The unspeakable | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

The unspeakable

/ 12:12 AM April 20, 2016

Sometime back the director of the UP Diliman Office of Anti-Sexual Harassment, T.P. Luna, told me that we urgently need workshops on courtship for our students, faculty and staff.

My first reaction was surprise: After all, aren’t UP people supposed to be smart, and that “smartness” should apply to courtship as well?  Then I thought, Ah, maybe UP people are too nerdy and therefore clumsy and hopeless when it comes to courtship.


T.P. quickly explained that in some of the sexual harassment cases her office had been handling, it seemed that UP males, students especially, still didn’t understand the rules concerning courtship, most important of which is “no

means no.”


I thought about T.P.’s request while I was reading reports on presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte’s latest controversy, involving a joke he made years ago about a missionary who had been gang-raped by jail inmates. The uproar over the rape joke concerned the way it trivialized both the crime of rape and women.  I suggest we think harder about a broader, and paradoxical, context in which rape is seen sometimes as an unspeakable matter and at other times as something to joke about.

Sacred/profane dichotomy

There is in a sense a sacred/profane dichotomy here.  Sometimes we recognize that rape is serious, especially when it happens to people we know, even people in our own families. Rape is then deemed unspeakable, in respect of the assaulted.

Yet, we often distance ourselves from rape, seeing it as something that happens to women who are depicted as “asking for it.”  Trials of rape cases have been known to be even more trying for the victim than for the accused precisely because of this premise that certain people ask to be raped.

I haven’t been to comedy bars for years, in part because I just don’t have the time, but even if I did, I would be reluctant to go. I remember that so many of the jokes cracked in these bars are about women and rape, sometimes complete with a mock demonstration. Usually, the jokes would be about women (and gay men) supposedly resisting but wanting to be raped. The house would explode in laughter and applause.

I hope that has changed in the comedy bars, but I suspect that this “rape as comedy” is actually still acceptable to many Filipinos.

We have to go beyond political correctness and recognize the full extent of rape and the suffering it causes.  We have to recognize that rape involves an assailant wielding power over a victim. The power can be real or imagined; in fact, the most heinous of rape and sexual harassment cases often involves someone who is actually very disempowered, even despised by peers, but who has delusions that he (or she) is high and mighty and irresistible.


We need to break the silence over the many situations in which rape occurs:

Rape can happen between husband and wife; marital rape is in fact recognized as a crime in the Philippines and a few other countries. In these cases, a spouse has the mistaken notion that sex is a right, even an obligation, in marriage.  Believing that, the assailant uses force for the entitlement.

It can be between two people in a relationship, boyfriend-girlfriend or same-sex, again because of a mistaken notion that sex is a right, sometimes muddled with “who is paying for this dinner” during a date.

It can involve an older relative and a young person. Here, the use of power is explicit, but is mixed with rhetoric: “I feed, house, clothe you, send you to school, and so you owe me.”

It can occur in a school setting, between classmates, or between staff members. In these cases, the assailant often argues that the victim was not a victim, that the victim wanted sex but was just being “pakipot” (coy), pretending to resist. The delusion here is that the assailant cannot understand how anyone can resist him or her.  This is aggravated when the assailant has an advantage, physically or socially, over the victim.

This is why sexual harassment and rape in school settings will more often involve a teacher against a student, or a staff member. Note, too, the notorious cases involving priests, who are usually in a position of power over the victim.  Also unspoken are cases where someone is supposed to be extending psychosocial support and therapy and ends up pressuring the victim to have sex.

There are times when I think the forms of rape that I just mentioned are the most atrocious because they involve a betrayal of trust.

The rationalizations for rape are diverse, and perverse.  There have been cases of lesbians being raped so “they will become real women.”  The assumption here is that lesbians are in fact wrong in not “wanting” men, and that they only need to taste men to change their mind.

Rape, too, is common in times of conflict, with the victors taking the ultimate spoils of war.  We all know about the “comfort women,” but one of the unspeakable atrocities during World War II involved the Japanese soldiers raping (and in some cases, murdering) women in the final days of the war, as they realized that they were going to lose Manila.

Even more unspeakable, but something that has happened as well in the Philippines, is that of an invading or victorious army raping the vanquished men—an ultimate declaration of subjugation.

Gender sensitivity workshops

Years ago the Philippines began to require gender sensitivity workshops in government offices.  The responses have been mixed, but a common complaint is that the workshops have become dull and rhetorical.

We should use Duterte’s rape joke issue to make the gender sensitivity sessions more relevant.  The unspeakable, concerning rape and sexual harassment, needs to be made speakable, in homes, schools, work places, communities, even (or especially) parishes.  Rape is an assault against the body, the mind, the spirit: People have to understand that, and how the assault is made even more grievous because it is someone wielding power against another person.

As people understand the full extent of rape and sexual harassment, they will understand why rape is never something to laugh at, and hopefully they will protest rape jokes and comedy acts. Social norms and rules will then become clearer about the unacceptability of rape in all its forms, and we must collectively declare: No is No.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: gender sensitivity, joke, Rape, Sexual Harassment
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