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From Denim Day to Every Day: Why “Small Scale” Advocacy Matters in the #MeToo Era

Jeans are a staple of my daily life.

They’re the first thing I go for when I don’t know what to wear. They match with a lot of my shirts and sweaters. They’re familiar. Some say that denim is too constricting, but I think it’s comfortable. The cottony, flexible fabric feels almost natural at times, especially when it’s worn out from years of walking, dancing and all sorts of movement. American blue jeans have become such a staple of society that they have even appeared abroad, and their presence has been normalized everywhere. Yet, not everyone has felt the same comfort in jeans that others have.

In 1992, a 45-year-old Italian driving instructor was convicted on indecent exposure charges for raping his 18-year-old female student. The student appealed this conviction, and the man was sentenced to imprisonment for rape. However, he later appealed this sentence, claiming that the encounter was consensual. The Italian High Court overturned his conviction, partly because of an assertion referred to as the “jeans alibi” or “denim defense”: the victim was wearing tight jeans during the attack, and the justices declared that “it is impossible to pull [jeans] off if the victim is fighting against her attacker with all her force,” implying that she helped her attacker remove them. This ruling was eventually overturned in 2008, but the implications were clear; as with so many cases of sexual misconduct, the victim’s attire was to blame. The court’s decision ignited protests among the women of the Italian Parliament as well as outrage throughout the country and abroad.

The story eventually reached the United States, where the organization Peace Over Violence created Denim Day, a day where participants wear jeans and aim to challenge harmful attitudes about sexual violence. It usually falls on the last Wednesday of April each year, meaning that this year’s event falls on April 24th, 2019. I am personally excited to participate this year, but as the date approaches and public discourse about consent and appropriate boundaries continues, I have been thinking a lot about activism.

Peace Over Violence’s approach to Denim Day is not uncommon in the world of activism; clothing has been used as a form of protest for years, from the armbands of the Vietnam War to the berets of the Black Panther party. But how can wearing jeans be a form of protest, especially when so many people wear them on a regular basis without thinking about it? The answer is right on their website: wear jeans with a purpose. For Denim Day, what matters is raising one’s voice and giving others the courage and ability to speak. An important aspect of advocacy is accessibility: after all, modern feminism began with consciousness-raising groups, not with academia or large-scale protest. This is especially true for young girls, who are not always taught how to advocate for themselves. Often, they must learn on their own.

I first became a feminist in the seventh grade. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I reached this realization, but something just clicked. I didn’t know the first thing about activism or pursuing causes, but I knew that I cared. I became passionate about health, about everyday sexism, and about equality. And of course, I cared about combating sexual misconduct. Yet, people always say that you can’t truly understand an experience until you live through it, and this was the case for me — I lived through it. At the time, there was no large-scale #MeToo movement (it would become popularized about exactly one year after the incident), and no structural support for survivors. In the same year, there were other allegations of misconduct at my high school and more incidents at other local schools. These occurrences only fueled the fire that had began to bloom within me over time.

Everyone deals with their experiences differently. Naturally, I read a lot. I read poems, books, articles, anything I could get my hands on. I read Title IX policies and kept an ongoing Google document with my thoughts about them. When other allegations of sexual misconduct came to light in my school district, I added them to the document. I gathered resources, guides, and contact information. I didn’t know what I would do with this information, but I knew I wanted to do something. At times, I felt obsessed. But while my efforts caused me stress, they also felt cathartic; even if nothing was done about the harassment I experienced, someone else could possibly get help. And this is a common line of thought among people who experience abuse or harassment — for some, helping others helps them mitigate their own trauma. In the grand scheme of things, the efforts I made didn’t have a significant impact and even went largely unknown to those around me, but these “small scale” acts still mattered.

Every day, someone is fighting for change, even if their efforts are not recognized on an international scale. Some are able to have an impact at the local level: a high school student from Portland, Oregon spent over a year advocating for survivors in her school district and even helped draft a new Title IX policy. A change in policy implemented in the Oakland Unified School District stems from the work of a group of young girls. Some people write and others create art, both of which touch hearts and raise awareness of the need for action. Project Unbreakable, a photography project that ran from 2011 to 2015, simply featured survivors holding signs that reflected the words of their perpetrators. If it were one person performing this action alone, the project may not have had the same impact, but just by making the initiative accessible to all, this small feat became amplified.

Grace Brown for Project Unbreakable (HuffPost).

Sometimes, when we aren’t making monumental steps, and even when we are, we get muddied results. Progress is made and then becomes undone, like with Betsy DeVos’ challenges to Title IX policies. When we don’t have people to back us or the resources to create change, it can be hard to determine when we’re successful and when we aren’t. At one point, I sent an email to my district’s Title IX coordinator mentioning ideas for an anonymous reporting system, and while I never received a response, a few months later such a system was released to the public. Regardless of whether I was a catalyst in this or it had been in the works for months, the change still felt like a win. Sometimes, these wins are temporary and we let our guard down, but they can also inspire us to do more. We should all strive to achieve these “wins” for ourselves and others.

Some may worry that celebrating every small step we make towards progress will veer into the territory of performative activism and this is a valid concern. However, I do not suggest that we broadcast every action but merely acknowledge them. Not everyone who deals with sexual harassment, abuse or assault is capable of catalyzing some grand societal change and not all of those people wish to do so, either. Yet, whether someone reports their assault, stands up on behalf of other survivors or is simply surviving from day to day, these efforts should be commended.

The #MeToo movement has rightfully empowered people to take action in substantial ways and provided the avenues to do so, but not every action creates a domino effect. It’s important to remember that the movement started small at one point it took over a decade for it to reach the magnitude that it is at now, to the point where it has become a household name. Denim Day is symbolic of more than just one fight for justice; it is representative of the fight for justice everywhere. So on April 24th, I will proudly don my favorite denim in a move of solidarity with survivors around the world. While this does not replace grassroots advocacy, or landmark legislation like the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Survivor’s Bill of Rights, or the work of organizations like RAINN and Know Your IX, or protests like the one that inspired Denim Day, it still means something. Every effort we make to challenge the norms that allow sexual violence to prevail, especially against women, who are most impacted by this issue, will lead us to the great change we all seek.

Photo: congerdesign via Pixabay

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