The History of Denim Day: How a Court Ruling Sparked a Global Movement Against Sexual Assault Myths
Sabrina Grey Wilson
Up until 1996, in Italy, rape was not considered a felony. It was considered a crime of “honor,” and the rapist could avoid charges if arrangements were made to marry the victim (italics my own) or if the rapist could prove that the victim had had “many sexual experiences” prior to the rape.
But finally, in 1996, as a major win for the feminist movement and women everywhere, the laws were updated to include rape as a felonious offense. These advancements in the legal system were promising, offering victims the option to press charges without worrying they could somehow be blamed.
That is, until 1998, when a convicted rapist filed an appeal on his conviction using what would come to be known as the “jeans alibi.”
In 1992, an 18-year-old girl went to her driving lesson in Italy. Her instructor was a 45-year-old man. What started as a typical lesson soon went awry as the man drove them to an isolated road, where he forcibly raped the girl. The man took her out of the car, managed to get one of her pant legs off, raped her, and then informed her that, should she tell her family or the police, he would kill her.
Despite his threats, the teenager, upon returning home, immediately informed her family and then the police.
Charges were brought against her assailant, but he was initially only convicted of and sentenced to the lesser crime of indecent exposure. The survivor promptly appealed this conviction, and her attacker was finally convicted of rape.
In 1998, the convicted rapist filed an appeal, bringing to the judges “overlooked evidence”: that the teenager had been wearing “very, very tight jeans.” It was suggested that a pair of jeans as tight as the victim wore could only be removed with her help. If she had helped (which it was argued that she must have because of how tight the jeans were), then her assistance in removing her clothes constituted implied consent.
Jeans cannot be removed easily and certainly it is impossible to pull them off if the victim is fighting against her attacker with all her force
To quote the Italian Supreme Court: “it is a fact of common experience that it is nearly impossible to slip off tight jeans even partly without the active collaboration of the person who is wearing them.” To further their stance, the Italian Supreme Court proposed that “jeans cannot be removed easily and certainly it is impossible to pull them off if the victim is fighting against her attacker with all her force.”
The court’s ruling to overturn the conviction sparked total outrage among the female members of parliament, and the following day, they came to work wearing jeans. The demonstration was initially started by Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito Mussolini and a conservative member of the Italian parliament, who helped draft the 1996 updated law regarding rape. The day after Alessandra chose to wear jeans, almost all female members of parliament joined her by also choosing to wear jeans to work. It was noted that no male members of parliament participated.
Most Italians, not only its members of parliament, were shocked at the court’s ruling. But not Simonetta Sotjiu. Sotjiu was one of only ten female judges serving on the Italian Supreme Court: a court that, at the time, was dominated by 410 male judges. When asked why she wasn’t surprised by the overturned conviction, Sotjiu replied, “[because] the law is solidly in the hands of men.”
As word of the jeans strikes spread, the California Senate and Assembly joined the strike in solidarity. The news, accompanied by the denim strikes and demonstrations, also reached Patricia Giggins, the executive director of Peace Over Violence (at the time the Los Angeles Commission on Assault Against Women), who established Denim Day in Los Angeles in 1999.
Since its inception, Denim Day has become an annual and international event involving over 12 million people across the globe, according to POV statistics.
Beginning in 2011, at least 20 states across America recognize Denim Day every year on the last Wednesday of April. People are encouraged to show their support and solidarity on this day by wearing jeans. Denim Day has turned the average pair of jeans into a symbol of protest against the harmful attitudes against victims of sexual assault and the myths surrounding rape.
In 2008, the Italian Supreme Court decided to overturn their harmful findings and have since stated that there is no more “denim” defense to the charge of rape.
Trauma can come in many different forms. More often than not, it comes from abuse, but abuse can also come in various forms. For instance, trauma can be caused by physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. It can affect how you feel and react to certain scenarios. Trauma changes how you feel about yourself and how you relate to others. Women who have gone through various forms of abuse or other traumas have a higher risk of developing a mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How Does Trauma Relate to Mental Health?
Trauma can happen after abusive scenarios happen. It can be an event in which you experienced or witnessed physical or emotional pain. These events can have long-lasting effects on your overall well-being, including your physical, emotional, and mental health.
Some of the mental illnesses or health conditions someone may experience after trauma are as follows:
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Misusing alcohol or drugs
Borderline personality disorder
The long-lasting effects of trauma can be as follows:
Severe anxiety, stress, or fear
Abuse of alcohol or drugs
How Do I Know If My Mental Health Is Affected By Past Abuse or Trauma?
It can be difficult to understand or acknowledge where your abuse and trauma can affect you. However, some of the common signs of your mental health being affected by past abuse or trauma could be increased anxiety, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. , quick changes in mood including anger, irritability, and depression. Past trauma can also cause changes in appetite, and sometimes abusing drugs or alcohol. It’s also always important to consult your doctor if you feel like these changes are affecting your daily life.
