Laughing about rape (not what you think)

Survivors of sexual violence can connect with one another in a way I still can’t fully understand – it is immediate and profound and permanent. The connection isn’t always on the surface, and isn’t always spoken out loud. It happens at a subconscious level.

There’s ‘talking about your experience’ – as in, sharing your story with another person – but then there is the magical experience of talking with another survivor. It’s like discussing a movie you’ve both seen – you don’t need to talk about the details of the plot, you refer generally to a scene like, “oh yeah, like that one part where you first said ‘I was raped’ out loud” and the other person says “oh I know, right?” And that’s all. You both just know. In Jodie Ortega’s TEDx talk “Breaking my silence — healing thrives in conversation” (which I often watch when I need to feel uplifted), she calls it ‘speaking our language’.

There is no pity. You’ve both survived, you know the other is okay (or is going to be okay). You can just let go, just be yourself. There’s no need to worry about how this impacting them, whether you are burdening them. And then you find yourselves laughing about it. Wait, WHAT? No, of course it is not funny. But being able to smirk and roll your eyes with someone over ignorant comments, completely disregarding any obligation to be sensitive or politically correct – that’s when you know you’re not alone. That’s taking back control over your experience.

I confess: I’ve made rape jokes. Am I ashamed of this? I don’t think so, not right now at least.

Once, I was talking with a friend about something many women have experienced: a man telling me to smile. It has happened to me many times, in this particular case a complete stranger told me to smile. I assume he was trying to chat me up, but he found himself in the middle of what some would call a ‘scene’ caused by yours truly which included a scathing response that made it very clear I found this insulting, condescending, and infuriating. All he got out of me that day was a less than polite suggestion for where to go. I shared the story with my friend and we started brainstorming what I should have said. Our would-have-been comebacks started out rather benign, but quickly escalated to a decision that next time, I’m going to say “you know, I would smile, but here’s the thing – I got raped today.” And we agreed, that would probably shut him up. Women everywhere would thank us for there being one less asshole out there who thought he had the right to command a woman to smile. Ironically, at that point we were both smiling.

Another time was in response to parodical list of ‘life hacks’ someone posted on Facebook. My favourite was #2: “How to determine if an egg is fresh: do you remember buying the eggs? If you don’t, they probably aren’t fresh.” But my second favourite was #8: “If you’re at a bar and need to leave your seat for a moment, always put a coaster over your drink. Having to lift up a coaster will definitely, without a doubt deter anyone who was planning to slip a roofie in your drink.” I had to laugh at this one because I do this. That’s right – the woman who was once raped after being given date rape drugs still occasionally leaves her drink and asks a friend to watch it. But I always put the coaster on top because if I know one thing it’s that you can’t always trust your friends. I’m laughing at myself right now as I type this. I commented on the post, something to the effect of ‘don’t diminish the value of the coaster – this is actually an effective way to avoid being raped by an idiot’. I know: it’s not that funny. Maybe it was more clever than that – I don’t know because I deleted it soon after for fear that I’d offend someone. But then, and now, I have to laugh at myself for this pointless behaviour. I’ll definitely keep doing it, and keep laughing at myself every time. Because what else am I going to do?

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler dared to make a joke about Cosby at the Golden Globes. Bold? Yes. Funny? I think so. Controversial? You know it. Some people criticized them for trivializing rape – but in fact Tina and Amy were doing the opposite. They were using humour to deal with something that doesn’t feel good to talk about seriously, and feels even worse to ignore. I cheered as enthusiastically as Lena Dunham did. At last, we were laughing at the rapist, not with him. Were they contributing to rape culture? No. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Are rape jokes okay? Not when they trivialize the issue. Bill Cosby telling a woman, “be careful drinking around me”…that’s not funny. But using humour to cope? Sometimes that’s all you can do. And I feel like I’ve earned the right.

Today, Project 97 posted an article in Chatelaine asking “Is there an algorithm for a funny rape joke?”. I’m going to say no, but I know it when I see it.

This brings me back to the importance of connecting with other survivors. I’m confessing to my own ‘rape joke’ in case you speak our language and wonder if you’re the only one who just wants to laugh about it sometimes because it’s all you can think to do.

Tonight, I had a wonderful conversation with a survivor, and there was a lot of laughing. It’s been a difficult week but I learned something very important: I need to reach out and ask for help with this Project. Seems simple, right? A Project focused on letting people know they’re not alone – sometimes I need to take my own advice. And I most certainly need someone to laugh with.



Lauren Reid is the founder of When You're, a three time survivor of rape who built this community to let other survivors of sexual violence know that they're not alone. When you're ready, I'll be here.



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