The Birth and Death of the Denim Defense

Denim DayPlease note: This is an article about sexual violence. If that bothers you in some way, please move along. Nothing to see here. Thank you.

The University of California, Riverside, is observing Denim Day, an event promoted by Peace Over Violence to protest social mindsets that encourage sexual violence, rape, and victim-blaming. While the official website states the event is to be held on April 29th, UCR is holding it today, on April 22nd. Not sure why. Participants are to wear a red square pin and denim in solidarity with victims of sexual assault. Why denim in particular? Well, that dates back to Italy in 1999, which is probably why I never heard of it- I wasn’t following the news back then. My introduction to this story occurred last week, when a friend gave me the red square pin and, upon my confusion, explained the story. When I got home that night I did a Google search to find what information I could.

And wow is that story a doozy.

My search on Google led to a number of articles dating to 1999. Two are from BBC News, both dated February 11th but published seventeen hours apart (first one reports the ruling itself, second one reports the outrage); these are the earliest ones I can find. There’s one from CBS News, published on February 12th, and Google News actually has a scan of the Associated Press story published that same day; they’re pretty much the same story, focusing on the outrage. I just think it’s really cool to see a print version. Finally, there’s one from the New York Times, dated February 16th, focused on giving more information about the court ruling itself along with an angry quote from the guy who wrote it.

Basically the story goes like this: In 1992, in the small Italian town of Muro Lucano, a 45-year-old driving instructor, Carmine Cristiano, drove an 18-year-old woman, identified as Rosa, to a secluded spot during a driving lesson. Things happened. Rosa accused him of rape; Carmine claimed it was consensual. BBC News says that Italian driving instructors “have a reputation… for molesting young female pupils”. Nice. He was tried by a court in Potenza and convicted in 1998. Six. Years. After. The incident. The New York Times reports he was convicted only of indecent exposure, but Rosa appealed and he was convicted of all charges, resulting in a sentence of an oh-so-very-long-indeed two years and eight months.

Carmine appealed the conviction, and the Court of Cassation, or Supreme Court of Appeal, in Rome, Italy’s highest court, overturned the conviction. The New York Times says the decision was made in November 1998 and the text was released in February 1999, so this guy apparently spent less than a year in jail.

Their reasoning? First, Rosa didn’t tell her parents for several hours. Second, it is impossible to remove tight jeans “without the collaboration of the person wearing them” (quoted by BBC News*) and “jeans cannot be removed easily and certainly it is impossible to pull them off if the victim is fighting against her attacker with all her force” (quoted by New York Times). Third, “it is illogical to say that a young woman would passively submit to a rape… for fear of undergoing other hypothetical and no more serious offenses to her physical safety” (New York Times again). Therefore, she must have consented.

This is jaw-dropping to me. Seriously?! They actually wrote that? And the writer, Rizzo, claims they were misunderstood? In a country that only three years earlier had rewritten its rape laws so that rape was no longer considered a crime of honor against the victim’s family? Where marrying the victim or proving she was promiscuous were valid ways of avoiding punishment? Where only 10 out of 420 justices were women at the time? Come on!

The story isn’t all bad though. There was a prompt and nationwide outrage upon release of the decision, which is what prompted the news coverage outside of Europe. Professional women started wearing jeans in protest (hence the genesis of Denim Day). I especially like the jibes of the Italians: shop owners marketed ‘anti-rape jeans’ as Valentine’s Day gifts. A housewives federation offered a prize for whoever could design ‘easy-off jeans’. Stefania Sidoli sarcastically thanked the court for “enriching women’s wardrobes” with “the anti-rape outfit”. Maretta Scoca pointed out “the Court of Appeal should be reminded of the existence of zippers”. The Rome daily paper Il Messaggero stated the ruling “could be seen as a manual for aspiring rapists” (I sadly cannot find a copy of this article online).

With his conviction overturned, Carmine was granted a retrial. However, I can’t find a single thing about that trial, or its result. Even if he was re-convicted, though, I doubt his prison sentence would have been any worse than it was originally, so he’s probably living, in his mid-60s, somewhere out of the international spotlight.

No idea about Rosa, of course, but I hope she’s doing okay.

Oh, and the official death of the denim defense? Finally happened nine. years. later. A 2008 article in The Telegraph reports that, in a sexual assault case where the accused actually tried to use the denim defense, the Court of Cassation ruled, “the fact that the girl was wearing jeans was not an obstacle” and “jeans cannot be compared to any type of chastity belt”.

That was pretty obvious the first time around, wasn’t it?

*Despite my efforts, I can’t find the text of the original court decision, in either Italian or English, so I am relying on the news reports for the quotes from that text. I mention this partly because the BBC News quote uses ‘collaboration’ while the CBS News version uses ‘cooperation’, and I can’t verify which one is correct.)

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