A Time to (Un)Learn: A Brief History of Sexaul Assault Awareness Month

Alexandra Gray //

This past month was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Ironically, and somewhat fittingly, I was unaware of this until this year. Upon reflection, I realized that there is still a taboo surrounding the discussion of sexual assault and survivor stories. Even with the explosion of the “Me Too” movement, a lot of people are still unaware about sexual assault and what it means to be a survivor. With Sexual Assault Awareness Month closed out, I feel like it deserves a bit more attention before being forgotten about until next year. 

So, what exactly is Sexual Assault Awareness Month?

Basically, it’s exactly how it sounds. It’s a month dedicated to raising awareness about sexual assault, teaching about sexual assault prevention, and providing a larger space for survivors. April has officially been Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM, for brevity’s sake) since 2001, although there have been movements for more awareness since the 1940s. Women like Rosa Parks “worked at the intersections of race-based and gender-based violence”1 (hello, intersectionality!). Even since the 1970s, there have been observed “sexual assault awareness weeks”, filled with marches and demonstrations2. These demonstrations took a stand against rape culture, something that is still prevalent today.

Rape culture is defined as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture”3. This behavior is extremely dangerous as it not only excuses sexual assault and violence but even encourages it. By allowing these behaviors to continually happen, society is telling people that it is okay to do these things. This is a dangerous idea and SAAM works to combat it by teaching the public about the realities of sexual assault. Unlearning the ideas surrounding rape culture is difficult, considering how engrained it is in our culture, but by demystifying sexual assault and sharing survivors’ stories, it is very doable.

Nowadays, SAAM is primarily observed online, especially in light of the pandemic. Scrolling through Instagram on any given day last month, I saw about 15 different major accounts posting infographics about it. Some accounts even posted survivors’ stories (with their consent, of course). One movement that takes place each year, regardless of whether or not there are in-person demonstrations, is Denim Day. 

Denim Day takes place on the last Wednesday of the month and is a physical reminder to everyone that there is no excuse for sexual assault. Denim Day started after the Italian Supreme Court overturned a rape conviction because the victim’s jeans were too tight. The judge felt that because of the tightness, the victim must have helped her assaulter remove the jeans, which implied consent4. After this ruling, the women working in Italian Parliament wore jeans in solidarity with the victim. People wear denim on this Wednesday in order to show their support for SAAM, survivors, and other movements centered around sexual assault awareness. 

Denim Day is a day for everyone, not just women, to stand in solidarity with the victims of sexual assault and bring awareness to victim blaming. Victim blaming is one of the most prevalent and dangerous attitudes to have toward sexual assault, as it distances yourself from the victim. You reason with yourself by saying “she did it to herself” by wearing that outfit, and because you would never do the same thing, it’s her own fault. Denim Day stands against that mentality by having everyone wear what that Italian victim wore. Clothing is not an excuse for rape, no matter how tight it is. 

Sexual Assault Awareness Month might look a bit silly with the Instagram infographics and “dress up” day, but the whole point is to provide a learning space for the public and a secure platform for survivors. It is the time to unlearn the toxic and potentially violent trends of the past (and present). Of course, people should be doing these things anyway, but it is a stepping stone to greener pastures. 

While SAAM is officially over for 2021, you should continue to do the work. You should learn about the history of SAAM and become more aware of the different kinds of sexual assault. But most importantly, you should provide a safe space for survivors to speak out, share their experiences, and heal, whether it’s April or not.

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