Eleven years ago, the Italian Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a driving instructor convicted of raping an 18-year-old student, finding that the denim jeans she had been wearing were so tight that she would have had to help him take them off, making the sex between them consensual.
The decision infuriated people around the world, who saw the reasoning as completely ridiculous, and thus was born Denim Day, a worldwide annual event in which people are encouraged to wear jeans to work April 22, the day the court's decision was announced.
"You always know when someone starts talking about the clothes a rape victim was wearing, there's going to be trouble," said Brian Owens, a deputy district attorney for Alameda County. "The clothing a victim wears makes no difference whatsoever."
Owens was one of several speakers Wednesday outside Oakland City Hall for an awareness event.
One reason victims may take on a feeling of responsibility for their own sexual assault, blaming themselves for wearing skimpy clothing or flirting too easily, is that they believe in several myths about rape, said Wendy Dutton, a rape prevention education coordinator at the Highland Sexual Assault Center in Oakland. The center counsels more than 700 victims of sexual assault every year, she said.
"For one thing, rape is not primarily a sexual crime," Dutton said. "It's a violent crime. It's about power, control, anger, humiliation, which takes the form of a sexual assault. We're not talking about men who see a woman in sexy clothing and just lose control, just have to have sex right then and there.
"Also, there's a perception that sexual assaults are usually a stranger attacking a stranger," she added. "Actually, it's almost always someone you know. Sometimes you can see warning signs: suddenly the person acts out of character, starts crossing personal boundaries you're not comfortable with. This is also why a lot of people end up blaming themselves. They wonder, 'What did I do to change that person, to make them so angry?'""
Rape is the most underreported crime in the U.S., said Owens, who only handles sexual assault cases.
"Every single case I've ever worked on, as we're selecting jury members, somebody asks to come into the judge's quarters and says, 'I can't be on this jury. I was sexually assaulted years ago and I never reported it,'"" he said. "It happens every single time.
"Victims are also afraid of the effect it will have on their loved ones if they say anything," Dutton added. "They're worried it will hurt their kids. They're worried their boyfriend or their husband will go out and try to kill the guy, maybe end up in jail. They spend all this time worrying about other people, and they don't end up being able to spend the attention they need on themselves."
In addition, victims who leave their assaults unreported leave their attackers free — and those attackers frequently are repeat offenders, Dutton said.
Those with concerns about sexual assault, whether they are in an immediate crisis, struggling with a past trauma or worried about a loved one, are encouraged to call the 24-hour Highland Sexual Assault Center crisis line at 510-534-9290 or the center's office phone through the hospital at 510-437-4688.
Walk-ins are also welcome at the center at 1411 E. 31st St.
Bay Area Women Against Rape and Oakland's Highland Sexual Assault Center put small flags
on the lawn outside Oakland City Hall for each victim of sexual assault the groups have counseled this year.