against awareness

It’s #DenimDay today, according to Twitter. #DenimDay is, from Peace Over Violence’s #DenimDay website, a “sexual violence prevention and education campaign, [where] we ask community members, elected officials, businesses and students to make a social statement with their fashion statement by wearing jeans on this day as a visible means of protest against the misconceptions that surround sexual violence.”

This derives from a 1999 protest by the women of the Italian parliament to a ruling on sexual violence by the Italian Supreme Court. This protest was also taken up soon after that ruling in solidarity by the California Senate and Assembly; Peace Over Violence is an L.A.-based 501(c)(3) rape crisis center which came out of the and has been involved since the initial Californian solidarity protests. Of note: Peace Over Violence was founded in 1971, making it part of the rape crisis movement, and particularly that explosive moment in the 1970s when many of the rape crisis centers in the U.S. were founded. This movement has obtained an awfully white face since becoming institutionally encoded, but it should never be forgotten that the rape crisis movement, from Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and the Black Women’s Club movement forward, has always had Black feminists at its core.

On its face, #DenimDay sounds like a good thing. I believe many people participate in it in good faith. However, a quick scroll through the hashtag reveals a fair number of bad-faith, high-profile actors: police departments (Orlando, New York), actresses using the hashtag to hawk perfume??, The Bad Scott Walker, and so forth. (Any police department should, in this writer’s opinion, fix their own house before attempting to claim allyship to survivors. Might want to fix the epidemic of prison sexual assault, which disproportionately affect trans prisoners, too. My recommendation is to abolish the police and the carceral system, as a start.)

And there is the eternal, underlying question: what use is awareness? If it can be so easily co-opted for image rehabilitation or to sell a brand or product, what good does it do? Its proponents lead us to believe that wearing a ribbon, a hat, or a pair of jeans is substantive action, because it will lead people to think about the problem and thus to act—the problem is, research doesn’t support this conclusion. (I have also been thinking a lot about novelist and essayist Namwali Serpell’s excellent essay “The Banality of Empathy” lately; while Serpell is writing about fictional narratives, non-fictional narratives, like that of the awareness campaign, suffer from many of the same issues. Telling one’s story publicly for one’s own healing and for other survivors is one thing, part of a legacy of consciousness-raising; telling one’s story in hopes that others who have not experienced what you have will help you is, in my humble experience, ineffective at best and often extremely harmful.)

What awareness campaigns are good for is marketing. From pinkwashing to pharmaceutical-sponsored faux-medical awareness campaigns to the tangled story of KONY 2012 and Invisible Children, what awareness is good for is moving money around. While targeted fundraising campaigns with well-defined, local goals are a fundamental part of grassroots organizing—we do live in a capitalist system, and the redistribution of resources can be one of many powerful tools to fix that—one always has to ask where that money is coming from, where it’s going, and what will be done with it. (Of note: sponsors of #DenimDay include 20th Century Fox’s FoxGives philanthropic campaign, interesting in light of Fox News’s current cultural position and its internal history of sexual harassment, and Union Bank; #DenimDay’s donation page only says “Support the 20th anniversary of the Denim Day movement and Peace Over Violence’s violence prevention programs and services for survivors.” There is nothing more specific than that.)

Helping to keep rape crisis centers afloat is important, though I would argue that nonprofits’ over-reliance on private donations and corporate giving programs is a general failure of capitalism. However, in order to be truly effective, any fundraising campaign should be coupled with other clear, substantive calls to action that do not cost money; #DenimDay’s “Action Kit” is $10, and does contain “action plans,” though there is no detail on what those are, and “resources,” which appear to be factsheets. The rest of the materials one receives appear to be, even in the most charitable reading, further marketing for #DenimDay itself (“sample tweets,” “a Snapchat geofilter,” and so on). For $10, you can receive some potentially helpful information, and also do unpaid labor as a fundraiser. Cool.

All of this is not to single out Peace Over Violence as a bad place; they appear to do a lot of good work, both direct services for survivors and public policy advocacy, as many rape crisis centers do, and the #DenimDay fundraising drive is on par with how the nonprofit-industrial complex generally functions. (I have volunteered at multiple such places in D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago.) This is to talk more generally about the failures of awareness campaigns, using this particular issue, something I as a survivor am directly affected by, as a lens, and to note that even good work can be muddled and diffused when approached through this methodology.

The most worthwhile work, to me, will always be that which is focused on material results and is accessible to all. It will be that work which directly critiques systemic inequities and offers solutions. Fundraising work can be part of an overall practical strategy, but it can never be the whole of that strategy. Having worked at nonprofit organizations, I have burnt out that part of myself, and watched others who care deeply also severely burn out, on constant fundraising. This is, again, why I call reliance on private donors and corporate giving a failure of capitalism.

Come through for the rape survivors in your life. Help us tear down systems that were built broken and build something more equitable and beautiful in their place. Hold your friends accountable. Hold yourself accountable. Learn bystander intervention and de-escalation techniques. Support us on a day-to-day basis, instead of coming to us when you need resources and calling us crazy when we have PTSD episodes (a thing that has happened to me and nearly every other survivor-activist in this space I know). You can wear jeans while you’re doing all this or not; what you do matters, not what you wear.