How I Finally Realized Rape Jokes Aren’t Funny

(Trigger warning. Discussing of sexual abuse humor.But from the title, I think you already now that.)

“Eli, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“I’m, I’m, okay…”

“You look awful. What’s wrong?”

“I think just realized rape jokes aren’t funny.”

At this point, my wife gives me the look that basically says “I love you very much, and you are a wonderful person, but sometimes you are deeply, deeply stupid.”

We went back to eating our Kung Pow chicken.

I’d like to pretend this conversation happened years ago, but it was actually in September.

Why does humor exist? My opinion has always been that it is a mechanism for coping with pain. So pain=funny. Therefore, the more pain there is,the funnier it is. Child abuse, Funny. Dead babies, laugh riot. Rape? Hilarious. Genocide? Funniest thing ever.

I feel that the more painful something is, the more we need to laugh at it, just to keep from losing our minds. I have a have midnight dark sense of humor.

I’m not militant about it. I know humor is subjective. If you tell me something isn’t funny to you, I won’t tell those jokes around you. I honestly don’t want to hurt people.

But there is a feeling of ease that seeps into me when I know I’m around people who “get it,” that is people who feel the same way about humor that I do. I don’t have to edit, or weigh others feelings, I can be my authentic, super dark, occasional bubbly, self.

I hate locker room humor. Probably because I always felt out of place in the locker room. But I love dressing room humor.

Whats the difference? A locker room is where you change clothes to do sports, a dressing room is where you change clothes to do theatre. And dressing room humor is smarter, cause everybody knows that people who do theatre are smarter than people do sports? Right? RIGHT? I may be biased.

In the dressing room at my performing arts highschool we practiced the high intensity, sex obsessed one up type of humor that I’m sure many jocks would have recognized just fine.

We bragged about sexual, physical, and artistic prowess. We claimed to have had forcible carnal knowledge of each others mothers, grandmothers, girlfriends, boyfriends, and sisters. We threatened each other with sexual abuse. We also traded tidbits about Phillip Glass, Alvin Ailey, Bob Fosse, David Mamet, and Shakespeare. We talked about our audition monologues, our scene work, our scene partners, our dance partners, what show we were doing next, why a director did or didn’t suck.

In the social hierarchy at my school, the top dogs weren’t the starting line up, they were the people who always got cast. I always got cast. I also had a quick mind and a dirty mouth. I won’t say I ruled the dressing room, but I was certainly one of it’s top dogs, and a main arbiter of taste. The more seniority I attained, the more it became true.

So let’s meet Bob. Bob, as you may have guessed, is not named Bob. Bob is several years younger than me, and a tall guy who could sorta sing and sorta dance. More than anything he was dependable. He always showed up on time, whether it was for rehearsal, or his Act II entrance.

Bob was inducted into dressing room society quickly. He fit in just fine, he shit talked as well as he acted and danced.

Let’s meet another guy now. We’ll call him Francis. Because, thats why. Francis works with me. In fact I just worked a shift with him this morning.

Francis slings coffee (like me!) is majoring in English (like me!), and most importantly, has a midnight black sense of humor. When I go in to work a shift, and see that he is there, a little knot in my belly uncurls. He makes me happy.

He also tells rape jokes.

Let’s meet one last person, we’ll call her Karen.

Karen also went to my performing arts highschool, and for a time, Karen was my dance partner.

It’s hard to really describe to non dancers what the relationship between partners is like, but start with the fact that often your safety is literally in their hands. If they do the wrong thing with their hands, you will get hurt. And their safety is in your hands. See Karen for a second now, young and beautiful, full of hope, passion, and dreams. She’s flying through the air trusting that I will catch her. Trusting me. She was my partner.

Let’s leave her there for now, in the air, but let me also mention that during my senior year, about the time that she was my dance partner, about the time that Bob was being inducted into the society of the dressing room, Bob and Karen started dating.

After my wife and I finished our Kung Pow chicken we went to Old Navy to buy pants. Mundane stuff. I ended up buying a sweater, but my heart wasn’t really in it. She shopped longer than I did, and I ended up sitting on a couch in a kushy waiting area. I was dazed and felt like crying. I couldn’t stop thinking about Karen.

A couple of years after I graduated highschool, I mentioned Bob in passing to a another female friend of mine with whom I went to highschool. She is a loving wonderful polite person, but she ripped into Bob, talking about what a piece of shit he is.

I was pretty confused. Bob’s a goood guy, he fixed that mic problem I had in that scene in the second act of West Side Story. (Which scene? The one where the Jets try to rape Anita.)

But my friend was nice enough to slow down, and break down the facts for me as she knew them, the upshot being that throughout Bob and Karen’s relationship, he abused her, and forced her to have sex with him. It wasn’t “rape rape” or “legitimate rape” but he wanted to have sex, and she didn’t, and he and he pushed and cajoled and threatened her until she gave in.

I was pretty upset.

How could this guy, this guy I thought was a good guy, act this way? How could he think it was okay?

(and this next part, I’ll straight up crib from a great website called Shakesville, thank you so much to the writer who took time to write these really approachable, understandable 101 guides to feminism)

“(It is shown consistently in studies)Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape.

If one in twenty guys (or more) is a real and true rapist, and you have any amount of social activity with other guys like yourself, then it is almost a statistical certainty that one time hanging out with friends and their friends, playing Halo with a bunch of guys online, in a WoW guild, in a pick-up game of basketball, at a bar, or elsewhere, you were talking to a rapist. Not your fault. You can’t tell a rapist apart any better than anyone else can. It’s not like they announce themselves.”

(heres the entire article.)