This April marks the 21st anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time specifically dedicated to spreading knowledge and awareness regarding the existence of sexual violence and the efforts to prevent it.
The Birth of the Movement
Though the early and mid-twentieth century may feel like ancient history to today’s youth, in the grand scale of human history, social activism remains a relatively new concept. The fight against women’s violence dates back to the 40s and 50s, as social change was championed particularly by Women of Color. In fact, Rosa Parks, who is perhaps best known for her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was also an advocate for sexual violence survivors justice and worked directly with NAACP on rape cases.
There is an irrefutable history of black women being targeted and assaulted by white men. One particular case that was reflective of not only Park’s efforts but the way by which the public typically responded to assault victims of color is the case of Recy Taylor. In September 1944, Taylor was walking home from church when a car carrying several young white men approached and began accusing her of attacking a young white boy a few towns over. These men forced her into the vehicle and committed unspeakable acts, then threatened her life if she reported this to the police. Recy Taylor chose not to keep quiet. She reported the crime immediately and eventually word reached NAACP investigator, Rosa Parks. The local police harassed Parks upon her arrival, circling Taylor’s home while Parks was inside, and eventually demanding she leave since they didn’t want any “troublemakers” in town. Funny who the troublemaker in this case was in the eyes of the police.
After her return to Montgomery, Rosa Parks began the Committee for Equal Justice and in a month’s time, Taylor’s story would make headlines. Justice was never brought to Recy Taylor, outside of a 2011 apology from the Alabama legislature, one Parks, who died in 2005 would never see. The bravery and resilience of women such as Taylor has left a powerful legacy–one that works to empower black sexual assault survivors in the wake of such a racially motivated abuse of power, an obvious mark of the intersection of race and gender within American history.
The Anti-Rape Movement of the 70s
The 1970s welcomed grave change and discourse surrounding the harsh realities sexual assault survivors experience. It was only in 1971 that the “Bay Area Women Against Rape” was founded, and would open the nation’s first rape crisis center offering immediate victim services. This was an organization dedicated to not only providing survivors with proper counseling and advocacy, but one of the earliest educational pursuits for local communities. Within just the next five years, 400 centers would, too, be created.
In 1974, the Federal Government provided aid, for the first time in history, to the Pittsburg Action Against Rape. This would lead to the operation of over 1,000 rape crisis centers by the late 1970s.
In 1971, The New York Radical Feminist group hosted the first Speak-Out, an event where women could share their stories with one another without fear or judgment. This would inspire many other similar events, such as the Take Back the Night marches in the late 70s as pictured below. TBTN events have included candlelit vigils, public rallies, survivors speak-outs and unified marches.
The Fight for Policy Change and Laws
Despite this powerful surge of activism, it would take decades for the government to enact any legislature against sexual violence. Finally, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, “as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.” Our nation’s current President, Joseph R. Biden, was one of the sponsors of the bill during his time as a Delaware Senator. He said in 1990, “the bill has three broad, but simple, goals: to make streets safer for women; to make homes safer for women; and to protect women’s civil rights.”
This was a monumental moment in history, a turning point that women had spent decades advocating for–sexual violence was no longer just a personal issue, it was now a legal one.
In 2000, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Center fo Disease Control established the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and in 2001, the NSVRC organized the first Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign.
Throughout just the past century, the fight against sexual violence has enacted a great deal of change, but the war is not over. Furthermore, as advocacy continues in the future, it is imperative that those who were brave enough to fight for something they believed in, against all odds, are never forgotten or lost to history.
To be honest, I didn’t even know they still made iPods. As many of you know, I am gearing up for a 620-mile pilgrimage along the Ireland Way to raise money and awareness for Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence. There has been a lot that has gone into my preparation. I have had to save money for my gear and travel; research different aspects of the journey; and get into the appropriate physical shape to handle this unique test of my body. There have also been logistical considerations.
One thing that has worried me is keeping a charge on my cell phone for emergencies. There will be times when I will be in very rural parts of Ireland, and I am the type of person who sometimes likes to listen to college lectures, audiobooks, or music while I hike. Certainly, I do know the cathartic advantages of being in nature with no distractions. There will be a therapeutic aspect to my walk, but sometimes a distraction is welcome to make it through long stretches. These can drain cell phone battery and storage, so I decided to purchase a brand-new iPod for the express purpose of providing me with entertainment on the trail. If the iPod loses battery and I am without it for a few days, no harm; no foul.
