This will be a difficult post not because of the rape topic, but because I am unusually unsure what I need to say. (Need to say? Want to say? Does a distinction exist at the moment? Of that, I am also not sure.)
What I do know is, a couple months ago, a particular comedian reprimanded a heckler via a rape joke, another comedian I respect defended him, Lindy West wrote the definitive response, and all of the above became a topic of discussion on our local airwaves.
My reaction to the initial lashing out was a weary, “Yeah, that’s pretty messed up.” West’s piece provoked appreciation – she not only gets it, but can spell it out better than any other. But listening to men I know theorize about rape and rape jokes troubled me despite the fact that they were extremely cautious and thoughtful in their conversation, even to the point of being self-aware enough to seriously reflect on whether or not men can “legitimately” weigh in on issues regarding rape. So why I was still so bothered was hard to define.
I thought about sending an email back then, something like, “Hey, guys, you’re right – when you’re talking about rape, it’s not some abstract thing. It’s a physical and emotional reality that a significant percentage of the women listening to your show right now have likely experienced. You, on the other hand, probably aren’t going to be raped. And because you’re not a woman, you’re spared internalizing this culture that’s so fucked-up regarding women and sex and power. It’s all such a fact of life for women in a way that men, even the best, kindest, smartest, most empathetic men, probably can’t understand. So when a couple guys sit back discussing rape strictly as a concept, it’s – ” This is where I faltered, again unable to quite explain.
So I gave up and moved on.
But now, with an elected representative’s inane, appalling remarks on rape making headlines, this sense of being troubled by the resultant discussion has returned. Several male friends of mine have taken to joking about it – which I understand, because what this man said is so ridiculous that it begs to be mocked. I’m appreciative my friends agree. I laugh, rejoin. But there’s still that thing, that uncomfortable awareness that the guys – my friends, the ones exhibiting actual intelligence, who get that women are people and rape is wrong – still don’t quite get how concrete and common rape is.
I don’t think my friends even consider when they’re cracking jokes that underneath the subject of powerful people saying stupid things is is an actual thing that has happened to me – and to plenty of other women.
See, if the topic of rape conjures up that time that guy pinned you down and forced his penis between your legs and into your body, hurting you, horrifying you, then what you say about rape is colored with that knowledge. If a guy throwing out a rape joke as an attack reminds you of your dear friend who found herself explaining to the police that yes, she was drunk and they respond that there’s no point in filing charges then, and this happened to your friend not all that long ago, in modern times, when you thought we’d advanced beyond the blaming-the-victim bullshit that is almost entirely limited to women who have been sexually assaulted, well, the debate over whether or not rape jokes are “okay” gets more personal. When politicians talk about “legitimate” rape, they are talking about women being raped, not men. Men might be offended, disgusted, moved to protest, but they are not the ones most likely to suffer firsthand.
So we have this world in which men do the raping, almost exclusively; men make the laws defining a woman’s rights over her own body, almost exclusively; we’re only talking about all this raping due to men saying some stupid things; and now the people owning the conversation, right on as they may be, are men.
But the men in my world are smart, kind, thoughtful, empathetic guys! (I’m so concerned they’ll be offended by all this.) They try to make sense of complex issues. They joke about less evolved mindsets in solidarity. Sometimes this means they bring up rape or rape jokes or make their own jokes about dumb things people say regarding rape. This is not wrong. It’s not wrong, not wrong, not wrong. Please, good men, speak up! Please, let’s talk about the plague of ignorance that continues to infect our political decision-makers. Please, let’s keep a sense of humor and continue to explore life’s big issues, even awkwardly. (Please continue to treat me like a person who can take a joke – how unfair is it that women have to worry about that, too?)
I guess, what I’m trying to say, what I need to say, is in all this talking and joking and exploring, the people you’re talking to and joking with about rape likely have personal knowledge about the topic at hand. And if you – guys – incorporate that into your thinking from the beginning, maybe you’ll wonder what the more experienced people, the people most intimate with rape as a thing that could happen, has happened, what they think about rape and rape jokes and rape politics. Maybe you’ll ask them instead of telling them.
Maybe if you do, I’ll crack wise first and make you laugh. Or I could say something enlightening that you’ll ponder over and later share.
I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just shrug, at a loss for words and weary of trying to explain.