How are rape jokes different from murder jokes? Let me count the ways

If murder was so common that in any medium-sized mixed group I could be pretty sure someone there had been directly affected by murder, you are damn right I wouldn’t make any jokes about murder, writes Sophia McDougall.

I once told a joke that hurt someone who’d lost a loved one to murder.

It was awful.

It was not even a joke about murder.

It was a joke about how some people thought I was twenty-three, but actually I was twenty-six. The context really isn’t worth explaining, it wasn’t much of a joke.

I made the joke at a gathering I was about to leave. I went and collected my things and then, on my way out, I noticed that a woman who’d seemed cheerful moments before now looked shaken and tearful.

I didn’t know what had happened. She didn’t tell me, but someone else did later – twenty-three was the age her daughter had been when she was murdered. And just the number “twenty-three” – in reference to a young woman’s age – had been enough to bring the pain to the surface.

Because it wouldn’t take much to do that, would it, when your daughter has been murdered.

I knew it wasn’t really my fault —  I couldn’t have known. But I still felt terrible. Not as terrible as she felt! But terrible. I still wished I could have taken it back. If I had made a joke about murder, and  found I was talking to a mother of a murder victim, I would have felt exponentially worse than I already did, because I would have been knowingly taking a risk of hurting someone. A small one, but still.  I’d have had to accept I’d not just been unfortunate, I’d have severely miscalculated. Either way I would not have felt bullied or censored by the person I had hurt. I never saw her again, but if I’d remained in contact with her, I would not have needed her to ask me not to make jokes about murder around her.

Murder is thankfully rare. Not uniformly are all over the world, but I have never before or since either made, or witnessed anyone making a remark that caused pain because someone in the room had been bereaved by murder. It must happen (in which case most people would surely apologise and do what they can to minimise the damage) but in a lot of settings, assuming that the presence of murder-survivors is anomalous rather than the norm is not unreasonable. But if murder was so common that in any medium-sized mixed group I could be pretty sure someone there had been directly affected by murder, you are damn right I wouldn’t make any jokes about murder.

When someone’s been murdered, they aren’t usually around to tell us what they think of murder jokes. But  if I was in a place where I could be pretty certain that somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 of the women and 1 in 33 of the men had themselves been murdered, and some or all of those ghosts would suffer the pain of their murder all over again if I made jokes about their torment, and if they asked me please not to put them through that, I would not be all, “But free speech! LOL murder.”

(“It’s not just being reminded”, the murdered people might say. “It’s seeing people laugh about what happened to us. It’s that they think it’s funny.”).

And if there was evidence that murder jokes actually did increase the risk of real people being really murdered … I dunno. Guys, I think I might not even want to be a murder comedian any more.

But I hurt someone not because I made a joke about murder, but because I made a joke about the number twenty-three. This hasn’t come up again and it doesn’t seem likely to, so there’s no particular reason to avoid futher twenty-three-based drolleries, should they occur to me. But you know what? If it was a cast-iron, indisputable fact that not just one person but a very large percentage of people in the world could be tipped into reliving the worst things in their lives by jokes about prime numbers, I would not, at least not without copious warning, make jokes about the sodding number twenty-three.

Why would you?

(This is about this, and the inevitable defence of rape jokes that arose in the comments).

Laughing… Photograph: Getty Images

Sophia McDougall is the author of the Romanitas trilogy, set in a world where the Roman Empire never fell. Her first novel for children, Mars Evacuees, is published by Egmont UK on 27 March.

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5 scenarios that will definitely happen in Ukip Britain

The Ukip general election 2017 manifesto is out. 

On 8 June 2017, Ukip defied expectations and pulled off a 392 majority in the general election. Prime Minister Paul Nuttall swiftly enacted his manifesto pledges – all 63 pages of them.

Now, thanks to Ukip, Britons no longer have to worry about silly things like the EU and multiculturalism. But not everyone has managed to adjust immediately to the Brexit paradise.

1. The beekeeper

Tommy knew right away his bees weren’t happy. They were swarming all over him, buzzing like a razor on a rampage, ready to sting. It was just as well he was wearing his beekeeping suit.

Except, wait a minute? Hadn’t the new Ukip government banned face coverings? Tommy was proud of being a law-abiding citizen. As he slowly removed his protective helmet, he shouted a parting message to his wife: “Enjoy our British honey when I’m gone.”

2. The job

“Thanks for coming,” Martin said to the three job applicants sitting in the glass-walled office. “I’m looking for someone who will be able to monitor the world’s FX markets, and identify any kind of insider trading.”

“I did my PhD in fraudulent FX and spent the last ten years tracking white collar criminals down,” said Gretchen.

“I’m a former trader who worked at three different central banks and makes my own beer on the side,” said Pierre.

“I’m young, unemployed, have no real qualifications to speak of and am under the age of 25,” said Stu. “I’m British.”

Martin shook Stu’s hand. “Welcome aboard,” he said.

3. The rescue

Stanley dodged the falling buildings as he made his way to the harbour, where a red-faced man in khaki was standing looking confused.

“Have you brought vital supplies?” Stanley shouted over the rumble of the earthquake.

“I’m from Britain and I’ve got nosh,” the man said.

“Nosh?” Stanley repeated. “What kind of country sends snacks to an impoverished country in the middle of an earthquake?”

“It’s the Naval Ocean-Going Surgical Hospital,” the man said. “We scrapped our foreign aid target.”

“Oh fuck off,” said Stanley.

4. The family

Helen knew something was different as soon as she stepped inside her parents’ house. “What have you changed this time?” she asked her octogenarian mother. “Is it the cushions? Did you give the door a fresh coat of paint?”

“No, darling,” her father said. “We just installed a sauna and hot tub complex along with an outdoor pool.”

Helen scratched her head. “I know Ukip has kept the triple lock pension guarantee,” she said. “But how can you possibly afford it?”

Her parents giggled so hard Helen began to worry they were having seizures. “Haven’t you heard of inheritable mortgages?” her mother managed to say. “One day, all this debt will be yours.”

5. The clouds

Ronald rubbed his eyes, and peered through the window again. No, he wasn’t seeing things. There was no sun. He stepped out of the house and stared at the sky. Where the bloody hell was it?

Then he remembered the referendum the month before. It had asked Gibraltarians if they wanted to be truly British, and he had ticked yes.

It began to rain.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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