Why Denim Day?

Denim Day

Today is Denim Day! Around the world, staff in sexual assault centers and supporting businesses and organizations are taking the opportunity to donate money to support sexual assault services and wear jeans to raise awareness about the issue of sexual assault in our communities. What’s the story behind Denim Day? The Italian Supreme Court overturned a rape conviction based on the clothing the victim was wearing:  jeans.

Morgan Lamandre, STAR’s Administrative & Volunteer Coordinator, gives us the facts below about this Italian Supreme Court decision that ignited an international response which continues to this very day.

On July 12, 1992, eighteen year old Pagliuca Rosa was picked up by her forty-five-year-old driving instructor, Carmine Cristiano, at around 12:30 pm for the practical component of driving lessons.[1]  Cristiano told Rosa that he first had to pick up another student for driving lessons, but instead drove outside of the city and parked on a street. He then threw Rosa to the ground, partially removed her jeans by slipping one of her legs out, and raped her. Cristiano then drove Rosa back home and threatened her not to tell anyone what happened. Rosa’s parents noticed that she seemed to be upset and asked her what was wrong. Rosa decided not to tell her parents about the rape at that point. It was not until after the classroom component of the driving lessons later that day when she told her parents what happened. Rosa subsequently reported the rape to the police.

Cristiano was questioned by the police the same day, but gave a different account of what happened. He admitted having sexual intercourse with Rosa, but claimed it was consensual. Cristiano was charged with “sexual violence, private violence, rape as sexual harassment, personal injury, obscene acts in a public place, and personal violence.[2] On February 29, 1996, the trial court convicted Cristiano of obscene acts in a public place, but he was acquitted on all other charges. An appeal was taken by the prosecutor[3] on the acquittals and an appeal was taken by Cristiano on the conviction to an intermediate level appellate court. In 1998, the appellate court held Cristiano “accountable for all of the offenses and sentenced him to two years and ten months” in prison.[4]  The defense appealed to Italy’s highest court. On February 10, 1999, Italy’s highest court, the Italian Supreme Court, overturned Cristiano’s conviction and created what some reporters called the “jeans defense” to rape.[5] The court reasoned that the lower appellate court focused more on the guilt of the “accused” and, as a result, failed to rigorously analyze the circumstances surrounding Rosa’s accusations.[6]

The court first claimed that Rosa probably lied in order to “justify to her parents a sexual relationship with someone so much older than herself, and furthermore with a married man, a relationship she did not wish to keep hidden because she may have been worried about the possible consequences of such a sexual relationship.” The court further stated that it was quite probable that Rosa was lying based on her conduct after the “alleged” rape. The appellate court had previously explained that Rosa probably did not tell her parents about the rape right away because she was ashamed about what happened. The Italian Supreme court found this explanation unconvincing. Next, the court critiqued the appellate court’s decision that had assessed the partial removal of her jeans as evidence of a lack of consent. The appellate court claimed that if the sex had been consensual Rosa would have completely removed her jeans. The Supreme Court rejected this assertion and reasoned that since the incident had taken place in the middle of the day, in a public place, the partial removal of the jeans would be “consistent with consent.” The court additionally stated, “it is a fact of common experience that it is nearly impossible to take jeans off a person even partially without the active collaboration of the person who is wearing them.” Considering this, the court overturned Cristiano’s conviction.

As a result of the court’s decision there was a public outcry. People felt outraged by the decision and started protests. The following month, the “International Jeans for Justice Day” was created to symbolize a global protest to combat sexual violence.[7] It was not until 2008 when the Italian Supreme Court essentially overturned its previous ruling by upholding the conviction of a 37-year-old man who was accused of molesting his partner’s 16-year-old daughter from a previous relationship by “inserting his hand inside the front of her jeans.”[8] The defense claimed that since the victim was wearing blue jeans and was sitting down, it was impossible for the man to insert his hand inside the front of her jeans. The Supreme Court overturned its previous ruling and held that “jeans cannot be compared to any type of chastity belt.” This was seemingly a step in the right direction, but victim blaming still exists.  As recent as 2010, a man was acquitted of rape in Australia after the jury agreed that the victim could not have been raped because she was wearing skinny jeans.[9]

The decision detailed here demonstrates that when people in positions of power, privilege, and authority lack information about rape, they often rely on familiar rape myths to inform their decisions to excuse or deny that a rape occurred, therefore failing to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. Some of the myths we see demonstrated by the Italian Supreme Court in this case are:

  • Women who say they were raped are often lying to protect themselves from getting in trouble.
  • If a woman doesn’t tell others she was raped immediately after it happened, she’s probably lying.
  • If a woman participates at all in removing her clothes, it can’t be rape.

To address the first myth: Women who disclose being raped are often subjected to intense scrutiny, shame, disbelief, and blame from others – even from family and friends. The social costs that victims of sexual violence experience can be severe and re-traumatizing on top of the other physical and emotional impacts of rape. More often than we can count, people assume that a disclosure is a lie when it is not.

Due to fears of negative reactions, not being believed, not wanting to believe it themselves, not knowing for sure if it was rape, and/or internalized shame or self-blame, many victims do not immediately disclose having been raped. Even if they do not disclose immediately, there may be visible changes in attitude and behavior that indicate a traumatic episode has occurred.

As for the last myth, a victim of rape may in some ways “submit” or remove clothing out of fear, intimidation, threat of violence, and/or hope of minimizing or “making it through” the attack. Submission is not consent, and the two should not be confused though they often are. This is why in order to prevent and encourage responsible reactions to sexual violence, we at STAR seek to educate people in positions of power, authority, and privilege about rape so that they may make informed decisions when faced, directly or indirectly, with the violent injustice that is rape.


[1] Rachel A. Van Cleave, Sex, Lies, and Honor in Italian Rape Law, 38 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 427, available at http://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=pubs.

[3] In Italy, unlike the United States, prosecutors can appeal acquittals.  Thus, Italy lacks the absolute prohibition present in U.S. law that prevents a criminal defendant who has been acquitted of a charge to be retried.

[6] It is the opinion of the author that the lower appellate court properly focused on the guilt of the defendant rather than the circumstances surrounding the accusations of Rosa.  To read more about victim blaming, see https://brstarcenter.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/we-will-not-surrender-our-freedom-to-travel-gender-based-terror-and-tempting-fate/.

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