Not just a joke: The social cost of Duterte’s rape remarks

President Rodrigo Duterte

Manila, Philippines – Malacañang has consistently downplayed the harm in President Rodrigo Duterte’s jokes about the crime of rape.

But a gender studies expert explained to Rappler the social cost of rape jokes when uttered by a public figure like Duterte.

Research has also shown that exposure to rape jokes make men more likely to tolerate discrimination against women and even increases self-reported propensity to commit acts of sexual violence against them.

What has Duterte said so far about rape?

His first rape joke to make headlines was the one about an Australian missionary. On the campaign trail in 2016, he said he should have been the first to rape a “beautiful” Australian missionary who died in a Davao City prison riot.

“I looked at her face, son of a bitch, she looks like a beautiful American actress. Son of a bitch, what a waste. What came to mind was, they raped her, they lined up. I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first,” he said in Filipino.

Then in July last year, he said he would “congratulate” any person who rapes Miss Universe.

“You can mess with, maybe Miss Universe. Maybe I will even congratulate you for having the balls to rape somebody when you know you are going to die,” he had said to an audience of diplomats.

A few months before, in May, he even joked about soldiers committing rape under his martial law.

“I’ll take your place in prison. If you rape 3 [women], I’ll take the blame,” he told soldiers in Iligan City at the height of the Marawi siege which had prompted him to put Mindanao under military rule.

The joke prompted his own appointee, Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, to resign as member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC).

In his latest rape joke, Duterte said the high number of rape incidents in Davao City, his hometown, can be explained by the large number of “beautiful” women there. Many slammed this as a case of victim-blaming.

Said Duterte:

They said that Davao had many rape cases. For as long as there are many beautiful women, there are plenty of rape cases as well.

His rape jokes were often met with laughter from the audience. All this played out on the public stage as they were said during speeches aired live online or on television. The rape jokes are apart from his other sexist remarks.

Duterte’s role in gender socialization

Rappler spoke with Theresa de Vela, executive director of Miriam College’s Women and Gender Institute (WAGI), about the societal impact of Duterte’s lighthearted way of talking about rape.

WAGI specializes in research, training, and advocacy on women’s rights and gender equality.

Duterte’s role as president makes him a powerful instrument of gender socialization, making his jests about rape extremely harmful, she said.

“Leaders play a role in our socialization because they represent one of the social institutions that mold our society,” said De Vela.

“When you have a president doing that, you’re adding to, reinforcing that sexual script that says sexual violence is acceptable behavior and is part of the male behavior to be in society. It is manly. It’s what makes you an attractive male, ‘tunay na lalaki ay ganito’ (the real man is like this),” she explained.

Gender socialization is the process through which men and women learn their society’s expectations and attitudes associated with their sex.

“For instance, if it’s repeated in commercials, that’s a socialization. If it’s designed in children’s toys, that becomes a socialization. If it’s being invoked by world leaders, it becomes gender socialization as well,” said De Vela.

She likened Duterte’s rape remarks to a “social disease.”

“You know when you have a cold and you cough, you close your mouth block the germs. He’s coughing away,” said De Vela.

Research supports this. A United Kingdom study found that exposure to sexist jokes not only encourages tolerance of discrimination against women by men, but could lead to “greater self-reported propensity to commit sexual violence against women” and “greater propensity to blame rape victims for their victimization.”

There’s a negative psychological impact on women too. Another study found that when women are exposed to sexual jokes, they are more likely to report feeling objectified and more likely to do body surveillance – or habitual monitoring of how their bodies appear.

But it’s the impact on children De Vela also worries about. She said:

I would really worry, for little boys and girls. Little boys will in fact mimic these behaviors if they are exposed to it. Girls will be at the receiving end of that.

Centers like WAGI champion gender fair education in schools and help implement the gender education curriculum crafted by the Commission on Higher Education and the Department of Education.

The Philippines has made strides as a nation by signing the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and setting aside at least 5% of government office budgets to gender and development (GAD) programs.

“We’re fighting gender inequality but you still have no less than the head of the country doing the opposite. There’s the rub,” she said.

Social script

Aside from his rape jokes, Duterte has behaved in ways that flout laws and policies meant to protect women from sexual harassment.

His kissing a Filipina on the lips in South Korea, a scandal that made international headlines, contradicts the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act (Republic Ac No 7877), said De Vela.

The law states that any sexual favor asked for by someone “having authority, influence or moral ascendancy over another in a work or training or education environment” is sexual harassment “regardless of whether the demand, request or requirement for submission is accepted” by the woman.

This means Duterte or Malacañang can’t say the President was in the right just because the Filipina agreed to be kissed.

“That’s still harassment because of the power relations, because of the moral ascendancy. You were in fact forced to say yes. Conceding, allowing it to happen does not negate that it’s an offense,” said De Vela.

Duterte also perpetuates a “social script” that women are not supposed to be offended by sexual advances.

“There was a time when women would not call men out because they would be worried to offend these men. We can’t go back to that,” said De Vela.

It can also be recalled that Duterte wolf-whistled a female reporter during a press conference even when Davao City’s magna carta for women, which he signed, prohibits it.

Media’s role

Media, and now social media, play a role in normalizing attitudes towards rape. For De Vela, reporters should call out Duterte’s rape remarks for what they are – forms of sexism.

“I dont believe in objective reporting. As a social constructivist, everything has a framing,” she said. She added:

Media should recognize that sexism and racism are a social disease that cannot be reported “objectively.”

Reporters with qualms about outrightly calling Duterte’s pronouncements sexist can use the words of others, such as human rights groups or lawmakers who publicly denounce them as such.

“You can immediately get a comment from someone and you’re using their words to frame that sexist comment,” she said.

Blatant sexism like Duterte’s rape jokes are made even more damaging in the age of social media when they can be spread to thousands of people in mere minutes.

“When it’s discreet, it’s not going to be retweeted. In this age blatant sexism is going to be more damaging,” said De Vela.

Such social ills can only be cured if society confronts it as a whole. But as gender studies show, one good start is for the powerful to acknowledge that some words can cause lasting and widespread harm.

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