Now that I have the iPod in my possession, it is time to put together that playlist. It is time to find some songs that will be particularly meaningful for my purpose and my location. There are some particularly Irish songs and artists that will have to be on the list. I know I will want to hear the angelic voice of the late Dolores O’Riordan and her band the Cranberries. Obviously, there will be some U2, Sinead O’Connor, and “Galway Girl” from Steve Earle. There are also some hiking and nature related songs that will surely be inspirational. In the Pearl Jam song “Drifting,” I love the line, “my road it may be lonely just because it’s not paved.” There will also be some artists that I just love, and have little to do with the particular task at hand. Lorde, Alanis Morissette, Everclear, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are some of my favorites.
Still, there is one last category of songs that will need to be included since I am doing this to raise money and awareness for Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence. The music world has provided us with some tear-jerking, emotional, powerful, and even funny songs for survivors of abuse. For different parts of the healing process, these songs may have helped you. They may still inspire you to this day. You may even be hearing about some of them for the first time, and this will open you up to some really incredible tracks. I will include the official YouTube link to these songs, whenever it is possible.
Trigger Warning: All of these songs reference abuse, but some of them also contain mentions of self-harm, violence, weapons, and other potentially upsetting situations.
This is the most recent offering for the playlist. Being released in 2017, I was actually working as a disc jockey at a radio station in Phoenix, Arizona, and I broke down crying in the studio the first time I played it on the air. After making credible accusations of sexual, physical, emotional, and verbal abuse after her former-producer Dr. Luke, Kesha fought to get out of her recording contract. After all of the legal battles, she returned to the world of pop music with “Praying.” You can hear the absolute torture in her voice, as she is still coming to terms with what happened to her.
Some of the lyrics do strike the wrong chord with me. “After everything you’ve done, I can thank you for how strong I have become.”
Kesha is going to heal in her own way, and it is absolutely not my place to judge her process and her artistic choices. Too often, however, people try to tell survivors that they were made “stronger” by making it through the abuse. Kesha is working through things in her own way, but every survivor had to be strong in the first place to ever make it out of the abusive situation. It also implies that people who don’t make it out of abusive situations are weak. That is not the case.
Impressively, Kesha continues this empathetic tone towards her abuser. She pleads that her abuser finds peace, and changes. When you combine that compassion with the force of her emotions being belted out for us, “Praying” is a powerful statement about not letting the abuse get the best of you. There are going to be other songs on this playlist that take a different approach, and they are all valid. We all make it through these things in different ways. On different days, I feel different emotions surrounding the abuse I experienced. That is common.
There is one final reason that the video for this song, in particular, is so important to me. It is filmed at and surrounding Salvation Mountain and the Salton Sea in Southern California. This location is very significant for me. First of all, it features prominently in the story of Chris McCandless, who is the subject of the book and movie “Into the Wild.” His sister Carine also wrote a book “The Wild Truth.” McCandless grew up in an abusive household, and went on his own journey through the Southwest, Midwest, and eventually up to Alaska. Both of the books and the movie have all been inspirational for me. While my journey is way more organized, and I hope to have a better outcome than the one Chris made in the early-90s, I understand his need to process the abuse by temporarily detaching from the trappings of the modern world.
Secondly, I have visited Salvation Mountain on two different occasions. Once, on a cross-country road-trip with my best friend, Matt. The second time was right after my wife and I moved to Arizona. We made the journey on Thanksgiving to drop off art supplies to help with the continued maintenance of the structure, and to experience it another time. It is one of the most spiritually-impressive places I have ever stepped foot. To me, the religious aspects aren’t necessarily what make it special. It is the focus on love as the prevailing purpose of life. It is not a coincidence that Kesha picked this place for the video for this song.
The Chicks “Goodbye Earl”
Alright, that first one was heavy. The second song on the playlist takes a whimsical look at a revenge fantasy for the titular character, Wanda. After marrying Earl, Wanda initially tried to her hide the abuse that she was suffering by wearing baggy clothes and sunglass. That is something to which a lot of survivors can relate. Of course, covering for her abuser only incentivized him to continue with this horrible treatment, and he eventually beat her to the point that she ended up in the hospital.
As the song continues, Wanda’s friend since youth, Mary Anne, arrives for moral support. “She held Wanda’s hand; and they worked out a plan; and it didn’t take them long to decide that Earl had to die.”
Of all of the songs on this list, this one sounds like it deals with the darkest subject matter, but The Chicks turn it into a comical adventure. Healing is hard work, but that doesn’t mean that survivors can’t enjoy a good laugh. The comedy doesn’t dimmish the seriousness of the subject matter. It is only by accepting the fact that Earl deserves his fate that they are able to turn his demise into a joke.
“They don’t lose any sleep at night, ‘cause Earl had to die.”
If there is anything that is a little problematic about this song, it is that it perpetuates the stereotype that domestic violence is primarily an issue in poorer communities. This is a country song, so Earl is portrayed as a rural, probably Southern, working-class individual. In reality, abuse is prevalent among the wealthy, middle-class, and the poor.
