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Can Rape Jokes Ever Be Funny? One Woman’s Quest to Find Out

Vanessa Place, author of ‘You Had to Be There: Rape Jokes,’ compiled 71 pages of the most fucked-up lines I’ve ever read in my life. If rape isn’t funny, what are we actually laughing at?

Vanessa Place is a writer, artist and appellate attorney whose new book, You Had to Be There: Rape Jokes, contains 71 uninterrupted pages of the most fucked-up jokes I’ve ever read in my life.

There are jokes about rape. Jokes about pedophilia. Jokes about necrophilia. Animal rape. Religious rape. Ethnic rape. If it exists and can be raped, she’s included it, all within the structure of quippy, well-metered punchlines sourced from a combination of incel-ridden Reddit joke threads and the annals of her own mind. For instance:

  • “Losing my virginity was a lot like learning to ride a bicycle. My dad was behind me all the way.”
  • “They say sex prevents depression. So why all the long faces at the rape crisis center?”
  • “Go ahead and call the police. We’ll see who comes first.”

Place offers no trigger warning or apology for these jokes — the only context readers get before being launched face-first into their own horrifying rape-iverse is a rambling forward by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who promises that the following pages will “bitch-slap you into consent.” The jokes that follow are jarring, traumatizing and unspeakably offensive.

Still, I found myself laughing at them. Despite the fact that there’s nothing funny about rape, I couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across my face when I read one-liners like “Apparently ‘Ramadan’ isn’t to be taken literally. Sorry, Dan!” Though I was ashamed anything that terrible could make me chuckle, laughing at the idea of rape felt kind of good. It was like I was somehow bigger than it.

Place’s work has that effect on a lot of people. When she performs the live version of the book — a 45-minute experimental reading that features nothing but deadpan rape jokes — people end up rolling on the floor. Even the audience members who are the most determined not to laugh eventually crack, she tells me. It’s hard not to — 45 minutes or an entire book of rape jokes is so patently absurd that, for many people, laughter feels like an appropriate response.

Nowhere does Place make the argument that rape should be ridiculed, nor does her work attempt to make light of trauma. Rather, her intent is to use humor to acknowledge the unacknowledged; to poke at a skittish and sensitive culture that have silenced, not enhanced, conversations around sexual assault.

There’s just one problem — rape isn’t funny, so what are we actually laughing at?

I called her up to find out.

Before we get into what could possibly be funny about rape, I’d love some background on how this all started. How did this book come about?
The book is the text version of a performance piece I did called “I’ve Got a Really Good Joke About Rape.” The piece was inspired by a social media flurry that happened after Daniel Tosh told a really controversial rape joke on stage — the audience, and most of Twitter balked, and most of Twitter announced that rape jokes aren’t funny.

When I read that I thought, well, actually, they are. They must be, because people tell them all the time. They have forever. People laugh at them. Even people who don’t laugh at them, will laugh at the idea of the [insert bad man here] raped in prison. So if laughter is the response, what makes them “not funny”? I was interested in answering this question, so I started studying rape jokes and rape culture. It seemed like historically, they were told in private, usually between men, as a way of communicating something about desire, something about being a man.

What would happen if I told them in public, as a woman? What if I told not one or two jokes at a time, but 45 minutes worth of them, just one after another? What if instead of being the passive woman who’s afraid of rape, who either cannot speak or can only speak through victimization [my own], I became the offender?

Every time I do this performance, the people who start off laughing eventually stop because it becomes too much for them. It goes too far. At the same time, the people who go into it thinking they’d never laugh at rape end up doing just that. And at some point, both groups realize I’m not the performer — they are. They start to think about things that are painful to think about, including their own pleasure, and the performance becomes less about what I’m saying and more about their reaction to it. I don’t do this as a stand-up routine at a comedy club — it’s very clearly an art performance — so there’s no pretense that people have to laugh. It just comes out as they process [or don’t] what they’re hearing.

Does that mean rape is funny?
The act of rape itself is never what’s funny. Rape jokes are, because they’re not supposed to be. Good ones have clever word play, a twist in the story. Like any joke, there’s a setup, and then a reveal. There’s some sophistication to how they’re crafted.

For example: “They say 90 percent of people are raped by someone they knew. But shouldn’t that really be someone they thought they knew?”

Here’s another: “How do you know you’re not a pedophile? Maybe you just haven’t met the right child.”

