Family Service Agency of Burbank is using denim to begin the healing process for sexual assault victims.
It is a form of art therapy. FSA counselors — who provide free individual, couple and family counseling — help clients seeking treatment for sexual assault by telling them a story and encouraging them to use a pair of jeans as their canvas to express their feelings.
“It’s a good conversation starter because sexual assault is such a difficult thing for people to talk about. By getting them to do a piece like this, you find out a lot about kind of what’s going on for them personally,” said Christine Ramos, director of operations for Family Service Agency of Burbank.
It’s a story about how jeans became a symbol for sexual assault advocacy. In Italy in the 1990s, a 45-year-old driving instructor was accused of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman after picking her up for her first driving lesson. The woman said he sexually assaulted her and threatened her life. She later told her parents of the incident, and they helped her press charges. The instructor was initially convicted and sentenced to a lesser charge of indecent exposure.
Dissatisfied, the woman appealed, and the man subsequently was convicted on all charges. In a final appeal by the accused, the case made its way to the Italian Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1998.
Why? Because the victim wore tight jeans.
It was argued that the jeans were so tight that the only way for them to have been removed during the incident was if the woman had helped her attacker take them off, thus making the act consensual in the eyes of the court.
The ruling sparked widespread protest. The day after the decision, women in the Italian Parliament protested by wearing jeans and holding placards that read “Jeans: An Alibi for Rape.”
As a sign of support, the California Senate and Assembly followed suit.
In 2008, the Italian Supreme Court overturned their findings. Today, there is no longer a “denim” defense to the charge of rape. On Denim Day, which takes place the last Wednesday of April — which is sexual assault awareness month — individuals are encouraged to wear denim to combat the idea that rape and sexual violence are the fault or responsibility of survivors.
“Denim has become an international symbol of protest against such attitudes about sexual assault and to increase awareness of sexual assault and rape and the often-silent harm done to countless victims,” wrote Ramos in a statement on Denim Day.
“Sexual assaults are very common, unfortunately, in abusive relationships,” Ramos told the Leader. FSA provides domestic abuse counseling for both the abused and the abuser to unlearn behaviors that perpetuate the cycle of violence.
“As our clients create their denim pieces, it gives us an opportunity to sit and talk about things that have happened in life. Just from some of the things that they write on the jeans, you can kind of figure out what is going on. It’s a different way to communicate and express your feelings,” Ramos told the Leader.
Throughout the month of April, FSA has been holding pop-up group counseling sessions on Wednesdays specifically aimed at helping those who have struggled or are struggling with sexual assault.
FSA also provides Burbank Unified School District with counseling services, and operates on 18 Burbank campuses. They see more than 100 clients per day for issues ranging from academic struggles to sexual and domestic violence.
First published in the April 22 print issue of the Burbank Leader.