So often abusers try to diminish their victims. Abuse is about control, and The Chicks create a narrative in which Wanda and Mary Anne take back that control. Unlike with Kesha’s “Praying,” there is no empathy or sympathy for Earl. Abusers have not earned that; nor do they deserve it. Even the police officers described in the song don’t seem too concerned about finding Earl.
“It turns out he was a missing person who nobody missed at all.”
Unlike what many victims face in their own lives, Mary Anne and Wanda seem to have the full support of the police and the community. That is possibly more cathartic than the fantasy of killing an abuser. The women are believed. The cops look the other way. Men, women, and children in the town support their business, and nobody worries about the abuser. We have all experienced abusers getting the benefit of the doubt. The Chicks take that off the table.
Genesis “No Son of Mine”
Indulge me in an opinion of mine that I believe holds a lot of weight. Phil Collins has written some of my favorite songs of all-time, both in his solo career and with Genesis. “Against All Odds (Take A Look at Me Now)” and “Land of Confusion” are absolute masterpieces. “Invisible Touch” and “Sussudio,” in my humble opinion, are garbage. There doesn’t seem to be a middle-ground with Phil Collins. He can write sincere and heart-felt lyrics, or mindless Easy Listening fodder.
“No Son of Mine” is genuine. This is Phil Collins putting enough specific details into the lyrics to really connect with anyone who has grown up in an abusive household. In fact, of all the songs on this list, “No Son of Mine” may be the best descriptor of what it was like for me as a kid, especially in my teenaged years.
The song is told through the perspective of the young man witnessing the abuse. While we don’t hear exactly what is happening in the house, it is clear that the father in this particular household is abusive. Collins has stated publicly that he kept the violence ambiguous. The listener isn’t supposed to know whether it is the son or mother suffering at the hands of this man. I think that is part of why it resonated with so many people. Every listener can visualize their own scenario.
“I didn’t think much about it, ‘til is started happening all of the time. Soon I was living with the fear every day of what might happen that night.”
Those lines are so relatable to me. A very specific memory I have from my early teens is living with my abusive father on Saturdays. He would start drinking in the afternoon, and there was a fifty-fifty chance that hours of beer would manifest themselves in a violent night. When we were lucky, my mother and I would see him pass out on the couch by the time “Weekend Update” came on “Saturday Night Live.” We would both let out a huge sigh of relief when we would hear him start to snore on the couch. My mother and I were truly “living with the fear everyday of what might happen that night.”
As the song continues, the boy leaves home. He tries to escape this abusive situation. All art is up to interpretation, but I believe you can hear regret that he is leaving his mother in the house with this evil man. That being said, the character is a young man, and we aren’t always thinking clearly at that time. I believe a part of the narrator blames the mother, as well. Even if that isn’t the intent of the song, we are aware that some children in abusive homes do give at least some of the blame to the victim of the abuse.
What takes “No Son of Mine” to the next level is the return of the runaway to confront his father. Even with the abuse he witnessed, he still feels a connection to his family. He wants to try to rectify this situation with his father. Instead of being greeted like the prodigal son returning to find a welcoming home, the father in this story shows a complete lack of self-awareness.
“He sat me down to talk to me. He looked me straight in the eyes. He said, ‘You know, son. You’re no son of mine. You know, son. You’re no son of mine. When you walked out, you left us behind.”
The abuser is not willing to take any responsibility for his actions. My father died before I could ever hear a true admission of guilt from him. Like my father, the father described in “No Son of Mine” tries to flip the blame. This is about what the son did to his parents. Even though the mother is pretty clearly a victim in some way, the father tries to emotionally blackmail him, by claiming that it is actually the protagonist who is hurting the mother. Before “Gaslighting” was a common term in the zeitgeist, Phil Collins created the perfect gaslighting situation for this song.
Pearl Jam “Rearviewmirror”
With the exception of one traumatizing incident when I was eight or nine, I was blissfully ignorant of what my mother was suffering through until I was thirteen. Once my father could no longer keep me in the dark, however, things started to get really bad. If there was one silver-lining or saving grace about the timing of this realization, it was what was happening at the same time in the world of pop culture. When I needed a positive male role model the most, the music world was turned on its head. After a decade of bands like Poison, Motley Crue, and others pushing misogyny on the radio, Alternative music made the unlikely assent up the charts.
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana hated the overly-aggressive, and problematic men who started liking his band after they started having commercial success. He wrote the song “In Bloom” about toxic men who didn’t know Nirvana’s songs were Feminist, and that he expected his fans to respect women.
Of course, Kurt wasn’t the only Grunge artist to shake the stereotypes of rock stars treating women like objects. Pearl Jam was fronted by Eddie Vedder, who had an innate ability to write songs from someone else’s perspective. As a teenager, Vedder wrote the song “Better Man” for his first band Bad Radio. In that song, which would go on to be one of Pearl Jam’s biggest hits, he empathizes with a woman who is in a bad relationship. It may not be physically abusive, but the man is certainly not present in the ways this woman has the right to expect. To think that Vedder was so young when he penned those lyrics about someone in a completely different situation than his own is quite impressive.
