Several times a year the media reacts to a prominent comedian making a rape joke that trivializes the crime, or worse, blames the victim. Public defenses for such jokes range from “it’s just comedy” to “dark humor releases pain.” The latter may be a legitimate defense in certain cases when the joke critiques the power structure instead of the victim. Unfortunately, these stories rarely provoke a productive discussion around these issues.
But when a story turns the idea of a rape joke on its head and forces the listener to confront an otherwise hidden element that perpetuates rape culture, it is no longer just a joke but an act of social justice.
This sharp and moving monologue by comedic writer and performer Andrew Bailey is the kind of rape “joke” that affirms instead of belittles the experiences of survivors. By interweaving the concept of rape jokes, the brittle demands of masculinity, and the pain of being a survivor, Bailey asks the viewer to consider how humor actually functions when it speaks about trauma. Does it bring together survivors of the trauma and allow for cathartic recognition, or does it provide a cartoonish shield for passive bystanders to hide behind?
Bailey’s performance is particularly important in that it sheds light on why so many male survivors of sexual assault are unwilling, and many times unable, to come forward. In a traditional masculine culture it is not only a sign of weakness for a man to report being an assault victim, but considered an improbable crime because sexual activity – even if it’s an assault committed by a teacher against her 13-year-old student – raises the victim’s social stature.
When the media characterizes female-on-male violence as funny, it manages to dehumanize both women and men alike. It paints female anger as impotent by portraying men as the hapless recipients of irrational female rage. Much like slapstick, it’s supposed to be funny because women can’t actually harm men. This understanding of power as a simplified binary erases the intersectional considerations of class, race, sex, age, ability, and various other differentiators that can be leveraged in a given interaction to create sexual coercion.