Here’s something funny: until recently I realized that I was more ashamed of my being a rape victim than I was of myself when I laughed at rape jokes. And that is something I’m pretty damned ashamed of.
I know; I know the official literature. It’s not my fault. It’s never the victim’s fault. Logically, objectively, I understand this and truly do believe the statement as I repeat it to others and myself. However, a couple of years past my rape, this is still a message I am doing my best to engrain. So I finally sat down and tried to understand why it is easier for me to laugh at “I called that Rape Advice Line earlier today. Unfortunately, it’s only for victims.” than it is to say the words “I was raped.” A couple reasons come to me.
I think in my delayed panic I found some flimsy sense of strength in not dwelling on my experience. In what I thought was my ability to say “screw it — this will only get to me if I allow it to,” I refused to acknowledge the truth of what had happened to me. By not acknowledging my rape, I thought I was in control of everything — my pain, my self-doubt, my shaken world that I could only just begin to put together again.
And oh, how wrong I was. I wasn’t in control at all, and I certainly was not serving as an emblem of any kind of strength. Rather than giving myself any sense of power, in my refusal to acknowledge the horror or my rape and our rape culture at large, I was in fact giving my rapist more power than he already had. Because in chuckling along as someone said, “If you have sex with a prostitute without her permission, is it rape… or shoplifting?” I was doing nothing but helping to make myself and women and men like myself the butt of the joke.
I know offensive jokes are part of humor. Schadenfreude, laugh at other’s pain, et cetera. Believe me, I have an arsenal of them myself. Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, gay, fat, yo mommas, dead babies, blonds, women in general…we have all taken turns serving as the punch line in off color humor. We all have different standards for when the line is being crossed or whether it can be pushed a little further for the sake of parody, and it is true that part of humor is negotiating when we’ve pushed our audiences too far. I would never belittle the harmful impact offensive jokes can have on any of the groups targeted in them, and I am not trying to claim that as survivors our tragedies are any more important than any of the other victims of oppression our culture so often makes light of. I don’t think it is anyone’s place to argue Who Has Suffered more. So, this being said, while I would never argue that rape survivors are more traumatized/more hurt/ have suffered more/ deserve more justice than any other victims of violence and oppression, I would like to point out a distinction that exists between rape survivors and other groups whose tragedies we belittle for the sake of humor.
The difference is that survivors of rape do not have a greater acknowledged population to join together with. This is fact dripping with irony, considering the sad universality of rape — victims are men, women, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, fat, skinny, gay, straight, short, tall, young, old, and any combination of the above. Yet this doesn’t seem to matter. For the most part we live with this part of ourselves in secret, stripped of any of the agency that had once accompanied our sexuality.
Considering the endless number of euphemisms we have for it, we are not a society that likes to talk about sex. Don’t get me wrong, we get off on alluding to it — stepping just around the edges of discussion, but direct acknowledgement of even consensual sex as a topic is enough to clear a room. And let me tell you, there is not much room for allusion to when it comes to rape. Rape is stark, it is violent, it is altering and it is isolating. And as much as you may be able to ignore it, to brush it under the rug, for the rape survivor it is unforgettable, and at times all encompassing. And yet so many of us stay silent.
The few of us who don’t hide, those amazingly brave ones who stand up and say This Happened TO ME — well they make you uncomfortable. And instead of sitting with that discomfort, considering why it exists at all, you deflect. This deflection often takes the form of questions. You ask, “Are you sure?” “What was she wearing?” “How close were they dancing?” “Could he have been confused?” “Was she drunk?” and my personal favorite, “You’re sure she has never lied ever before?” And then, maybe because we as a society haven’t completely lost any sense of human decency, you may begin to feel uncomfortable with your own questions. And so you laugh, maybe nervously. But you laugh, all the same.
Because the fact of the matter is that this is uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable that we are able to turn our backs, that your knee-jerk reaction to the subject of rape is suspicion. And you laugh because then maybe it will not seem so real — perhaps your guilt will dissipate and eventually if you laugh hard enough the person sitting in front of you will too begin to wonder if it happened at all, this tawdry dirty, awkward experience. She will wonder why she cannot bring herself to laugh too, and if it is even that big of a deal. Maybe she was confused. It all happened so fast. No one else was there. She will begin to question herself, to look for the holes in her own memory. Soon this doubt will get the best of her, and she will go quiet. And the cycle will continue.
Consider this: When you tell a rape joke, the only person laughing along with you is the rapist himself. We live in a culture where we applaud one another for the ability poke fun at ourselves — we often try to not take things too seriously. In general, considering the overwhelming amount of bad in the world, I am in support of this doctrine. It is exhausting to constantly take ourselves so seriously. That being said, perhaps this is one case where such a notion should not apply. I can appreciate that you are trying to be radical or controversial, that you are looking for shock value. And for the most part I agree, maybe we shouldn’t have to be so politically correct all the time.
But consider this possibility: I’m not laughing when you say, “9 out of 10 participants enjoy gang rape” because the enjoyment of such a quip serves as a reminder to me and thousands of women and men like me.
I am reminded of how my rapist laughed when he was finished with me.
It has taken years of reflection to stop belittling what happened to me, and it is still something that I work on every day. Maybe this means I dwell on the experience too much, but the fact of the matter is that once a rape occurs it is not something you can just escape from. And society’s suggestion, in the form of rape jokes, that victims should just ‘get over it’ only makes the experience all the more traumatizing As survivors, if we make fun of ourselves, it implies we had some sort of control over what happened to us. As supposed supporters of victims, these jokes rescue rapists from the weight of responsibility of their actions. And without this responsibility, without the understanding that it IS a big deal, what reason do they have to stop?
I would be lying if I were to claim I was not embarrassed when I now call people out when they make rape jokes, or when I am told to ‘lighten up’ because I refuse to laugh. But the most important thing is that I am refusing to laugh. This is a step in itself. Because this happened to me, this happened to thousands of others, and this is happening to someone right now. And if we as a society continue with this pattern, this cycle where we can’t stand to acknowledge, where we must belittle, we must make light of it, we will never give the power back to the people who need it most. The victims. Scratch that. Not the victims — the survivors.