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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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times