Blue flags and Denim Day raise awareness of sexual violence

JMU’s quad is filled with more than 6,500 blue flags as a way to raise awareness about sexual violence. (Photo by Jessica Kronzer)

By Jessica Kronzer, contributor

Exactly 6,581 little blue flags flapped in the wind as they lined James Madison University’s Quad last Thursday. Each flag represented a JMU student who has or will be sexually assaulted in their lives, based on the student population and the national sexual assault rate. 

Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the U.S. have been raped, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Almost 80% of female victims were assaulted before the age of 25. 

Students Against Sexual Violence, a coalition of JMU students, has sought to spread awareness about the issue throughout April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and is calling for policy changes, starting with JMU’s campus. The organization has been holding demonstrations, including painting JMU’s spirit rock. And that included the flags, which were impossible to miss for anyone walking across campus. 

Lexie Burns, a first-year student at JMU and a member of the coalition, said it’s sometimes difficult to comprehend just how widespread the problem is just by looking at the numbers. 

“No one deserves to be just a statistic,” she said. 

The coalition members set up the flags late last Wednesday night with help from Student Government Association members and fraternity volunteers — and even a passerby who offered to help. It took them four hours. 

The flag installation was only part of the strategy to underscore the awareness campaign. Students Against Sexual Violence conducted a different social media event each week this month. In past years, the group has hosted an in-person “speak out,” at JMU’s Madison Union. Instead, this year, survivors shared their stories on Instagram during the third week of April. 

Kinsey Watson, a senior JMU student and member of Students Against Sexual Violence, said people who participated were able to maintain anonymity.  

Survivors sent in “words of encouragement,” and the organization posted those affirmations to their Instagram story. They also crafted personalized “love letters” and mailed or emailed them to survivors who requested them. Their contact information was erased afterward to ensure confidentiality. 

The organization this month also recognized Denim Day, which is a campaign initiated after a 1999 Italian Supreme Court ruling overturned a rape conviction because “the victim was wearing tight jeans she must have helped the person who raped her remove her jeans, thereby implying consent.” The day after that ruling, women in the country’s parliament wore jeans to support the victim, and women worldwide continued that “act of solidarity.” Students Against Sexual Violence posted physical and virtual fliers to encourage participation. 

Watson said these social media events have attracted an overwhelming number of people participating, especially after organizations like fraternities shared their posts. For example Delta Upsilon shared a post on Denim Day. Watson also said the group has made an effort to grow its social media presence to overcome challenges presented by COVID-19.

“Our goal for doing awareness for SASV, is … to let survivors know that they’re not alone,” Watson said. “There is a group of dedicated and passionate people who believe them — and who stand with them and will fight for them.”

Burns said while it can be difficult, she hopes people will hold their friends accountable by intervening if someone they know is about to engage in sexual activities without consent. Above all, Watson said people should believe survivors and let them know that they aren’t alone. 

“There is a group of dedicated and passionate people who believe them, and who stand with them and will fight for them,” Watson said. 

A sign explains what the flags represent.

But awareness is just the beginning, Watson said. 

“Spreading awareness is a start to promoting an end to it,” she said. “But it’s only one piece of the solution, because there’s policy reform, education, and outreach.”

The organization is advocating for several policy reforms regarding the way JMU’s Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices (OSARP) handles sexual assault allegations. For instance, Students Against Sexual Violence wants a separate Title IX hearing board that’s “entirely independent” from OSARP to avoid bias or conflict of interests of having OSARP employees serve on the board. 

Other proposed reforms include expanding access to no-contact orders beyond decisions OSARP makes in order to prevent the involved parties from contacting each other, as well as enforcing the suggested 60-day timeline on OSARP and Title IX investigations. 

The group also wants to expand survivors’ access to case materials, like a recording or transcript of their hearing or other investigation documents — with identifying information redacted as needed. 

Outside of the OSARP process, Students Against Sexual Violence wants JMU to implement a serious misconduct rule for student athletes, which states “Any varsity athlete found responsible or guilty of a serious violent offense (rape, incest, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, etc.) should be ineligible for practice, play, and athletic financial aid.” 

While those debates over policy changes remain, Students Against Sexual Violence has received university support in promoting sexual assault awareness. Since the organization was officially recognized by JMU in 2019, members have met monthly to discuss their cause with Tim Miller, JMU’s Vice President of Student Affairs. The Well, a department of JMU’S health center, shares resources for survivors and has helped promote Students Against Sexual Violence events. 

“We’re going to continue to push for better policies because obviously, sexual violence isn’t just a problem in April,” Burns said. “We will continue to spread awareness to educate and to help the community in any way that we can.” 

That also means listening. The group’s members are not “mandatory reporters” so survivors seeking assistance after being assaulted can speak to the coalition about their experience without fear of the events being documented. JMU faculty members are “mandatory reporters,” meaning if a student shares with them an experience being sexually assaulted, these employees must report the assault to the Title IX office. 

Watson, who is a survivor of sexual assault, said she hopes to surround herself with people like the members of the coalition who “empower one another.” She said she has learned to “shut up and listen” to others’ ideas and contributions to SASV. 

“It just makes me realize how people really can make a change and that there really are passionate and dedicated people out there, and it wasn’t just me,” Watson said. “Because for a while, I felt like it was just me.”

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