By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Elle Halo is angry and she’s not alone in that feeling. Halo, like many, is angry that sexual assault and violence are still happening to this day. She’s angry that society allows people to continue to be slut shamed, ashamed, silenced and oppressed.
“Sexual assault is something that affects a lot of people of every gender of every race and social background,” Halo said. “We act like it’s rare, but really it’s more common than we care to admit.”
Halo, the co-chair for Milwaukee’s 10th Annual Denim Day event and the first Black transwoman to hold the position, expressed her anger and desire for change during this year’s Denim Day event.
Denim Day, which takes place on the last Wednesday of April, is a part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which takes place every April. On that day, individuals are encouraged to wear denim, which symbolizes support to sexual assault survivors.
Denim Day started in 1999 when an Italian woman was raped by a driving instructor, according to the Milwaukee Health Department website. The court overturned the perpetrator’s conviction because it reasoned that since the woman was wearing tight jeans, she must have helped the rapist remove them and therefore implied consent. The news sparked international action and people across the globe took to wearing jeans to help raise awareness of sexual assault.
This year, Milwaukee honored Denim Day by demonstrating a show of support to survivors of sexual assault and violence. Mayor Tom Barrett, Deputy Health Commissioner Marliana Jackson, Injury and Violence Prevention Coordinator TeAngelo Cargile Jr., Halo and several more joined together for a virtual Denim Day.
This day is necessary because it engages the community, said Barret, who donned a denim shirt.
“Every person in our community has the power to end sexual violence,” he said. “And I ask every individual, every employer and every organization to wear jeans today as a message of support for survivors.”
Sexual assault and sexual violence are public health issues, Jackson said, and they affect millions of people in the United States alone. More than 1 in 3 women and more than 1 in 4 men, have experienced sexual violence, she said, adding that as with other forms of violence, communities of color and members of the LGBTQA+ community are disproportionately impacted.
Sexual violence often goes unreported and unaddressed, Jackson noted.
“Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a time for us to reflect on how sexual assault effects every person in our community and to take steps to stop sexual assault,” she said.
The Health Department’s Office of Violence Prevention and the Milwaukee Commission of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault are working toward a number of goals to make Milwaukee a safer community for all. These goals include promoting social norms such as bystander training, strengthening workplace and campus policy, teaching healthy and safe dating habits, promoting safe environments and offering support to victims and families.
For sexual assault and violence to end, things have to change. During her remarks, Halo noted the need for sexual health and reproduction education reform. Perpetrators groom victims, Halo said, and they use a person’s shame and silence to their advantage as protection.
“I’m here today to tell you that if you have been harassed, assaulted or even raped it is not your fault. It was not your fault,” Halo said. “Sexual assault is about power, but there is so much more power, strength and intuition built into your survivorship.”
Halo has faced sexual harassment and assault throughout most of her life. She noted that the pandemic has forced members of the LGBTQA+ community to live at home, where it may not be safe for them. Internalized sexism, misogyny, fetishizations, excluding and erasing survivors and more all play a role in the continued acts of sexual violence, she said.
More work needs to be done to combat this sexually pervasive culture, she said.
Dawn Helmrich, the founder of Denim Day Milwaukee and sexual assault survivor, also made a few remarks. Like Halo, Helmrich is angry and determined to continue raising awareness.
“Survivors are thriving everywhere but victim blaming often prevents individuals from sharing their stories especially in the LGBTQA+ community,” she said. “There is a fear of being blamed or shamed…The only person to blame in any sexual assault situation is the perpetrator. Period.”
If someone discloses to you what happened to them, believe them, Helmrich said. They trust you.
“Today I hope that every survivor out there sees someone wearing denim, sees a support statement on social media, sees a news story or attends an event that supports survivors of sexual assault,” she said. “Let’s make sure that all survivors regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status, age, religion, political affiliation, gender identity or sexual orientation feel support not only today but every day.”
For more information on Denim Day and sexual assault resources, visit denimdaymke.org. To view the full Denim Day presentation visit the Office of Violence Prevention Facebook page at www.facebook.com/OVPMKE.