How a pair of jeans can teach about sexual assault

May 03, 2022
a clothesline with jeans hanging from it on the MUSC campus
Jeans covered with supportive messages are strung on a clothesline outside of the Drug Discovery building on the MUSC campus. Now in its 23rd year, Denim Day is a worldwide campaign that caps off sexual assault awareness month. Photos by Sarah Pack

Stephanie Boye doesn’t waste a second diving into her story.

The writer/podcaster says, sadly, it’s all too typical. She was out late, drinking too much, and when the bar closed, she came home with a friend. That “friend” raped her. 

“In those days, we didn’t have the language or terminology of date rape,” she said. “It wasn’t until I went to a therapist years later that he gave me the language. That opened my eyes and allowed me to process it. And it gave me a lot of compassion for myself.”

Boye would be so empowered by these sessions that she would go on to become a sexual assault counselor herself, even teaching as an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston. 

“When it comes to sexual assault, we tend to think of a woman being dragged down a dark alleyway. But that’s such a small percentage of what is really happening,” she said. 

Removing stigmas and educating people on the realities of sexual assault – for example, that 80% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim – is one of MUSC’s goals during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

A laminated piece of paper clipped to the clothesline explaining the meaning of denim day 
Clipped to the clothesline, along with the jeans, was an explanation of Denim Day.

This year, in addition to holding a number of events like healing yoga and live and virtual information sessions, as well as a candlelight vigil for victims and their supporters, MUSC's sexual assault awareness outreach committee had a new idea. According to committee member and MUSC clinical psychology doctoral student Emily Tilstra-Ferrell, that idea was filled with significance and rooted in history.

A little over 30 years ago, a teenage girl was on the back roads of rural Italy, riding in the car with her 45-year-old driving instructor. At one point, the instructor asked her to turn down an isolated road and pull over. There, he got her out of the car and sexually assaulted her. 

After reporting the man to the local authorities, he was quickly arrested and sentenced to jail. Years later, the man appealed the conviction, claiming that the incident was consensual. The Italian Supreme Court ruled in favor of the man on the grounds that the victim’s jeans were so tight she must have taken them off herself, thus constituting consent. This became known as the “jeans alibi.”

Taken aback by the ruling, the women of the Italian Parliament launched a protest, wearing jeans to work the next day. The protest caught fire, and soon women’s rights groups all over the country began observing Denim Day annually. 

And, so, it was the visual that Tilstra-Ferrell latched onto – tapping into something simple, yet so profound – and it was an immediate hit. At the candlelight vigil held in Summerville, several pairs of jeans were on a table, ready to be adorned with inspiring messages for victims and supporters. At evening’s end, she said, there was very little fabric without writing. All across the front and back were sentiments like, “We believe you,” “You are not alone,” and “You are enough.”

Close up shot of jeans with a handful of messages written on them like you are not alone 
One of the many pairs of jeans covered in messages meant to inspire survivors and their supporters.

The following week, the jeans were hung at different locations around the MUSC campus: one pair on the Charleston Medical District Greenway, one at the plaza in front of the Drug Discovery Building and one in the Horseshoe.

“We had quite a few people stop by and ask why we’re hanging our laundry at MUSC,” Tilstra-Ferrell laughed. “But truly, even something silly like that begins a conversation. And that’s what we’re after.”

She said the ultimate goals are to raise awareness, bring survivors together, let them know they’re not alone and that there are people who believe them as well as a great deal of resources available. For some, like Boye, speaking out about what happened to them or their families is natural. For others, it takes time to be comfortable doing that. 

“What can be helpful with the jeans display is that it allows people to write a message of support without necessarily saying, ‘I’m a survivor,’” Tilstra-Ferrell said. “We hope that survivors will see this display and see that we believe them, and that there are people out there who are backing them whenever they are ready to start their journey of sharing their experience and getting support.” 

For more information on sexual assault awareness, as well as all the services MUSC provides, visit the university's Sexual Assault Services page.