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.

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