Pranks trivialize incest, rape

**Trigger warning for rape, incest, child abuse sexual violence**

Two events this week got me thinking about pranks, shaming and humiliation. While some may view both pranks as harmless and just a joke, they both tie into how society often uses pranks as a way to normalize depraved acts of violence and abuse–and how victims of rape, incest and child abuse have to navigate a society that sweeps these acts under the rug.

A University of Vermont fraternity last weekend sent out a survey, asking their members who they would rape if given the chance. While the news was deplorable, it was unfortunately not surprising at all.

A survey that asked fraternity members at the University of Vermont about their preferred rape victim, allegedly circulated by members of Sigma Phi Epsilon, has resulted in the fraternity’s suspension and a visit from its national headquarters, according to university officials.

The matter has been forwarded to campus police to determine if there is a criminal aspect to the incident, Thomas J. Gustafson, vice president for student and campus life, said Tuesday.

“We don’t know what we’ve got right now; we don’t know which individual or individuals are involved,” Gustafson said. 

The Sigma Phi Epsilon survey question was: “If you could rape someone, who would it be?” according to an email from the organization FedUp Vermont and several online blogs. Other blogs listed slightly different wording.

Members of the Burlington fraternity, often called Sig Ep, would not comment. A woman inside the fraternity house was overheard several times telling members, “Don’t answer the door.” Members looked outside at a reporter but did not respond Tuesday night.

On Friday, Salon reported the fraternity had been “closed indefinitely” following an internal investigation and communications with the fraternity’s national representatives.

“Without suggesting that every member had knowledge of this questionnaire, the questions asked in the document are deplorable and absolutely inconsistent with our values,” said Brian Warren, executive director of the national fraternity organization based in Richmond, Va.

The national organization has said there’s no indication the questionnaire was sanctioned by the fraternity or distributed to the more than 50 members of the Vermont chapter.

A student reported the questionnaire to university officials over the weekend, which led the school and the national organization to suspend the chapter temporarily, pending the investigation.

The school is investigating how widely the survey was circulated, and campus police are trying to determine if any crimes were committed.

UVM Interim President John Bramley said Friday that national representatives of Sigma Phi Epsilon have been thorough, respectful and serious in its investigation. UVM’s investigation will continue.

While I commend the university and national organization’s actions, I’m afraid this incident is part of the larger problem of how the use of jokes somehow legitimizes and tolerates rape culture and sexual violence. Young adults for years have indicated they’ve “raped” something as a way to show how they’ve mastered some skill or test. People often use the term they’ve been raped by some company when they learn they’ve been cheated out of a deal or when they think someone scammed them. These recent cultural phenomena demonstrates how rape culture has become so ingrained in our thoughts and actions that we don’t even stop and think why this is acceptable or even tolerated by society.

This fraternity’s survey reminded me of a recent event in which a prank done on the high school level that could make one feel slightly uncomfortable. A Minnesota high school’s winter sports captain team members decided to have a little fun with their peers. The team mates blinded their classmates and told them they would have other students make out with them. Well, that didn’t happen.

Actually, these students were kissed by their parents. No, not little pecks. I’m taking head-in-hand, full-on kissing on the mouth. One mom can be seen in the video below placing her son’s hand on her butt.

What’s more troubling is not only how the crowd was totally into this form of incest and child abuse masquerading as a prank, but how an editorial in a local newspaper dismissed the prank.

The parents hammed it up as they played their part. At least, we assume nobody was making out as intensely as the video seems to show. Wollersheim and others who were there say they weren’t, and we tend to believe them. Parents have taken the opportunity at many other RHS pep fests to make their kids a little uncomfortable, but we suspect they’d all draw the line at the kind of passionate kisses the video seemed to show.

In the end, the event was fun. The audience loved it, and the parents and students who were involved all seemed to be laughing when it was over. RHS has done something like the kissing prank before, and it’s not hard to find similar videos from other schools. You don’t even have to modify your search from “RHS Kissing” to find a video from Roseville High School’s most recent homecoming pep fest.

The parents in that instance limited themselves to chaste pecks on the cheek, but we think it’s an argument in Rosemount’s favor that the parents here were willing to play along so thoroughly.

I find it disturbing these parents were more than willing to participate in such an inappropriate way of showing affection in the name of having fun. In a world in which many children have to endure sexual abuse, rape and incest by family members, including their parents, pranks like those done by the high school students erase and trivialize sexual violence towards children.

What I also find appalling is how these parents were more than willing to bring humiliation towards their children. Anyone who’s been through middle and high school is all to aware of how one’s social standing depends on whether or not they fit into any one of the varying cliques or how fortunate they are to escape some socially awkward or embarrassing situation. These parents, obviously neglecting to remember how desperate they were in high school to get by without being ostracized, unfortunately decided to join the scores of people there and participate in the organized shaming of their own children.

Both stories above got me thinking about rape and jokes at the expense of society’s vulnerable. Both instances above neglect the fact that one of the fraternity members in Vermont may have been the victim of rape or had a family member who had the unfortunate experience of being raped. One of those students subjected to humiliation done in part by their parents may have been the victim of incest or child abuse. One of those students may have had friends or family members who may have been taken from their home to get away from an abusive parent or older sibling. One of those students may be too afraid to even tell their parents, the ones kissing them on the mouth, about the abuse they suffered years ago or are currently being subjected to as I type this out.

As someone who’s had a sibling who was raped and a cousin who was sexually molested and raped for years by her stepfather, I don’t see any humor in the fraternity’s survey or the high school’s prank. Both incest and rape are tools in which perpetrators use to wield their power to control, shame and humiliate their victims and the pranks listed above subconsciously tolerates both acts and mocks the victims who had the misfortune to endure said acts.

To the students who were the victims of this prank and who may have been or known victims of incest and child rape and to the fraternity brothers who had friends or relatives who were raped, these pranks weren’t just for grins and giggles. They weren’t harmless,  just boys being boys or, in the case of high school, parents trying to act cool and hip. They weren’t part of any bonding experience or tradition. It was a reminder of the many devastating instances of rape, abuse and incest that not only brought upon them feelings of shame and degradation, but also forever altered the course of their lives. It was also a reminder of how many offensive and insensitive situations they have to negotiate on a daily basis, as society continues to mock and erase these acts that brought them so much pain and suffering.

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