If you see me on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, I’ll be wearing jeans. I’m standing with thousands to demonstrate in honor of April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and Denim Day that there is no excuse for rape.
Nineteen years ago, a court in Italy ruled to overturn a rape case because the victim was wearing tight jeans. The court claimed that these jeans would have required her assistance to remove, and therefore, she must have consented to the act. This became known as the “jeans alibi.”
This ruling is a prime example of the deep misunderstanding of the psychological impact of sexual trauma.
When faced with a dangerous encounter, we hear a lot about the phenomenon of fight or flight, but we hear less about the (indeed, more common) freeze reaction, in which our minds disassociate to protect ourselves from an imminent attack.
Sexual assault is an act of asserting dominance, power, and control over another. In that moment, harm-reduction may be the best that we are able to do. Removing her jeans may have been the most she could do in that moment to reduce the imminent harm.
And, I’ll say, that’s a lot.
These details of our rape stories are complex. Actions that may be construed as helpful, complicit, or even kind towards an attacker, and thereby potentially perceived as tacit consent, can serve to muddle up our processing of the incident. Harm-reduction actions are not consent, and do not make what happened okay.
When I was raped, I asked the perpetrator to use a condom. This action held irreconcilable shame for me for a very long time. I repressed the memory entirely for years, and when I finally recalled that detail, I simply could not process what that action meant within the framework of a clearly harmful, non-consensual experience.
But I asked that a condom be used… did this mean that I consented?
After years of processing, therapy, and study, I now understand, without a speck of doubt, that this action was indeed me fighting back in the face of harm. Ensuring that a condom was present, in that terrifying and inescapable moment, was self-protection. My inner warrior showing up to stand my ground. I now think back on that moment with pride, and inexpressible relief. I cannot let myself think about what might have happened had I not taken that action.
Cultural beliefs that reinforce that harm-reduction actions are tacit consent are actively destructive. This promotes victim-blaming, silencing, and shame. “Helping” to remove her jeans, I posit, was a way to avoid escalation, and prevent further harm. Physical resistance could have made things worse.
All of this is to say, on Wednesday, April 26th, I will be wearing denim. I wear denim to demonstrate that no matter the details of your harmful sexual experience, I believe you. You are not alone. Your story matters.