6 Min ReadCulture 13 April 2020
I've been advocating for survivors of sexual violence since 2016. My life changed when I was raped, a part of me became completely lost, lonely, and utterly without hope. It took the right friends, professional help, and ultimately a lot of time, for me to find a way to speak up about what happened. When I started to learn that I wasn't the only woman out there who had experienced this, I felt a sense of relief. I had a community. I wasn't alone.
But that sense of relief quickly turned to anger when I learned just how many women this has happened to — how many other women had their lives changed in an instant, just like me.
I have always been vocal, loudly taking a stance on issues that were important to me. My mother reminds me frequently of the time I came home from school in the 5th grade after Earth Day and made my family eat dinner in the dark to "save electricity." It wasn't too long after that I became a lifelong vegetarian. I guess you can say, I always had a mission to "change the world" whether I knew the extremity of that or not. However, even in my four years of advocating for survivors — educating people on consent, and running campaigns to raise awareness on sexual violence — I am always shocked by the new stories I am continually learning about.
This year when I was planning my awareness efforts and social media campaign for Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), I wasn't too surprised by the case I heard that had originally inspired "Denim Day." I was unsurprised, even reminded of my own experience, but not unmoved.
When the police asked me, "What were you wearing that night?" the rational part of my brain was saying, "These are the questions they ask when you file a police report, it's okay." It wasn't until after I left the station that I realized they never asked me what he was wearing that night. That was not okay.
The story of Denim Day begins in Italy in 1990. An 18-year-old young woman attends her very first driving lesson with her 45-year-old instructor. The instructor is shortly after convicted of rape when she reports that he took her to an isolated road, pulled one leg out of her jeans, and forcefully raped her.
Almost a decade later, he appeals the conviction by claiming they had consensual sex. The case makes its way all the way to the Italian Supreme Court, at which point the court overturns the conviction. The perpetrator is released.
Why? The Chief Judge argued, "Because the victim wore very, very tight jeans, she had to help him remove them, and by removing the jeans it was no longer rape but consensual sex." This became known as the "jean alibi" or the "denim defense."
Women all across the world were outraged — and rightfully so. The women of the Italian Parliament organized a protest in which they wore jeans on the steps of the Italian Supreme Court. The California Senate and Assembly also supported the protest by organizing the same initiative on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento. Then, the Los Angeles based organization, Peace Over Violence, saw this protest and thought everyone should wear jeans to bust the myths about "why" women and girls are raped. Thus Denim Day was born. Every April, since 1999, Denim Day has continued on in protest.
In this period of isolation and working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, our news feeds have been flooded with excitement about pajamas and sweatpants for all occasions, conference calls that don't require "business professional" attire, and messy buns for days.
Of course, I'd be lying if I didn't say I haven't been participating in these recent trends. However, reading this story, I cannot ignore this annual protest. The organization Peace Over Violence has declared April 29th, 2020 Denim Day and encourages people to wear jeans with a purpose. Millions of people across the globe will ditch the sweatpants and WFH-casual to don their best denim in support of sexual assault survivors and to encourage education on all forms of sexual violence. This epidemic affects not only women but all people, all around the globe.
- Nearly 1 in 5 women in a national survey say they have been raped
- Nearly 1 in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner
- Sexual violence affects Black women at notably higher rates. More than 20% of Black women are raped during their lifetimes — a higher share than women overall, which is 18%
- 1 out of 10 rape victims are men
- 47% of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives
- 44% of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 18
- 82% of sexual assaults committed by a friend or acquaintance are not reported to the police
- Out of 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free
- About 63% of rapes go unreported. For 32 reported rapes, only 7 lead to arrest and only 2 will lead to a felony conviction
These staggering statistics haunt me every single night. My desire to create change, raise energy for protest and find solidarity is important even during the coronavirus pandemic.
It is crucial, now more than ever, that we increase awareness of these acts of violence. The NY Times reports that "with families in lockdown worldwide, hotlines are lighting up with abuse reports." Colleges and Universities are facing obstacles in addressing Title IX cases. All investigations have been put on pause and everyone is now filled with uncertainty on how to proceed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, leaving survivors hopeless.
