Tue | Oct 22, 2019

Michael Abrahams | Rape is not funny

Published:Sunday | September 22, 2019 | 10:50 AM

When I was a teenager, I heard a joke I found funny. It went something like this: A woman walks into a police station and reports that she was “graped”. The officer she is addressing replied, “Graped? I’m sure you mean raped”. Then the woman says, No. Graped. It was a bunch of them”. Not only did I find the joke hilarious, I gleefully repeated it on many occasions.

Today, when I look back, I cringe with embarrassment at my immaturity and insensitivity at that time in my life. A few years later, while studying at the University of the West indies, one of my closest female friends was robbed, raped and shot by a group of men. The bullet remains in her back. The joke stopped being funny.

Recently, a man found it necessary to dispatch an unfortunate tweet. He posted a photo of an application form for an upcoming 5K night run, and wrote, “I’m about to go to this night run and rape smaddy (somebody’s) daughter”. Following the statement, two “blushing face” emojis were added for effect.

The reaction was swift. A woman responded, “u may delete your tweet but screenshots are forever”, tagging the Jamaica Constabulary Force in the process. Another posted a photo of the man and outed him. So severe was the backlash that his employer, a prominent financial institution, responded on Twitter, calling the tweet “deplorable” and pledging to deal with the matter “according to our policies and guidelines”.

It is not in my place to dictate to others which jokes to tell and laugh at, especially in private. Humour is subjective, and even though I consider myself to be more emotionally intelligent and empathetic today than I was in my youth, there are comments I make now, which are intended to amuse, that will offend some people. You cannot please everyone.

However, with the severe trauma associated with rape, we ought to be mindful of what we say in public, or even among small groups of people. Survivors of rape often experience severe psychological trauma and mental anguish in the aftermath of their assaults. Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common, as are suicidal ideation and attempts. Anger management, relationship, sexual and self-harm issues also occur with regularity and negatively affect quality of life for these people. Some heal with therapy. Some carry the misery with them to their graves.

If you are in the presence of a group of four or more women, it is likely that at least one is a survivor of sexual assault, ranging from groping to rape itself. Careless and insensitive comments about sexual assault in such gatherings can trigger survivours and send them back into very dark places.

So, when such statements are put out there, in public, with the help of social media, the potential for mass triggering is a reality. When I heard about the incident, one of my first thoughts was on the effect it would have on rape survivours. Sure enough, it did not take long for women to admit to me that the incident indeed triggered and disturbed them. One woman, a survivour of childhood sexual molestation, was triggered and literally felt sick when she learnt of the tweet. She told me that another woman she knew was also affected. In this instance, it was the woman’s daughter who was assaulted. She was raped as a teenager and was so traumatized that she experienced difficulty merely leaving her home for the next two years. Simply going outside became a mammoth task for her.

Jokes about rape trivialize it and are a slap in the face, another assault, to survivours. Unfortunately, in the patriarchal world in which we live, they are way too common, even in high places, being spewed by people in positions of leadership, who should know better.

British politician Carl Benjamin joked about raping his female political opponent earlier this year, and Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is an unrepentant repeat offender.

On the campaign trail leading up to a general election a few years ago, he brought up the case of an Australian missionary, Jacqueline Hamill, who was gang-raped and killed in a prison riot in 1989. At the time, of the assault, he was the mayor of Davao, the city in which the heinous crime took place. Reflecting on the incident, instead of showing empathy, Duterte said: “I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste.” Despite his vile comment, he won the election.

I do not know the man who tweeted the comment about raping someone at a 5K run. His tweet does not make him a rapist, and I am not writing this to vilify him. I am instead hoping this is a learning experience for him, and see it as a teachable moment, one we can use to explain to our boys and men that rape is no joke and is a topic to be approached with sensitivity.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.