Vedder takes that ability to look at a situation through someone else’s eyes even further with “Rearviewmirror.” This song follows a woman as she literally escapes her abuser. The music keeps this frantic tempo that makes the listener feel a little on-edge while waiting for the lyrics to begin. After Vedder starts singing, he throws in some lines that highlight the rebellious streak of this woman who has had enough of a horrible man.
“I took a drive today. Time to emancipate. I guess it was the beatings made me wise, but I’m not about to give thanks, or apologize.”
That is how the song starts, and it so powerful. The car’s driver is not escaping or running. The word “emancipate” seems to purposely invoke thoughts of slavery. This was a master-servant relationship, and not one of two equally-valued adults. This also isn’t a temporary freedom. She is not going back to her abuser. She is emancipating herself.
“Forced to endure what I could not forgive.”
That is the line that really displays Vedder’s greatest gift as a songwriter. That is such a difficult concept to express, but he does it in eight words. This woman “endured” this abuse. She is in the cocoon, and manifesting into a survivor. She hasn’t survived yet. Also, many victims are told that they have to forgive their abusers. As I have stated a number of times, everybody heals differently. To live through something so horrific that you can’t even comprehend it is a feat that many people don’t appreciate. It is hard. The way Vedder sees the world through the eyes of other people is admirable.
Martina McBride “Independence Day”
Pearl Jam talked about escaping abuse as “emancipation.” In Matina McBride’s “Independence Day,” fighting back against abuse is a revolution. This song does not see the victim escaping in any traditional manner. Told through the perspective of a daughter who sees her mother with a black eye from an altercation with an abusive man, “Independence Day” sees that mother commit an act of arson. The burning house is compared to the fireworks you would see on the Fourth of July.
“I ain’t saying it’s right or it’s wrong, but maybe it’s the only way. Talk about your revolution. It’s the independence day.”
Unlike “Goodbye Earl” by The Chicks, there is more moral ambiguity here. This song doesn’t revel in the act of violence that (while not explicitly stated, it can safely be inferred) kills the abuser. It isn’t even clear if both parties were killed in the fire. These are serious consequences. Even if the mother was justified for the act, it is not fun.
“Some folks whispered; some folks talked; but everybody looked the other way. When time ran out, there was no one about on Independence Day.”
Silence is the greatest ally of the abuser. People in this small town were aware of what was happening. This was an eight-year-old girl who was trying manage an unthinkable home life, and everyone knew it. Still, they just let it happen. My father was a bad person. I have come to terms with that. The only thing that still hurts about the abuse I suffered is that there were people who could have stopped it, but didn’t think interjecting themselves would be polite.
Red Jumpsuit Apparatus “Face Down”
There is a difference between actions that are traditionally associated with masculinity and actions that are displaying toxic masculinity. “Face Down” prevents a biting, and direct hook that shows the inherent weakness with toxic masculinity.
“Do you feel like a man, when you push her around? Do you feel better now, as she falls to the ground?”
The pop-punk scene of the early-2000s was not known for sensitivity to the feelings of women. There was a lot of misogyny hidden behind some of that eyeliner. That makes this song so important. This song says, “real men don’t hit women.” The abuser wants to feel powerful. The abuser wants control over his victim. Red Jumpsuit Apparatus mock him. They take away his power.
Because the bandmembers were so young when they wrote and recorded this song, there are a lot of domestic violence cliches. Still, cliches get started for a reason. The woman in the song is trying to stay, and make it work. She makes excuses for her abuser. The other songs I have mentioned deal with the last stages, either tragic or liberating, of domestic violence. “Face Down” and the final song on my playlist both are written from the perspective of being actively involved in an abusive situation.
Suzanne Vega “Luka”
I don’t think there is another hit song that tackles the subject of abuse as well at Suzanne Vega’s “Luka.” This is the definitive song on the subject, in my opinion. If abuse is about control, Vega addresses that aspect head on in the lyric, “only hit until you cry, after that you don’t ask why.”
People say that abusers “lose their tempers” or “can’t control themselves.” With such a simple lyric, Vega dismisses that claim out-of-hand. “Only hit until you cry, after that you don’t ask why.” It is all about exerting control. It is all about manipulating. It is all about the abuser getting what he wants. He isn’t losing his temper. He is using his temper.
“You just don’t argue anymore.”
All of the other songs address the ways that survivors escape or attempt to escape domestic violence. “Luka” addresses why the abuser abuses.
“I think it’s because I’m clumsy. I try not to talk too loud. Maybe it’s because I’m crazy. I try not to act too proud.”