Of course, there isn't one, single solution. My personal anxiety arises out of different triggers during this pandemic — feeling like things are out of my control. However, where there's a will there's a way. And I have every intention of finding a way to shine a light in this time crisis.
In protest of that infamous 1999 Italian Supreme Court case, on Saturday, April 25th 1PM EST I will be hosting a "Survivor Chat" via Zoom with my colleague, Sydney Rae Chin. People interested in participating can sign up via my IG page and follow me for updates throughout the entirety of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). During this event, we will be facilitating a safe space for survivors to come together to share their stories, learn new ways of healing during coronavirus lockdowns, find resources to get involved with activism, and feel empowered. The event will be "Denim Day" themed to further support busting myths about people who experience sexual violence. I hope that despite this dark time, we can still continue to fight for the rights of those who do not have the ability to fight for themselves. Sign up today.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call:
National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800.799.SAFE (7233) or visit https://www.thehotline.org/. Please note, Sydney and I are NOT certified therapists, and this is not meant to replace seeking professional help. If you or a loved one is currently in danger call 911 or a resource center.
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5 Min Read
You may recognize Judge, Tanya Acker, from her political and legal commentary on different networks and shows like Good Morning America, The Talk, Wendy Williams, CNN Reports or The Insider. Acker is more than an experienced commentator. She is also a Judge on the fifth season of Emmy nominated CBS show, Hot Bench.
The show, created by Judge Judy, is a new take on the court genre. Alongside Acker, are two other judges: Patricia DiMango and Michael Corriero. Together the three-panel judges take viewers inside the courtroom and into their chambers. “I feel like my responsibility on the show is, to be honest, fair, [and] to try and give people a just and equitable result," Acker says. She is accomplished, honest and especially passionate about her career. In fact, Acker likes the fact that she is able to help people solve problems. “I think that efficient ways of solving disputes are really at the core of modern life.
“We are a very diverse community [with] different values, backgrounds [and] beliefs. It's inevitable that we're going to find ourselves in some conflicts. I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.
Acker's career has been built around key moments and professional experiences in her life. Particularly, her time working right after college impacted the type of legal work she takes on now.
Shaping Her Career
Acker didn't foresee doing this kind of work on television when she was in college at either Howard University or Yale Law. “I was really open in college about what would happen next," Acker comments. “In fact, I deliberately chose a major (English) that wouldn't lock me into anything [because] I wanted to keep all of my options open." Her inevitable success on the show and throughout her career is an example of that. In fact, after graduating from Yale, Acker served as a judicial law clerk to Judge Dorothy Nelson who sits on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
It was not only her first job out of law school but also one of the formative experiences of her professional life. “[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law," she exclaims. “She delivers it all with a lot of love." Judge Nelson is still on the bench and is continuing to work through her Foundation: The Western Justice Center in Pasadena, California, where Acker serves on the board. The foundation helps people seeking alternative ways of resolving their disputes instead of going to court.
"I enjoy being a part of a process where you can help resolve the conflicts and diffuse them," she explains.
“It was important to her to try and create platforms for people to resolve conflict outside of court because court takes a long time," Acker explains. “I'm proud to be a part of that work and to sit on that board."
After her clerkship, she was awarded a Bristow Fellowship and continued building her career. Outside of the fellowship, Acker's legal work incorporated a broad variety of matters from civil litigation, constitutional cases, business counseling, and advising. One of her most memorable moments was representing a group of homeless people against the city. “They were being fought for vagrancy and our defense was, they had no place to go," she shares.
As part of her pro bono work, Acker was awarded the ACLU's First Amendment Award for her success with the case. Though, she has a hard time choosing from one of many memorable moments on Hot Bench. Acker does share a few of the things that matter to her. “Our show is really drawn from a cross-section of courtrooms across America and the chance to engage with such a diverse group of people really means a lot to me," she discusses.
How Did Acker Become A Judge?
