‘There is no excuse’: Advocates call for better sexual violence prevention, community support

Apr 26, 2023, 5:30 PM

Denim day...

The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault held a Denim Day news conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday. Denim Day is the world’s largest and longest-running sexual assault awareness and education campaign. (KSL TV)


SALT LAKE CITY — The last Wednesday of April is reserved for denim — to recognize survivors of sexual violence.

Denim Day is the longest-running sexual violence prevention and education campaign in history, with origins dating back to 1999, after the Italian Supreme Court overturned a conviction in a high-profile rape trial. The court reasoned that a victim who was wearing “tight” jeans must’ve consented or aided in their removal. After the court’s decision, members of the Italian parliament wore jeans to protest the decision.

Wearing jeans on Denim Day has become an international symbol of protest against victim shaming and blaming in cases of sexual assault and violence.

On Wednesday, citizens from all over Utah, including sexual assault survivors and advocates with the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, gathered on the steps at the Utah Capitol, in solidarity with men and women who also donned denim all over the world.

“Denim Day, in particular, is a day that was based on this concept of victim-blaming, right? And it’s all too common of a phenomenon for survivors to go through. There is a reason that sexual assault is the most underreported crime — and too many survivors have seen other people not be believed before them,” said Emily Bernath, a sexual assault survivor.

“I lost a lot of friends because I didn’t want to be in a space full of people that didn’t support me,” she said. “So, not only was it painful — emotionally and physically — but it was also painful relationally because it was a very isolating experience.”

How prevalent is sexual violence?

Utah has continually struggled with rates of sexual violence higher than the national average, according to Utah Department of Health data. Rape is also the only violent crime for which Utah ranks higher than the national average.

“There is no excuse for sexual assaults,” said Jorge Barraza, program manager for the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime, and that reality will not change until a world creates safe spaces where survivors are supported, encouraged, and believed.”

“I think it’s time that we kind of look at the mirror and see what are we doing that’s causing this and what can we do to end this,” he said.

In Utah, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 25 men experience rape or attempted rape during their lifetime, the data indicates. Additionally, nearly 1 in 3 women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lives.

“We, as a state, could end sexual assault if we chose to do so,” said Barraza. “We just need everybody to decide we’re going to do this. And doing so begins with me and with you.

“As a member of your community, as a parent, as an educator, as a religious leader, as a lawmaker — you play a part in ending sexual violence because it takes all of us to create a healthy community.”

Education and prevention

So how do we move forward? Advocates and survivors pointed to education and prevention.

“Primary prevention is not self-defense. Primary prevention is not telling people to carry Mace. Primary prevention is people not needing to know martial arts or self-defense in order to feel safe in our community. You should be able to walk down any street of any town, at anytime, day or night, without the threat of violence against you,” said Barraza.

What does sexual violence prevention look like? The solutions are complex, notes the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention. Prevention of sexual violence requires understanding and addressing risk and protective factors at the individual, relational, community, and societal levels.

The CDC offers a resource titled “STOP” to aid in prevention education:

  • Social norms — promote norms that protect against violence such as bystander approaches and mobilizing men and boys as allies.
  • Teach Skills to Prevent Sexual Violence — Social-emotional learning, teaching healthy, safe dating and intimate relationship skills to adolescents, promoting healthy sexuality, and empowerment-based training.
  • Offer opportunities to Empower and Support Girls and Women — strengthening economic support for women and families, strengthening leadership and opportunities for girls.
  • Protective Environments — Improving safety and monitoring in schools, establishing and consistently applying workplace policies, and addressing community-level risks through environmental approaches.

“We need to educate kids, all of us, on consent and what’s normal and what’s not. I think society has a lot to do with that and I sincerely do believe that as youth and as a society, we’ve become numb to physical touch and a lack of consent,” said Utah high school student Codee Barker. “Bring attention to everyone, not just to us, not just the parents, not just boys and girls. We need to come together to solve this problem because it’s universal and it’s been happening for way too long.”

If you have experienced sexual violence, you can access help and resources by calling Utah’s 24-hour Sexual Violence Helpline at 1-888-421-1100. You can also call the Rape Recovery Center Crisis Line at 801-467-7273 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 for free, confidential counseling.

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‘There is no excuse’: Advocates call for better sexual violence prevention, community support