I have “rape humor” on my mind this week. In my line of work, I rarely encounter people who think rape is funny. And yet, here are a couple of situations in which people recently laughed about rape:
A friend goes to a comedy club, not knowing anything about the scheduled comedian. She is treated to two hours of rape jokes delivered with hostility and anger, by comedian Anthony Jeselnik. She stays for the full act, just to see how far he’ll go. She won’t repeat any of the jokes, but reports that it goes “about as far as you can imagine.” She doesn’t find the jokes even slightly funny. Apparently, though, much of the audience gives the comedian a standing ovation. She is appalled, and feels bad for the servers, who didn’t get to choose whether to hear those jokes.
Then, you may have heard that an independent daily newspaper at Boston University decided to include in their April Fools issue, which has a Disney theme, a story satirizing gang rape. Yeah, you guessed it. Snow White is gang raped by the dwarves. Keep in mind that BU has received nine reports of sexual assault and five reports of rape so far this academic year, including two very high-profile cases. Here’s a sample from the April Fools story:
The BRO's face seven charges of sexual conduct and seven charges of drugging someone into unconsciousness. "Heigh-ho BROs we didn't do anything," said Sleepy, a senior in the College of Engineering and president of BRO, who is a suspect in the alleged sexual assault . . . Boston University's Center for Gender, Sexuality and Magical Creatures . . . is calling for a university-wide analysis of underage drinking on campus and the sterilization of all BU males.
Isn’t that hilarious? Here’s the whole thing, if you’re interested.
OK, so, some people find this kind of thing funny. And we all have a right to our own senses of humor, right? Plus, it’s exactly because it’s so wrong that it is funny. Get it? Yeah, I get it. If I bend over backwards, and squint my eyes, I can see why it’s funny to some people. But here are a couple of things to consider, besides whether some people may find it funny:
First, unexpectedly running across this type of humor can be devastating for a survivor of rape. I mean, imagine the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Something that you’ve struggled for years to cope with. Got it? OK, now, imagine that you’re out for a night of entertainment, or you pick up your usual morning paper, and the main feature – surprise! – is a big joke about that. Well, if it hasn’t happened to you, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like. But trust me, it’s not funny.
Second, joking about something makes it seem less serious. I found a great discussion of this in an editorial from the Oklahoma Daily.
By joking about rape, you’re trivializing the issue, making it something to laugh about. One of the great powers of humor is minimizing fears, making them seem smaller, and conquering the monsters by laughing at them.
But rape is one monster we should never work to make smaller. Our society has done just that for far too long. Only by facing the true, horrible reality of rape will we be able to fight it. One of the most important steps to fighting rape is ending what activists call “rape culture.” – The Oklahoma Daily Editorial Board
Rape jokes contribute to building a culture where rape is not considered important. That’s how we get to a place where “friends” of a rape survivor can think it’s reasonable to text her the next day, calling her a “slut” and a “whore”. That’s how we end up in a country where every 2 minutes someone is sexually assaulted, and yet 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.
So, it’s about more than whether some people might find it funny. It’s about supporting, understanding, and respecting people who are survivors of rape, and it’s about doing what we can to keep each other safe. Or not.
What do you think about rape jokes? Is it possible to tell a joke about rape, while not supporting rape culture, or triggering survivors? Leave a comment with your opinion about or experience with rape humor.
Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado. She has a deep passion for helping survivors of sexual violence.