In addition to Judge Nelson, Judge Judy is certainly among her top professional influences. “I think it's incredible [and] I feel very lucky that my professional career has been bookended by these incredible judges," she acclaims. “I've really learned a lot from Judy about this job, doing this kind of job on television." Before Acker was selected for Hot Bench, she hadn't been a judge. It was Judge Judy who recommended that she get some experience. Acker briefly comments on her first experience as a temporary judge on a volunteer basis in traffic court. “I was happy to be able to have the chance to kind of get a feel for it before we started doing the show," she comments. “Judy is a wonderful, kind, generous person [and] she's taught me quite a lot. I feel lucky."
Photo Courtesy of Annie Shak.
Acker's Time Away From Home
Outside of Hot Bench, Acker took recent trips to Haiti and Alabama. They were memorable and meaningful.
Haiti, in particular, was the first trip she excitedly talks about. She did some work there in an orphanage as part of LOVE Takes Root, an organization that is driven to help children around the world whether it's basic aid or education. “Haiti has a special place in my heart," she began. “As a person who's descended from enslaved people, I have a lot of honor and reverence for a country that threw off the shackles of slavery."
She was intrigued by the history of Haiti. Especially regarding the communities, corrupt government and natural disasters. “They really had to endure a lot, but I tell you this when I was there, I saw people who were more elegant, dignified, gracious and generous as any group of people I've ever met anywhere in the world," she goes on. “I think it left me with was a strong sense of how you can be graceful and elegant under fire." Acker is optimistic about the country's overall growth and success.
“[Judge Nelson is] certainly, if not my most important professional influence," Acker says. “She is really the living embodiment of justice, fairness, and believes in being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law."
“There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," Acker says. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving."
Her other trip was different in more ways than one. She traveled there for the first time with her mother as part of a get out to vote effort, that Alabama's First black House Minority Leader, Anthony Daniels was organizing. “It was incredible to take that trip with her [and] I've got to tell you, the South of today is not the South of my mother's upbringing," she explains. Originally from Mississippi, Acker's mother hasn't been back in the South since 1952. “Every place has a ways to go, but it was a really exciting trip [and] it was nice for me to connect with that part of the country and that part of my history."
Overcoming Racial Barriers
As a black woman, Acker has certainly faced challenges based on her race and gender. But it doesn't define who she is or what she can accomplish. “There are certainly times when people treated me differently or made assumptions about me because I was a black woman," she says. “There's no sort of barrier that someone would attempt to impose upon me that they didn't attempt to impose on my mother, grandmother or great-grandmother." In a space where disparity is sometimes apparent, she recognizes that there is no barrier someone would try to impose on her that they didn't attempt to impose on her mother or grandmothers. “I've got it much better, but that doesn't mean it's perfect...it certainly isn't, but you just have to keep it moving," Acker states. The conversation continues truthfully and seriously. Acker shares what it can be like for black women, specifically. “I think we're underestimated and we can be disrespected, whereas other folks are allowed the freedom to enjoy a full range of emotions and feelings," she articulates.
At times black women are often restricted from expressing themselves. “If someone wants to make an assumption or jump to a conclusion about me because of my race or gender, that's on them, but their assumptions aren't going to define me," Acker declares. “If something makes me angry or happy I will express that and if someone wants to caricature me, that's their pigeonholing; that's not my problem." A lifelong lesson she learned and shared is to not let other people define who you are. It is one of three bits of wisdom.
Three Pieces Of Advice From Judge Acker
The Power Of Self-awareness
“It's really important that you have a really firm sense of what you want to do and be, and how you're moving in the world because when people try to sway you, judge you or steer you off course you've got to have some basis for getting back on track."
Know Your Support System
“Have a strong community of people who you trust, love and who love you," she advises. “But also learn to love and trust yourself because sometimes it's your own voice that can provide you the most comfort or solace in something."
Learn From Your Experiences
“Trust yourself. Take care of yourself. Don't be too hard on yourself. Be honest with yourself.
“There are times when it's not enough to say this is who I am. Take it or leave it. Sometimes we've got things that we need to work on, change or improve upon," she concludes.
Acker stands out not only because of her accomplishments, but the way she views certain aspects of her life. These days, she's comfortable accepting what makes her different. “I think there's a time when you're younger when conformity feels comfortable, [but] I'm comfortable these days not conforming," she laughs. She enjoys being a decision maker and helping people work through it on Hot Bench.
This article was originally published May 15, 2019.