Denim Day, Sexual Assault Awareness Month Highlight State Policy Options

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Denim Day was born in the aftermath of outrage following the reversal of a 1990s sexual assault conviction in Italy. The conviction was reversed because the court said the woman must have consented because the tightness of her jeans meant that she helped her attacker remove them. The anger about the judge’s decision led to immediate protest in Italy, and women staged their protest by wearing jeans to work. The first Denim Day in Los Angeles took place in 1999 and has been an annual tradition since.

Denim Day is a pivotal part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which aims to “bring awareness and prevention of sexual assault, harassment and abuse.” States may consider measures to help higher education institutions address sexual violence because of the percent of students who experience sexual violence and the negative social and emotional and academic ramifications associated with nonconsensual sexual encounters.

The Association for American Universities’ 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct found that 13% of college students experienced sexual assault during their time at college. However, there were significant disparities in reported incidence rates based on the education status and gender of the survey respondents. Undergraduate women had the highest likelihood of experiencing sexual assault. In addition to this data, a 2014 research study showed that individuals who were sexually assaulted often encountered mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, social withdrawal, depression and suicidal thoughts. This study also found that women who were sexually assaulted earned lower GPAs compared to women who didn’t experience this.

A 2020 research study demonstrated similar findings to the 2014 study regarding the impact of sexual assault on students’ academic performance. The 2020 study cited prior research that found links between nonconsensual sexual violence and higher levels of academic disengagement, lower GPAs and lower college retention rates. States may consider adopting campus sexual assault policies in light of the incidence rates of sexual violence during a students’ college years and the impacts those experiences have on students’ emotional and academic well-being.

In 2019, Education Commission of the States published a 50-State Comparison on campus sexual assault policies. The 50-State Comparison found that 22 states have enacted a campus sexual assault policy and five states have adopted an “affirmative consent” policy. At least three states, Kansas, New Jersey and Missouri, have introduced bills in the 2021 legislative cycle that would mandate higher education institutions to adopt an “affirmative consent” standard to determine whether consent was obtained prior to engaging in sexual activity.

For example, California’s affirmative consent policy stipulates that there must be affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity, and that consent can be revoked at any time. This affirmative consent policy also mandates that it is the responsibility of each party in a sexual encounter to ensure that there is mutual consent before engaging in any sexual activity.

These policies also explain that intoxication and unconsciousness are two conditions that affirmative consent cannot be given in. Likewise, a lack of objection to sexual activity also does not constitute consent within affirmative consent policies. Clarity regarding affirmative sexual consent may make it easier for college students to understand how sexual consent is defined and highlight their responsibility to obtain consent before engaging in sexual activity.

State sexual assault and affirmative consent policies can help educate students and increase safety on campuses. As this remains a key issue for higher education institutions, Education Commission of the States is here to support states in this work.

Author profile
Policy Researcher at Education Commission of the States | cjamieson@ecs.org
As a policy researcher, Carlos focuses on many issues related to K-12 education. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Carlos was an elementary school physical education and health teacher. Carlos earned a master’s degree in physical education from Teacher’s College and is currently pursuing his Ed.D from Howard University in education leadership and policy.

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