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September 16, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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No Laughing Matter

All survivors of sexual violence are entitled to their own experiences, responses and beliefs. This piece is our expression thereof.


Sexual violence is not often talked about as an issue in society, but jokes about rape are commonplace. When the stand-up scene regularly places rape as the punchline of jokes, you could be excused for underestimating how many people sexual violence affects—in New Zealand, one in three women and one in ten men have been subjected to it.* You will know (perhaps unwittingly) people who are survivors of sexual violence, and you will know people who have inflicted it on others. Jokes about sexual violence lead to the normalisation of ‘rape culture’, and have an adverse effect on survivors.

For E, rape jokes give her flashbacks of her rape. Hearing people laugh at one of the most traumatic things to happen in her life raises bile in her mouth; her gut reaction is to vomit. She feels objectified when people show that they are interested in her sexually. The idea of people finding her sexy repulses her much of the time.

For Jessica, both of the people who have sexually assaulted her laughed at her afterwards. When people joke about rape, she can remember distinctly the laughing faces of those men, and the shame she felt. Sometimes, when people make rape jokes, her post-traumatic stress disorder gets worse. After a comedy gig where some of the performers made rape jokes, she couldn’t sleep, and spent the next day unable to study or attend classes.

Rape culture is sometimes defined as anything we read or hear or see that perpetuates the existence of rape: rather than viewing rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as ‘just the way things are’.  Almost everyone understands that rape is horrific and would never consider themselves as perpetrators of rape culture, but laugh at rape jokes regardless.

Given that the most common reason for not reporting serious sexual assault at university was found, in one study, to be that the victim felt ashamed or embarrassed, it’s evident that a rape culture still exists. 43 per cent of survivors also thought they would be blamed for what had happened, and one in three thought they would not be believed. Another example of rape culture is that we are taught to not let ourselves be raped, rather than to not rape. Subsequently survivors can find themselves asking, “Was this my fault?”, to which the answer should always be “No”—but sometimes it’s hard for survivors to see that.

Rape culture distorts reality by victim-blaming and sexual objectification—one of E’s friends called her a “slut” when she told her what had happened, and another one said: “Well he probably didn’t realise that you meant it when you said no”.

Rape culture also perpetuates the myth that sexual violence happens far away, to other kinds of people in other places. Sexual violence happens in flats, at parties, in town and on campus. It also perpetuates the myth that rape only happens to cisgendered heterosexual females. At the Tauiwi and Bicultural Sexual Violence Prevention Hui earlier this month, a male speaker in his 50s explained how, as a teen, he had been raped by a woman. The first time he told anyone, their response was: “You lucky bugger.” Because men always want sex, right? And women, with their ‘feminine caring instincts’, could never rape. It’s counterproductive to assume that all men are rapists, all women victims, and ignore everyone who doesn’t fit these categories.

Sexual violence isn’t something only survivors need to face up to, just like homophobia can’t be dealt with solely by the LGBTQ community and poverty can’t be eradicated only by the poor. We can all do things to help keep each other safe from sexual violence and support people who have experienced it.

The perpetuation of rape culture through jokes that use rape as a punchline normalises rape and degrades the impact that rape can have on a survivor’s life, because the jokes turn something horrifying into something laughable. People have debated whether or not there can be such thing as a ‘good’ rape joke, which sheds light on just how stupid the assumptions of rapists and rape culture are. Comedian Louis C.K. managed: “I’m not condoning rape, obviously—you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” A good rape joke turns the rapist into the punchline rather than the victim. The problem is that the person making the joke can’t tell if there is a survivor in the audience, particularly given how pervasive sexual violence is and how little we talk about it; nor what effect the joke will have on the survivor. Bringing up something so awful, just for a cheap laugh for those who have not been subjected to sexual violence, isn’t fair to the blameless survivors who have endured it.

Rape jokes remind E of how dirty she felt, having spent hours sitting on the floor of the shower trying to scrub her skin clean, and how the man who raped her didn’t remember her name, but had the gall to call her “baby”. For Jessica, it’s hard to deal with the results of sexual abuse. It’s not hard for other people to refrain from making a joke that wasn’t funny in the first place. The bolstering of rape culture through rape jokes means that it’s harder for survivors to get the help that they should never have had to get in the first place, because the rape should never have occurred.


*According to a recent Te Tauiwi Prevention Project publication funded by the Ministry of Justice.

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