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20 May 2022

Can you joke about rape?

We must not deny a voice to victims who deal with their issues by belittling them.

By Meryl O'Rourke

When I was asked by the New Statesman to write a piece in response to Julia Hartley-Brewer’s tweet that she had “laughed at many good jokes about rape”, you might expect that I’d write a blistering refusal to accept rape as comedy. I am a comic who tweets my dismay, constantly, on “actual acts of sexual violence” – the phrase Ms Hartley-Brewer used during the eye of her Twitter tornado to delineate these acts from jokes. While there are times when words do, I believe, lead to violence, I had to reply to the editor: “Well… this is awkward because my solo comedy show (Vanilla – soon available to stream on NextUp) has a 10 minute section where I go through an attempted rape I experienced, step by step, joke by joke.”

I have rarely agreed with Hartley-Brewer on anything (for one thing, I love the face masks she so frequently tirades about – they’re fabulous for hiding the double chin). And yet, I’ve found the reply she made when someone asked her to “tell us a rape joke” to be in complete alignment with my views on the topic. To state rape must never be joked about denies to victims who deal with their issues by belittling them a voice.

It’s simply not true, as many of her detractors claimed, that all victims are appalled by jokes. Victims behave in a myriad of ways. For many, taking true ownership of your body is to stick two fingers up at the pathetic little twerp who sought to invade it. For many, rape must never be spoken of, and it’s very difficult to balance these two countervailing points of view. Personally, I warn my audience what’s about to be laughed at, offer support octopi and comfort them that I’m talking about myself.

What I do, however, take issue with is the term “rape jokes”, as if it’s a specific genre alongside “knock knocks” and “a man walks into a bar”. This implies rape is intrinsically funny, which it is not. Rape is life-destroying. My stand-up routine is about lies, nuances, a catalogue of bad decisions; the ridiculous notion that a terrified “yes” still counts as “yes” – the audience don’t laugh at my fear. They’re not “rape jokes”.

Comics often ask themselves, “who is the butt of this joke?” “Mother-in-law jokes” and “Irish jokes” state implicitly that the noun is the butt. All jokes have a butt (if you’re laughing at the word “butt” you may not be mature enough for these concepts).

I personally believe that the victim and concept of rape should never be the butt – but here’s where free speech comes in. Who am I to impose that? There will be, post-#MeToo, rapists writing jokes who feel completely justified in shrugging it off. What we can do is notice these people – and perhaps choose not to employ them anymore, not give them our ticket money (let alone Grammys). That’s our free speech.

I think not of the victims, but of the perpetrators in the audience. In any crowd of more than 50 (probably less, to be brutal) it is likely there will be rapists, racists and bullies. Will your joke send them home feeling justified or chastised? For me, that is the question. As a woman who was beaten up to quotes from the John Osborne play Look Back in Anger, I truly believe words can fuel actions. But are the actions being fuelled always violent? Or do they sometimes fuel deeper understanding and sympathy?

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