That’s what I was reading while my wife and I ate Chinese. That’s what I was thinking about while I sat on that black leather couch in the middle of the Oxmoor Mall concourse and tried not to completely lose my shit in front of a bunch of strangers.

Why did Bob think it was okay to abuse Karen? Why did he think that forcing a girl to have sex with you is the normal way dudes lose their virginity?

Cause I told him so.

Every week day when we all changed clothes and got ready for class, or prepped for performance, with every joke and cocky remark, I said “Bob, feel free to abuse some women. I know you look up to me, cause I’m tall, good looking, sexually active, and I got that big solo in the Fosse number. So go ahead and rape my partner Karen.”

This person that trusted me. This person that put her safety in my hands.

I’ve been increasingly uneasy around Francis.

Do I think he’s actually literally a rapist?

No? I don’t, I don’t…. I don’t know.

I know that something that would have so recently made me feel loved, (sharing my dark sense of humor) now scares me.

It scares me because he might be a rapist, it scares me cause maybe he’s not a rapist yet but if I laugh at his rape jokes I worry he might start, it scares me cause he’s probably just a really nice guy who has a dark sense of humor who will feel alienated and rejected if I start lecturing him.

It scares me to think of losing a friend. Some people kind of gloss over that part when they talk about educating on issues, but for me it’s really fucking scary.

The people in this world that are truly close to me, that I can fully and completely be myself around are certainly fewer than ten, and maybe as few as five. To maybe find another one is a huge thing. To find one at work? Who is also good at his job? And then to risk losing that? That’s huge.

But in a way, I’m lucky. I don’t really get much of an option on these things. My stomach gives me the option of doing what I know is right, or throwing up. Seriously. That day in the mall, the only way I could keep from throwing up was to chart out in my mind, how I was going to start talking with people about this. What I was going to do. One of those things is write this blog.

Another one of those things was talking to Francis about rape jokes.

Now, a rape joke isn’t always a rape joke. It’s not always 1)rape setup 2)rape punchline.

It can be an offhand comment, it can be a domestic abuse joke. It can be the statement that a female coming through the drive through line wouldn’t complain about her latte with a dick her mouth. But they are all comments that involve women (or children, or gay men, or anyone really) as objects having something done to them. These people are not participants. They are objects.

And to keep my conscious clean, I have to admit I haven’t gone cold turkey. I’ve got decades of habit to override and reprogram. My sense of humor hasn’t changed, just my feelings of it’s possible effects, and my responsibility as a human being. So when I decided to talk to Francis about rape jokes, it wasn’t because he had just made one, but because I had. In fact, it was the above comment about lattes and blow jobs. I made that joke out of habit, but then immediately felt sick.

“Hey man. I need to talk to you about something.”

“Oh, uh. okay.”

He could clearly tell that this was an “important” conversation, and he got pretty visibly frightened, pretty quick. He did not know what crazy shit was about to come out of my mouth, but he clearly shares the feeling that any conversation that starts with “i need to talk to you” is rife with danger.

So I tried to lighten the mood “it’s not about a Jesus.”

He smiled, “Oh, okay.”

Then the drive through bell dinged and we made a bunch of large mochas. No whip cream.

“it’s about, uh… rape jokes.”

“Oh.” The scared look came back a little. This is a man that has been lectured before.

I started by admitting my own guilt, and saying that I’ve been trying to remove the rape jokes from my own repertoire.

“Cause across the board all actual rapist believe that all men are rapists….” I outlined the same arguments that I shared above.

Did it make a difference?

As I said it seemed like he’d gotten a lecture on the subject before. And God knows, I’ve gotten lectured before. But for some reason it didn’t stick for me, it didn’t sink in. I’d like to think it’s because the writer of Shakesville had a access to these new surveys that show the inside of a rapists worldview, and because she made an especially elegant and well worded argument. I’d like to think if I had read the same post fifteen years ago, it would have changed my mind then.

But maybe not. Maybe I had to be in the right place in my life to finally listen to someone else. Maybe Francis won’t listen till he’s in the right place. Maybe I didn’t do anything but expiate my own sense of guilt about sexually violence that happened twelve years ago, to a young woman I haven’t even spoken to since the late nineties.

Or maybe he did listen.

I worked with Francis this morning. He didn’t make any rape jokes, and neither did I. He didn’t treat me like a nutjob weirdo Andrea Dworkin feminist. We talked literature and npr podcasts.

It was a good day.

So who is this post for?

I’ll be honest and say that there is surely some part of me that wants pats on the head and feminist cookies. I’m a wavin my hands and saying “loook! LOOOOOOOK! i’m not telling rape jokes anymore!” The feminists (male and female) in my life will hopefully respond to this the way my wife did, which is to wonder how it possibly took me this long to figure this out, and they will all continue eating their figurative Kung Pow. Hopefully they won’t yell at me and call me an idiot. Cause surely, I have been an idiot and a self satisfied ass about the issue for a long time. “Comedy is pain therefore blahdy blahdy blah.”

This post is for the men in my life, and in my readership. For those of you grappling with these issues still. I know you are out there. This post is also for those of you who have stopped thinking about it. For those of you who have put rape and rape statistics and the statistical certainty that you know some rapists in a box far far far away in the back of your mind, for the sheer purpose of remaining sane.

We can talk about these issues. We can think about these issues. I won’t lie, and I won’t discount your feelings. It’s going to be really hard. If we talk about it we might lose some friends. Not everybody will respond as well as Francis did. It may at some point lead to you sitting somewhere and suddenly feeling like your world and your life is falling apart. That the guy sitting next to you is about to go rape someone you love, and there is nothing you can do about it. But the first thing we can do, and the most important thing we can do, is start talking about it with each other. And not be embarrassed. Not be afraid.