Especially when the victim is a child, it can be so disorientating to figure out why it is happening. They will try so hard to avoid it, but it isn’t possible. There is no amount of perfection that will prevent the abuse.
Power in Numbers
Some of these songs can certainly be triggering. When rewatching these videos, I had a few good cries. My goal in sharing them is not to stir up unwanted emotions. These songs show us that we are not alone, no matter where we are in our quest to escape abuse. Whether you are stuck in an abusive situation; are actively leaving an abusive situation; or you left years ago, these songs show that other people have gone through the same things. They can give you the motivation.
As I continue to get ready for my 620-mile pilgrimage on the Ireland Way, I will use these songs on the treadmill, and on the hiking trail. I will do bench presses to “Rearviewmirrow,” and leg presses to “No Son of Mine.” I will listen to “Face Down” and “Independence Day” during 5Ks, and I will jam out to “Goodbye Earl” and “Praying” when I do a twenty-mile hike in late-April.
Music is therapeutic, and that is what we need to get through the tough times.
During Black History Month we often hear about Rosa Parks, but that recognition is often limited to her brave stance to refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This act of defiance led to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and the rise to prominence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In fact, Parks was preceded by a young, fifteen-year-old freedom fighter named Claudette Colvin. After learning about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in school, Claudette stirred up the courage to refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery public bus. This act of civil disobedience took place a full nine months before the more publicized actions of Rosa Parks.
It was March 2, 1955 when Colvin made her stand, by refusing to stand. As she told The Guardian, she had help. “It felt as if Harriet Tubman’s hand was pushing me down on the one shoulder, and Sojourner Truth’s hand was pushing me down on the other. Learning about those two women gave me the courage to remain seated that day.”
Colvin was arrested, and her case gained a lot of local attention, but Dr. King wasn’t sure the teenager was the right face for a more organized effort to fight the segregation laws in Alabama. When she became pregnant a few months later, her obscurity would be guaranteed.
She believed that the local civil rights leaders, “wanted someone, I believe, who would be impressive to white people, and be a drawing. You know what I mean? Like the main star. And they didn’t think that a dark-skinned teenager, low income without a degree, could contribute.”
Not every prominent figure in the Black community of Montgomery ostracized her. Rosa Parks was a seamstress and a secretary for the NAACP. Parks befriended Colvin after that incident; thinking that it was outrageous that the teen was sent to jail instead of a juvenile center for such a small violation.
According to Colvin, “Rosa was just like her name, soft-spoken, soft-talking.”
It is almost a shame that Parks is remembered solely for being stoic. The images of her sitting in that bus seat are ingrained in our minds. We have seen them in history books, and in documentaries. Rosa Parks, calm and collected, solid as a rock…refusing to move. Over a decade before those images were captured, Parks was anything but stoic. She was always in motion.
Recy Taylor was twenty-four when she was raped by six white men in Abbeville, Alabama in 1944. The NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate the case, and to try to rally support for the prosecution of the assailants. This wasn’t the mild-mannered woman with her purse resting on her lap; staring out a bus window. Parks was active, but still refused to be moved by white men.
This time, it was the deputy sheriff in Abbeville, Lewey Corbitt. The lawman drove past the house where Mrs. Parks was staying, and screamed, “I don’t want any troublemakers here in Abbeville,” he warned her. “If you don’t go, I’ll lock you up.”
His words seem almost laughable with the luxury of hindsight. Corbitt tried to shake the unshakable woman, Mrs. Rosa Parks. He tried to intimidate the woman who was able to hold her ground against an entire Jim Crow culture that tried to force her to the back. That bravado didn’t arrive one day on public transportation in Montgomery. Rosa Parks developed that steadfastness during battles like that one in Abbeville.
After a grand jury refused to prosecute, Parks was one of the organizers of an emergency meeting at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. The Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor became a national organization after the meeting in November of 1944. This group attracted a number of prominent civil rights leaders; most notably W.E.B. DuBois and Mary Church Terrell. Langston Hughes even got involved in advocacy for Mrs. Taylor.
The pressure mounted on Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks, who was forced to investigate the matter on his own. By the time he had done this, four of the men had admitted to having intercourse with Mrs. Taylor. In an insult that is familiar to many survivors, however, those men claimed that she engaged in the acts willingly. Claims like these remind all women that this was not just a civil rights issue based on race. Yes, it was the 1940s in the segregated South, but abusers and rapists often follow a similar pattern.
Willie Joe Culpepper was one of the men in question, and even he admitted that the other men were lying about the rape. He stated, “She was crying and asking us to let her go home to her husband and baby.”
Recy Taylor faced two overwhelming obstacles in 1944 Alabama, and that was that she was Black and that she was a woman. To truly be against abuse, we need to view these situations through the lens of intersectionality. Being a marginalized member of a marginalized group, Taylor didn’t have a chance in a system that was stacked against her in two different ways. A second grand jury refused to prosecute, even with the four confessions, on Valentine’s Day of 1945.
