In an ordinary spring, CSUN’s Strength United staff, faculty, students and survivors would break out their denim and band together for Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. This is no ordinary spring, however. With the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and California’s statewide shelter-in-place order, Strength United — a chartered center operated through CSUN’s Michael D. Eisner College of Education to assist those affected by violence and trauma — has had to pivot and get creative for “Denim Day” and Sexual Assault Awareness Month programs.
Denim has special significance in the history of sexual assault awareness. In 1992, the Italian Supreme Court overturned a rape conviction. The court ruled that since the victim was wearing tight jeans, she must have helped the person who raped her remove her jeans, thereby implying consent. The women of the Italian Parliament launched a protest against this ruling by wearing jeans on the steps of the Italian Supreme Court, gaining attention from international media and inspiring members of the California Senate and Assembly to do the same on the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento. The Los Angeles Denim Day campaign officially launched in 1999.
Strength United had planned to encourage CSUN students, faculty and staff to wear denim and gather for an April rally and group photo on the Oviatt Lawn. Strength United also had planned to provide denim fabric to members of the CSUN community to write encouraging messages to sexual assault survivors. Instead, throughout April, Strength United is taking to social media — @strengthunitedcsun on Instagram — highlighting the potentially related issues of sexual assault, child abuse and sexually transmitted diseases (STIs).
It’s also encouraging solidarity and participation leading up to Denim Day, April 29, when people of all ages and backgrounds are encouraged to wear jeans and other denim to raise awareness about rape and sexual assault. Now, as part of their social media campaign using the hashtag #30daysofSAAM (Sexual Assault Awareness Month), Strength United is encouraging survivors, allies and members of the community to write those messages of hope and strength on pictures of denim.
“This global crisis does not change the reality that sexual violence continues to be an everyday crisis in our communities,” said Kim Roth, executive director of Strength United. “For some people, shelter-at-home may increase the possibility of experiencing sexual violence. In addition, sheltering in place creates an increased sense of isolation, and survivors of sexual assault might fear seeking help due to risk of exposure to COVID-19.”
Strength United’s Crisis Hotline is available 24/7. The hotline is also offering support to individuals experiencing COVID-19-related anxiety, in addition to services for survivors. If you or someone you know has been impacted by violence or trauma, please call (818) 886-0453 in the San Fernando Valley, or (661) 253-0258 in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Strength United has partnered with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a Pennsylvania-based center that addresses the issues and impact of sexual assault through collaboration and offering resources — with the annual #30daysofSAAM April online campaign.
Through social media, Strength United will share information on programs as well as educational tips, wellness advice and more for clients and the CSUN community at large.
Strength United is also challenging their followers to respond to daily prompts — including writing messages of encouragement to sexual assault survivors, showing ways consent is necessary in everyday life, sharing self-care tips and more. Those who participate in the social media challenge will be eligible to win prizes.
April is also National Child Abuse Prevention Month and STI Awareness Month, and Strength United hopes to raise awareness about these issues through their social media campaign as well, said Alejandra Sandoval, an Outreach and Prevention Coordinator with Strength United.
Strength United was founded 30 years ago by CSUN Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling faculty, and it provides an interdisciplinary approach to ending abuse and violence. Ninety percent of its staff are CSUN alumni, and it trains 40 graduate-level and 120 undergraduate students a year to provide direct services to individuals of all ages who have experienced child maltreatment, and domestic and sexual violence.
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Strength United is part of CSUN’s ongoing efforts to address the issue of sexual assault, which have included requiring students to complete an online Title IX course on assault awareness and prevention every year. CSUN also sponsors programs such as Project D.A.T.E. (Discovering Alternatives for Today’s Encounters) and MenCARE (Creating Attitudes for Rape-Free Environments), which are campus-wide peer education programs co-sponsored by Strength United and University Counseling Services.
Project D.A.T.E. focuses its efforts on raising awareness and preventing acquaintance and date rape. When school is in session, peer educators visit CSUN classrooms to give presentations on the legal and medical issues surrounding rape, and the psychological and cultural effects of rape. Project D.A.T.E. has served nearly 10,000 students and employs 47 educators, according to Roth.
MenCARE peer educators receive training about assault and the culture around it, with group discussions and experiential learning exercises led by a Strength United facilitator. The peer educators fan out to the campus community, presenting to Greek organizations, athletics teams and clubs, residential advisors in Student Housing and student clubs, discussing rape culture and how gender roles and norms contribute to it.
Roth also noted other campus programs that include the President’s Committee on Sexual Violence Prevention, constituting a diverse group of students, faculty, departments and local community members; the Office of Equity and Diversity; Department of Police Services’ Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) Program; and the Women’s Research and Resource Center’s “Take Back the Night” annual program. Since 2015, CSUN has supported full-time Campus Care Advocates as well, who provide counseling, support groups and accompany survivors throughout their healing process. Campus Care Advocates are still able to provide services remotely. Their office number is (818) 677-7492, and they are available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
To participate in #30daysofSAAM and Denim Day online, follow and tag @strengthunitedcsun on Instagram and @strengthunited on FaceBook. Project D.A.T.E. and MenCARE are at @projectdatecsun and @csunmencare. StrengthUnited is also accepting donations for their 30 Hours for 30 Days campaign, to help raise funds to operate their 24-Hour Crisis Hotline, through the new CSUN crowdfunder page: https://csunfunder.csun.edu/30hours. They hope to raise enough funds to sponsor the hotline for a symbolic 30 hours instead of 24, with each hour representing a day of SAAM.