Though I doubt it was the first rape joke I heard, the first I remember was told by a stand-up comedian at a comedy show in 1988. He said the reason guys have female friends is because they’re just waiting until she gets drunk someday to get in her pants. The audience roared with laughter. I felt queasy but, at 21, didn’t recognize what that signal meant. I laughed too.
After the show, “Dave” the comedian came over to talk to me. Though I wasn’t attracted to him sexually or romantically, he seemed harmless and possibly fun to hang out with, so I agreed to meet him for drinks one evening in his nearby city. At some point during the evening out, he must have slipped me something because I fell unconscious and momentarily woke up to him raping me.
We live in a culture where there are enough people that believe it’s only natural for men to “take advantage” of women, so a joke about that is often considered funny. With that particular joke, Dave warned us exactly who he was – a potential rapist. A faint alarm bell went off inside me but I dismissed the wisdom of my body in deference to the louder messages of my culture, laughed along with the crowd, and the rest is history.
This assault, and the fact that I didn’t report or seek counseling for it, proved to be a defining experience for my ensuing decades, leading me into and out of several abusive relationships, and making my mission in life helping to end violence against women and girls and creating peace between the sexes. I wrote a book, made a film, became an activist and started speaking publicly. And I’m still learning.
Last year, an old college friend was in town and invited me with some of our old buddies to dinner at his friend’s restaurant. The owner, a high-profile sports businessman, joined us for the meal, sitting down next to me. For two hours, he ordered dish after dish and regaled us with name-dropping stories from his several decades of glory, never asking anyone a single question about themselves. When we were in the middle of our entrees, and male/female relations came up in the conversation, he exclaimed, “You know what the difference between rape and rapture is?” My stomach clenched. He paused, his eyes sparkling as we each looked up from our plates, and he held us in his grip. “Salesmanship.”
I froze as he roared with laughter. My mind raced over his words, my heart in my throat. I recognized this as a moment I should be acting like a leader in my field. A few others meekly tsk-tsk’ed him in a good-natured way or stared down at their food politely. No one else actually laughed. “No, it’s true!” he protested. “Think about it!”
I couldn’t think straight. My heart was pounding in my ears. I try not to speak up when I am upset like this because I know my “lizard brain” is in control and my rational, prefrontal cortex is off-line – I will regret it. But while I held my tongue, I berated myself for not speaking up. Did his social stature intimidate me? The fact that it was his restaurant? And he was footing the bill? That I didn’t want to embarrass my old college friend by making a scene? Would I have to split right then, mid-entrée, which I was enjoying? Or was I just ill-prepared to deal with this? I didn’t even know what I should say. Of all people, why didn't I know how to respond to this guy – swiftly, calmly and incisively?
I ate in silence while shame swept over me and dinner wound to a close. How could I call myself a women’s rights activist and allow such a comment to go unchallenged? I’m a fraud, I thought.
I spent a few weeks reflecting on how I’d failed to handle that situation in a way I respected and was actually useful to everyone at the table. I realized his joke was not only declaring that women are both gullible and in a perpetual state of victimhood in relationship to men, he was also asserting something far worse about men: they’re all rapists.
If my intent is to transform our culture, not just complain or cause more divisiveness, what do I say? I toiled with that and came up with this: What if I could have just matter-of-factly asked him, “Do you really think that poorly of men?” I’m not sure how he would’ve reacted, but by getting curious and holding a mirror up to him, at least he would have had an opportunity to reflect on another layer of himself I suspect lies well below what he’s used to having confronted. And the others at the table could have witnessed another possible response to such a joke that is neither combative, condoning nor acquiescing. It might have even sparked a generative conversation.
This introspection got me thinking about how important and rare it is that we talk about these sensitive subjects without anger or fear clouding the communication. So I decided to reach out to my rapist “Dave”, almost exactly 25 years after the event, and see how he was doing. If I could talk to him about rape, I could talk to anybody. I found him online and emailed him, asking what impact the rape had had on his life. I promised him I was no longer angry and wasn’t seeking revenge. Just healing, perhaps for us both. My expectations were low.
To my astonishment, Dave emailed me right back, thanking me for reaching out. He said he was slammed with work and would write a longer, more thoughtful reply in a few days. It never came. He probably realized it wasn’t worth the risk. I regret that, though it’s what I expected. Just sending him that message without any shred of rage left in my heart – just curiosity – was empowering enough.
Perhaps to test my newfound peace of mind, the universe sent me another rape joke a few months later. A male relative of mine in law enforcement emailed me a post on his social media account of a picture of an icy nature scene with text that read: “I think it’s time for Old Man Winter to Get Mother Nature drunk, and have a little fun making Spring…”
This time, I didn’t miss a beat. I emailed him: “While I don't think it was your intention, the message you’re conveying here condones non-consensual sex — sexual assault. As a women’s human rights activist, I participate in global campaigns to try to help people become more aware and sensitive to what constitutes rape and other forms of violence against both women and men. Using alcohol to coerce sex is against the law in most countries, not to mention it’s morally repugnant. I want a world where rape jokes are equally as unacceptable as rape because that will be a world that is much safer for women and girls. I hope you will take my words in the educational, loving spirit in which I am sharing them. Thanks for listening.”
He never responded, but finally I felt good about how I handled a rape joke. I held up a mirror to his view of sexual predation as “fun” and funny. I gave him straight feedback and shared my point of view and vision firmly yet compassionately. I wasn’t angry. It doesn’t need to be more complicated.
Since then, I’ve come to discover that not all rape jokes are inherently harmful – when cleverly designed, they could even offer helpful social commentary. But rape jokes are frequently sexist at their core, which appear to exacerbate sexist beliefs and actions in those who hear them. I want a better world than that, where we exalt and celebrate our gender differences and work together in partnership. I’m still learning how to do that myself, and today, I’m hopefully one step closer.
Amy Logan is President of the US National Committee for UN Women San Francisco Bay Area, a speaker on women’s global issues for the US State Department, and Founder & CEO of Gender Innovation. She was a cast member and consulting producer of “The Price of Honor” documentary and author of a novel about the origins of “honor killing”, The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and @AmyAuthor.