Please explain why I’m laughing at that.
According to Freud, jokes are funny because the punchline offers a sudden discharge of repression. What’s being repressed is usually sexual, hostile, or obscene. Laughter lets these things out in a more or less socially acceptable format. It’s a way to process difficult topics, but the obscenity, the violence, of what’s released is sublimated in the humor of the joke.

Rape jokes heighten that effect because in many ways, the structure of the joke mirrors the structure of rape itself. There’s a setup that builds tension, and a punchline that violently discharges that tension. And the tension is all about sexual desire, and what we find obscene and hostile in that desire.

If the punchline is a bit of a surprise, and something happens in the joke you didn’t expect, more tension is released. In that way, the joke does its job — it creates a release of hostility. It’s useful in that sense.

Wait, so rape jokes are … cathartic?
Maybe. And maybe on both sides. For the man who tells the joke to his mates, there’s something cathartic about expressing the violence he may feel toward his own sexual desire, a way of using the joke to bond with his brothers, to see who — and if — there’s a fraternity there. For the one who has been raped, the joke, in this context, may be a way of diffusing the bomb. Some are sick of it not being talked about. Or, when it’s talked about, it’s done so broadly that they feel categorized rather than acknowledged. If their own rapes are addressed directly, it’s usually with pity — poor you, poor you. Sometimes, it’s good to confront something in all its absurdity. If you go to an AA meeting, 9 times out 10, everyone is sitting there joking around about how what train wrecks their lives are, or were. Humor brings levity. And it changes the game. The joke’s on you, me and all of us as we’re all ridiculous creatures in ridiculous situations. That’s the comedy in tragedy.

I also think rape jokes may help people realize that violence is rarely personal, even though it feels that way. The people I work with who have raped people are rarely raping the person they’re raping, if that makes sense. Their violence is about something bigger, more structural.

How’s that?
Listening to 45 minutes worth of rape jokes at a performance or reading 250 of them takes rape out of personal experience, out of individual context. Instead of being one rape, it’s so many rapes, in so many different contexts. In a way, all that repetition reveals the larger fabric of rape culture. Maybe it’s brutal to sit through them all but it allows you to see the patterns in what causes the violence, and the greater themes that are at the core of the problem.

That’s actually one of my favorite things about your book — it makes you question what you know about rape and the assumptions you have about the people involved.
Right. There’s this one joke — “The other day, a woman was walking ahead of me in the park. She started walking faster, so I started walking faster. She started running, so I started running. She started screaming, so I started screaming. Finally, I catch up to her and say, ‘What are we so scared of?’”

No one’s getting raped in this joke, but it makes you think about situations and assumptions. You can see the structure from both people’s perspectives. And it’s impossible to escape on either side.

Other jokes are based on real beliefs and statistics that are as disturbing as the jokes themselves: “Only 6 percent of all rape cases end in conviction. Anyone else like those odds?”

Okay, but where do you draw the line between a joke that makes fun of victims and one that makes fun of rape culture?
Well, I don’t. They’re the same thing. The way we handle rape victims is a joke. We blame it on them, and not the perpetrator. Or when we do blame it on the perpetrator, we avoid the cause of the crime, casting the offense as something like a personal criminal choice, like robbery, or personal cultural choice, like smoking in public. That’s why 99 percent of rape jokes are told from the perpetrator’s point of view — we give their voice more power. Why is this? What is trying to be said, and maybe needs to be heard, in the joke?

Although, there are some good jokes when the victim is the one calling the joke, so to speak.

Here’s one: “The first time I played football was like the first time I had sex — in the end I was bloody and bruised, but at least my dad came.”

Still, even in the standard rape joke, the perpetrator is always the butt of the gag. They’re funny because there’s something laughable about sexual desire and our attempts to control it. The perpetrator telling the joke is them confessing they don’t actually have control, and we get to laugh at them, and they laugh at themselves, for that.

In you the forward of your book, Slavoj Žižek writes that when it comes to rape, “every gesture of dignity and compassion is fake and the only thing that works is humor.” I’m starting to understand how rape jokes could be funny at this point, but why are they the key to approaching how rape is dealt with?
There’s an absurdity to violence; absurdity to our sexual desires. Which we often experience as violent, outside our capacity to choose or to choose wisely, safely. And we know it. Perhaps the most appropriate to handle them way is to point out their puniness, instead of their power. It’s a way to make scary things like violence, or the inability to control it, feel pathetic.

Rape is part of the world we live in. Part of engaging with this world is to think through these things and not just sit passively by and nod and then go out to dinner. Humor, like art, like philosophy, is a form of engagement.

