angeles-based activist and executive director of Peace Over Violence, in response to an Italian Supreme Court decision that overturned a rape conviction. The court ruled in 1999 that the 18-year-old woman who brought the rape charges must have consented to the assault because her jeans were tight, so it was assumed that the assailant could not have removed them without her help.

The absurdity of the decision prompted women in the Italian Parliament to wear jeans the next day to stand in solidarity with the survivor. Although the ruling was ultimately overturned, Peace Over Violence has continued the annual Denim Day campaign to raise awareness of sexual assault and violence.'

What began as a grassroots movement in 1999 spread by 2018 to more than 2 million people from 50 states, 118 countries, 400 organizations, 100 businesses and 130 schools, according to the Denim Day website. The official day of observance this year is April 24. Emory, which has observed Denim Day for years, will commemorate the occasion a week earlier.

Emory partnerships make Denim Day happen

The annual event is co-sponsored by the Student Government Association and the Graduate Student Government Association. It is organized by Emory’s Office of Respect, a Campus Life initiative that works to end sexual assault and sexual violence on campus through education, awareness, community outreach and support for survivors. Other Denim Day partners include Emory Healthcare, Sexual Assault Peer Advocates, the Intimate Partner Violence Committee and the Faculty Staff Assistance Program.

On April 17, from noon to 2 p.m., students, faculty and staff wearing denim are invited to visit Wonderful Wednesday and various Denim Day stations across campus to take selfies.

The student government associations will donate $1 to the Office of Respect for every Emory community member wearing denim in photos submitted to the office. Proceeds will go to Respect’s education and prevention programs and its 24/7 support hotline. Photos can be submitted by email at respect@emory.edu or via social media (see sidebar for instructions).

The Office of Respect will provide Denim Day buttons and stickers free of charge to students. Orders for individuals, offices or clubs can be placed by emailing respect@emory.edu not later than April 15.

Although the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have raised awareness about the prevalence of sexual abuse and assault, archaic attitudes persist that a survivor might have done something to invite attack.

“The mindset that people have is not very open,” says Halla Maynard, an Emory sophomore majoring in Spanish and linguistics. “People will shut you down. You’re not very likely to be asked how you feel or how you’re processing it.”

Maynard plans to wear denim on April 17 and April 24 to emphasize the importance of Denim Day, but says that as a sexual assault survivor, she wants people to remember that sexual assault and violence are not just one-day experiences for survivors.

“Believe survivors,” she says. “It’s a crime that happens behind closed doors, which makes proving it challenging and sometimes impossible. Anyone who’s willing to come forward, give them the benefit of the doubt.”

One in four women are sexually assaulted in college, according to Michele Passonno, assistant director of the Office of Respect.

“We also know that may not be an accurate figure. It’s just the number reported,” she adds. “And one in 33 men are impacted by sexual assault during college.”

Statistics also indicate that survivors who identify as LGBTQI+ and gender-nonconforming people are disproportionately at risk for violence, according to Passonno. In addition, individuals and communities who hold historically minoritized identities often experience compounded forms of trauma.

Office of Respect fields an array of initiatives

The Office of Respect utilizes multiple tactics to heighten awareness and combat interpersonal violence, sexual assault, stalking and harassment.

One initiative is Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA), which provides education, outreach and training to students about how to support survivors and what constitutes assault.

Another program, Active Bystander Skills, trains students how to step up and safely diffuse an act of violence or assault that they witness taking place. More than 50 students have been trained this school year.

The office also sponsors RespectCon, an annual conference that explores how sexual violence impacts social justice. The 2019 conference was held April 5-6.

Later this month, the Survivor Anthology, published annually by Emory, will be released. It features the anonymous voices and artwork of faculty, staff, students and members of the community who have been impacted by sexual assault.

“More and more people are realizing that something happened to them that wasn’t okay,” says Ristaino, faculty adviser for the anthology and author of “All the Silent Spaces,” a book about her own experience that will be published this summer.

“In the past, survivors might have blamed themselves. But the Office of Respect is changing the dialogue about what sexual assault really is,” Ristaino adds. “And because of this education, people are changing the way they confront and speak out about sexual assault.”