It’s never just a joke


CN: rape jokes, mentions of rape.

I remember, the first time it happened, I was already out of breath. I was late for my 10am, wrestling with the Classics faculty’s faulty bod card reader, so grateful to the people who eventually let me in that I only just caught the end of their conversation, but then pausing, frozen, when I heard it. I didn’t really think it counted as a joke. It wasn’t really very funny. It felt so small, so insignificant a set of words to have made my stomach lurch like that, to render me even quieter than I usually was in Beginners’ Latin.

In my head, I had quite firmly made the assumption that nobody thought it was okay to make rape jokes any more. I was lucky enough to attend a relatively forward-thinking all-girls sixth form, where it was wordlessly accepted that joking about sexual violence was offensive. And when I arrived at Oxford everyone in my year at college seemed to understand why we had a mandatory talk on consent during Freshers’ Week. Sexual assault of course had not stopped being a massive problem at universities and elsewhere, but I thought, rather naively, that we had made enough progress by this point for people to have stopped actively laughing at it. Humour must have moved past that, right?

So, all through class that morning I kept persuading myself I’d imagined it, trying to think of other, similar words that I could have simply misunderstood, anything more innocent, less oddly threatening than “That essay fucking raped me”. But I couldn’t think of anything. The casual violence of those words stuck with me all day.

That wasn’t the last time it happened, and it wasn’t the worst time either. The worst ones were the jokes made at drinking events or societies or small gatherings in someone’s bedroom, the ones where I knew the person making the joke and became hyper-aware of my own response. Nervous and eager to make friends, I remember awkwardly laughing, praying silently for the conversation to move on, and then inwardly unclenching as soon as it did; wanting so badly to say something, but not wanting to pigeonhole myself as the girl who had experience with assault, and knowing that if I did, we might be here all night.

Because, when someone jokes about sexual assault, they are doing far more than they know. We live in a culture where survivors are met with questions about how drunk they were, why they didn’t fight back, or even what underwear they had on at the time. Where those speaking out have to fight even to be heard, let alone taken seriously. Where only a fraction of rapes are reported, and only 1.7% of those reported result in a prosecution. Our society inherently, institutionally makes light of sexual assault. And so, every joke, every supposedly humorous comment, indirectly contributes to a system which protects rapists and silences survivors – in two words, rape culture. It transcends that moment in conversation, a drop in an ocean where perpetrators are so often allowed to float, and survivors are so often left to drown.

What’s more, we often don’t realise just how many people sexual assault has affected. Often people assume no-one in the room with them hearing the joke is going to be hurt by it, and that makes it okay; that no-one in the room could possibly have actually been raped, because rape is something that rarely happens, and when it does, it happens in dark alleyways, late at night, in other places, to other people.

But, according to some estimates, as many as 40% of UK students have experienced sexual violence; others believe that among women, the figure is more like 70%. When someone jokes about rape, it is actually very likely that someone else in the room with them is a survivor, and that their words could trigger some deeply traumatic memories. Not only are they spontaneously bringing up a subject that survivors often find incredibly difficult to think about, they are using that subject in a light-hearted attempt to elicit laughter. At best, they are ignoring survivors’ trauma; at worst, they are belittling it.

Personally, when it’s happened to me, I’ve always felt put in a very awkward and difficult position – as upset as I might be, I often don’t want to leave the room in case people work out why, or ask me later if I’d been ‘offended’. If I was as brave as I’d like to be, I’d call it out whenever it happened, but most often the risk of being met with an uncomfortable silence and a muttered apology puts me off.

And even if there isn’t a survivor of sexual assault around to hear the joke, it still sends the subconscious message that rape is excusable. Societally, we cannot tackle this problem, hold perpetrators to account, and support survivors if we simultaneously continue to undermine it through disbelief, questions about clothing, and yes, our sense of humour. We need to destabilise the rape culture we have created; we need to interrogate our attitude to consent, and if we find something funny, we have to ask ourselves why.

Artwork by Malaika Jalali.