Most of the people who can get away with talking about rape in the context of comedy, like Cameron Esposito or Hannah Gadsby, are victims themselves. Do you think only victims have the right to joke about these things?
At one point, I remember someone criticizing my performance, saying my subjectivity only went so far because I wasn’t willing to identify myself as a rape victim. And I said, “So you’re saying that you would feel better if you knew that I’d been raped?” Or, to put it another way, if you’re asking me whether I’ve been the victim of sexual violence, the only proper answer is “probably.”

I don’t know that I care about the “right to joke.” I respect what those comedians are doing — they’re changing the landscape of what stand-up comedy can encompass — but it’s not a good thing that women are only given the authority to speak about rape when it’s from a position of personal victimization. Why is it only satisfying to hear women talk about rape when they’re performing the role of — and actually embodying — the victim? Is that what makes them good women? That they’ve been properly, demonstrably, rendered authentic because they have been properly, demonstrably, victimized?

I’m not interested in performing the good woman; the kind, sympathetic woman or even the good angry woman. That is the woman’s structural position. If she’s a good woman, she’ll teach us the moral way and be an exemplar of better things. Other people can do that, and that’s great, but I’m happy to be the bad one.  

Why do we need a “bad” woman to talk about rape?
Well, why do you need a good one? That’s the interesting question. The call for a benevolent authority is no better or worse to me than following a bad authority. Trump may be the bad daddy and Obama the good daddy but why do we want a daddy so badly?

Why do you want a mommy to look up to or down on?

I think it’s just because rape is extremely traumatic and a lot victims deserve sensitivity and compassion. That doesn’t seem to be the role of your work, though. You seem to go at it with a crueler lens. You’re not holding anyone’s hand; you’re putting their hand in the fire.
It’s not my job to be gentle. Rape is so comically absurd, so driven by the irrational, which is always cruel, that it has to be addressed with the same level of absurdity. We have to make fun of things that are too big for the room. That’s how we cut them down to size. It’s like painting the abyss, or writing a poem about hell and the hereafter.

Does your work ever traumatize people people, though? Does anyone come up to you after the performance like, “Fuck you?”
Oh, sure. Somebody once said to me, “a rape joke is just like a rape.” Structurally yes, but in practice, it’s not. You can walk out of a joke. People can also get up and walk out of my performance — and do. I’m presenting these jokes as an artist in an art forum, so just like with any other piece of art, people can walk away from it whenever they want to. That’s fine.

Once I did another performance where I was presenting legal work I had done as a kind of poetry and somebody in the audience became very upset and had to leave. She was hysterical, and later confronted me, saying, “How do you feel about what you did to me?” I said, “I didn’t do anything to you. I presented some language during a performance that you opted into and you had a really strong emotional reaction to it.” That’s the whole point of art. It’s that we can have strong emotional reaction to something, and often something that goes beyond what’s being represented. Landscapes aren’t travel brochures, and paintings of rape — or performances of rape jokes — aren’t forensic evidence.

What about the people whose strong emotional reaction is PTSD or having to relive their trauma?
The book and the performance are both very obviously about rape — it’s right there in the name. I’m very transparent. So, I’m not presenting this to the general public, I’m performing to an audience who has some idea what they’re getting into.

Ignoring trauma doesn’t make it go away. Neither does insisting that it be only clinical. What I’m suggesting is that people, within the confines and comfort of art, confront the horror of rape and the psychology of the joke so we can find out what’s in it for us. Where’s the part of rape or sexual violence that gives us a little bit of pleasure as well as a lot of pain? We’re all in it together. We don’t know what’s going to happen and so as long as we can stay in this presence, this insufferable present that we’re all in, there is at least an opportunity, if not an invitation, to think about something slightly differently than you did when you walked in, or turned the page. I always say that after seeing the performance or reading the book, you’re not going to like it, but you may not not like it.

Why, though? What do you want people to walk away with after this self-examination?

I work in law. Law’s really functional. There’s always a result that you’re going for, a side you’re on. The thing I love about art is that it can be, and maybe should be, absolutely not functional. People can look at what you’ve made and go, “Oh, that’s ugly,” and walk away. Or they can start weeping when they look at it. Either way, they have that opportunity to look and reflect. And so, if at the end of a performance, all I’ve done is given people 45 minutes to think through the violence of desire, and how that gets played out in themselves and in the larger world, that’s enough. That’s a good day’s work.