Still, it was this case that played a major part in raising the profile of Rosa Parks. It was through trying to help a woman get justice against her rapists that Rosa Parks started to find her footing as an activist. Helping women in the fight against sexual-assault initiated her into the cause of racial and gender justice.
Admissions of Wrong-Doing
The 40s, 50s, and even 60s continued on with different faces being put forth in the Civil Rights Movement. Parks wouldn’t just be an advocate a decade later, when she would be the one front-and-center in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. Martin Luther King became a national hero. The world forgot about Recy Taylor for decades, until 2011. It was that year when the mayor of Abbeville and the Alabama legislature finally released an official apology to Taylor.
Any survivor who has ever been denied an admission of guilt knows the importance of these symbolic gestures. Of course, justice should have been done back in 1944. Still, the denials can be just as damaging as the acts, themselves. The four men admitted to committing these savage and horrific acts, but tried to claim that the victim wanted to be raped. The system believed them for over half a century. To just have the government finally admit that she was right, had to provide some sense of closure that would have seemed impossible back on that difficult Valentine’s Day.
Those apologies came after the release of the book “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power” by professor Danielle L. McGuire, and the documentary “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” It was only by shining a spotlight on the issue that any justice was realized. That is the entire purpose of our organization Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence. We know that telling our stories and the telling the stories of other survivors can only lead to more-and-more positive things. Every testimonial, and every celebration can show that we are not alone. Recy Taylor finally got an apology. She was vindicated. Someone finally said, “we believe you.”
We’re in This Together
Recy Taylor wasn’t the only woman Parks tried to help in the battle against sexual violence and discrimination. Gathering testimonials of hostile working conditions for many Black women and girls, and encouraging women to “speak out” about assault, Rosa Parks was literally trying to break the silence.
Had Rosa Parks’ only contribution to society been her refusal to move to the back of the bus, she would still be one of the greatest heroes in American history. The fact that her advocacy was for women’s rights, as well as civil rights from the very beginning can help to remind us of something very important. We can’t be allies for any marginalized group, unless we are allies for all marginalized groups. Abuse is about power. Sexual assault is about power. Racism is about power. Homophobia and transphobia are about power.
Rosa Parks took back power. She refused to let that deputy sheriff scare her. She refused to quit after one grand jury failed to prosecute. She befriended the young girl who wasn’t viewed as being righteous enough to be the face of a civil rights cause. Mrs. Parks deserves so much credit for her fight for the rights of Black people in America. It also needs to be acknowledged that she fought for the rights of women and victims of abuse.
Resources for this blog can be found at the following links:
According to the CDC, 1 in 8 female and 1 in 26 male students in high school have been a victim of some type of teen-dating violence in the last twelve months. This could be physical violence, sexual violence, psychological aggression, or stalking. This is a huge problem, but it can also fly under-the-radar, because of our skewed views on what constitutes abuse, and violence.
Every generation sees dating evolve in different ways. This means that the social norms of a parent’s generation are rarely the same by the time their child is preparing to date. Technology has put those changing generational norms on steroids. Teenagers today are dealing with social media; which allows for a greater level of social pressure and more access for someone looking to stalk a fellow teen.
So many parents have been molded by the media to misjudge the real threat. For example, the National Institute of Justice states that, “About 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim; about half occur on a date.”
These numbers are fairly similar throughout the world of abuse. We have been programmed to believe that the rapist, or abuser is going to be waiting in a shadowy alley at 3 a.m. While we can always be vigilant (even though we should expect that all women be able to feel safe, we know that is not always the case), teen-dating violence, and all other forms of abuse are way more likely to come from someone the victim already knows. Most women are actually more likely to be a victim of violence on the dinner-and-movie date, than on the walk home from it.
This is where some parents can tend to miss the clear signs of teen-dating violence, under no fault of their own. They are looking for the stranger who tries to groom, and infiltrate the safe-space created for the child. What is often the more pressing concern is the people we invite into the safe-spaces.
Catching the Signs
Technology is amazing. During the peak of the pandemic lockdown, technology was able to give us some of our only interpersonal interactions. Many teens are social creatures, so this gave them an outlet to communicate with friends, and avoid loneliness in a time of increased anxiety. It has also created communication protocols that are completely foreign to people from older generations.
As mentioned earlier, the CDC lists stalking as one of the key examples of teen-dating violence. They define stalking as, “a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention and contact by a partner that causes fear or concern for one’s own safety or the safety of someone close to the victim.”
