Sexual assault has no place in the St. Thomas community. On April 28, many students wore denim to express that sentiment and show support for sexual assault victims around the globe.  National Denim Day is commemorated annually to shed light on sexual violence and acts as a way to reiterate the importance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. 

“Denim Day has been around at St. Thomas for over 10 years,” said Emily Erickson, sexual misconduct prevention program director and counselor at St. Thomas. “It is a collective day to show support for victim survivors [and] to stand up to attitudes that perpetuate sexual assault in our culture.”

Beginning in 1992, Denim Day emerged after an 18-year-old girl in Italy was raped during her first driving lesson by her assigned 45-year-old driving instructor. 

After the victim reported the rape case, the perpetrator was arrested and prosecuted, convicted of rape and sentenced to jail. Later, the man appealed the conviction stating that he and the girl had consensual sex. 

This led the Italian Supreme Court to overturn the conviction, agreeing with the defense’s case that the victim was wearing such tight jeans, she must have helped remove them and therefore the case was not rape, but rather consensual sex. 

In protest to the ruling, the women in the Italian Parliament wore jeans on the steps of the Supreme Court. The scene grabbed international attention and sparked the California Senate and Assembly to wear denim and protest on the steps of the Sacramento Capitol. 

Today Denim Day lives on across the world, thanks to Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit based in California, which has led the initiative for the past 22 years. Denim Day remains the longest running sexual violence prevention and education campaign. 

This year, students at St. Thomas were encouraged to post photos of themselves in denim and to spread words of support for those who have experienced sexual assault. In addition, residence halls hosted a table with handouts, posters and other resources for students. 

Students in Residence Life wearing denim for Denim Day 2021. (Emily Erickson)

St. Thomas Area Director Jessica Reagan said, “In previous years, St. Thomas has hung clothing items on clotheslines and there were more interactive activities, but due to COVID, we thought this was a less contact and more spaced out opportunity for students to engage in learning more about Denim Day and Sexual Assault Awareness Month.”

According to research from the CDC, nearly one in five women and one in 38 men have experienced completed or attempted rape during their lifetime. In addition, the CDC found that one in three female rape victims and one in four male rape victims experienced it for the first time within the age range of 11-17 years old.  

“Sexual violence is prevalent in our culture. Attitudes and misconceptions about sexual assault still exist today,” Erickson said. 

In March, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that sexual assault victims who are voluntarily intoxicated are not deemed “mentally incapacitated,” which is defined as a person who is under the influence of a substance without consent. The statute has been nicknamed the “intoxication loophole,” and was matched with dissent from many, both locally and nationally. 

“Now there’s new legislation going through the Minnesota House to update the state’s definition of incapacitation to include both voluntary and involuntary incapacitation,” Erickson explained. 

The bill, HF 707, is moving through the legislature and in addition to updating the state’s definition of incapacitation, would make the act of exchanging sexual acts for rent or work alleviation, or “sexual extortion,” to be considered illegal.

As a way to address misunderstandings and the unawareness that surrounds the theme of sexual misconduct in dialogue today, Denim Day was a visible way the St. Thomas community stood up for sexual awareness on campus and in the Twin Cities community. 

“St. Thomas takes [sexual assault] seriously. I want people to know that it is a universitywide collaborative effort to put together Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Denim Day. There is a lot of involvement across departments on campus with this work,” Reagan said. 

Erickson explained as an outcome from Denim Day, she wants students, faculty and staff and the St. Thomas community to think about small actions they can take in their day-to-day lives to support sexual violence prevention efforts. 

As an ongoing journey, sexual assault awareness is an effort that St. Thomas continues to focus on and address with the help of passionate campus leaders such as Erickson and Reagan. 

“Like any large, social change, it doesn’t happen because there is one particular person who wants to make change, it really takes all of us, collectively, taking small steps to create change in our culture,” Erickson concluded. 

If you are a victim or have been affected by sexual assault violence and are in need of support, please visit https://www.stthomas.edu/counseling/  or call (651) 962-6750 for 24/7 phone counseling services to get the help you need today. 

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