It is important to focus on some key terms in that definition. “Unwanted attention” means that it lacks consent. This distinction frames stalking in a way that can be viewed outside the parameters of technology and social media. Younger people tend to communicate a lot. A parent doesn’t want to be the boy who cried wolf when a teenager is engaged in perfectly innocent interactions. Just like Generation X had two-hour phone conversations in the 80s and 90s, teens today have back-and-forth texting for hours. Stalking isn’t the frequency of the interaction; it is the result of that interaction.
“Contact by a partner that causes fear or concern over one’s own safety” is a clear and definitive line of demarcation. As adults, making sure that we let teenagers know that there are safe outlets to look for help when they feel uncomfortable is vital to safety. It also requires trust in the teenager. An adult may hear that phone buzz repeatedly throughout most evenings, and think that it is annoying. It may seem like stalking behavior to an adult, who is far removed from healthy teenage dating. If the teen feels comfortable and safe in that interaction, however, intervening could make that teen more cautious in reaching out for help when it a social relationship does cross a personal boundary.
Trust is the Key
Megan Alpine manages the Teen Outreach Program for Family Service in Roanoke Valley in Virginia. In a recent conversation with WDBJ television in Roanoke, she suggested, “Especially for parents with their teens, to just be checking in and reminding them you are a nonjudgmental person they can turn to and just listen if they want to talk to you.”
The biggest key in preventing teen-dating violence may just be developing a level of trust between parents and teens. Being “nonjudgmental” can be hard. A parent who “never liked him in the first place,” needs to avoid the urge to say, “I told you so.” Any victim of abuse, from young children to seniors, may only reach out for help once. They need to know there will be no judgement.
In a realization that may be very difficult for some people of older generations, they are going to have to establish that trust around issues of sex and sexual activity. This trust is established at a very young age, by allowing children the ability to reject physical contact, even if it hurts an adult’s feelings. It also requires communication that allows teenagers to be open about consensual sexual interactions.
The prime example would be a teen girl who engages in some consensual sexual activity with a boyfriend. At some point, the boyfriend tries to pressure her to do something sexually that exceeds her comfort zone. For that girl to be able to reach out to her parents, she needs to know that she will not be judged for the consensual activity. She needs to be able to establish the lines for herself, and those decisions need to be universally accepted. If she is afraid to tell a parent, teacher, or some other person in a position of power that she did willingly engage in some sexual contact, she will be less likely to talk about actual violence or abuse she has experienced.
Abuse Breeds Abuse
The CDC has created a fantastic booklet, “Preventing Intimate Partner Violence Across the Lifespan: A Technical Package of Programs, Policies, and Practices.” You can find a link to the packet with the other reference links to this blog.
As one would imagine, the booklet explicitly advises that, “Experience with many other forms of violence puts people at risk for perpetrating and experiencing IPV. Children who are exposed to IPV between their parents or caregivers are more likely to perpetrate or experience IPV, as are individuals who experience abuse and neglect as children.”
The absolute best way adults, especially parents, can prevent teen-dating violence is to have healthy relationships with mutual respect. This shows children how healthy relationships are supposed to look, and what to expect from a potential dating partner.
The CDC goes on to stay that, “Recognizing and addressing the interconnections among the different forms of violence will help us better prevent all forms of violence.”
Men who abuse their spouses or partners; parents who abuse their children; and childhood bullies who are allowed to continue to berate vulnerable classmates are all indirectly causing teen-dating violence. These factors are not an excuse for anybody to commit acts of abuse, but it is important for both parties in a dating relationship to understand what does and does not constitute abuse. If something is presented as normal to a child, he will believe that he can act that way towards a potential dating interest. If someone witnesses that kind of treatment towards others as a child, she may not realize that it is abuse when it happens to her.
The CDC has created a course called “Dating Matters” with the right approach to attacking teen-dating violence. Instead of trying to reach the teens when they are already starting to think about dating, and may already be sexually active, this course is intended for eleven-to-fourteen-year-old kids.
“Dating Matters is an evidence-based teen dating violence prevention model that includes prevention strategies for individuals, peers, families, schools, and neighborhoods. It focuses on teaching 11–14-year-olds healthy relationship skills before they start dating and reducing behaviors that increase the risk for dating violence, like substance abuse and sexual risk-taking.”
You can also find a link to this program to help develop that communication and trust, before it is going to be an issue. Preventative medicine is the real key to physical health, and that is the same thing when trying to foster healthy relationships.
Teenage dating can be an important and formative experience in the life of a person. It is very unlikely that the person you date as a freshman in high school will be your life-long romantic partner, but those experiences can still be incredibly positive. Being aware of teen-dating violence should not be used as a tool to scare parents into locking their kids away from the world. Just like with a lot of things in a teenager’s life, it is just important that everyone is aware of the potential risks. A sixteen-year-old needs to study to learn how to drive. A senior in high school has to do research into a potential career or college. A teenager who is preparing to enter the dating world should also be properly prepared for the experience. That way, it can be the positive, affirming, and exciting experience that every teenager deserves.
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