How Rape Jokes Sound Inside Queer Bodies

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My new gal pal took me on a date to a dueling piano bar, which was a great idea. I love tacky shit and cover songs and cheap whiskey, and my GP knows this.

We were immediately enchanted by the place, Louie Louie’s in Deep Ellum. The two guys on the pianos were playing a country song I didn’t know, and then after some banter they launched into that one Eve 6 song. I was riding high with a whiskey Coke, my favorite denim vest, a gorgeous woman and all the audience participation I could handle.

dueling

Soon, in a trickle and then a gushing stream, the jokes started – a comment about roofies here, an innuendo about duct tape there. No one laughed, and the performers seemed miffed. “Tough crowd, I guess they don’t like rape jokes,” said Joey to Jeremy. I guess we didn’t.

We kept thinking they’d stop, you know? But then they launched into this very elaborate version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” where they wrote their own lyrics to make fun of different people in the crowd. They avoided our table for a while. My GP is a lesbian and I look like one, whatever that means, and I guess it’s hard for straight guys to make sex jokes about lesbians. But it was early, and there were only about a dozen guests, so Joey gestured to me and remarked about having screwed me, and I rolled my eyes good naturedly.

“And now it hurts when I pee.”

And I cracked a smile.

“But don’t worry, it was good for me. I guess probably not for you…”

And I winked and shook my head.

“That’s why they make roofies.”

Oh.

Jokes about raping dykes — to straighten us out, to control our bodies, or just for sport — have been around for as long as straight cis men have been raping us. Our heternormative culture hypersexualizes queer and trans women and gender-nonconforming people while stripping us of sexual agency and denying the legitimacy of our sexuality. This makes sexual violence against us seem semantically impossible, even though it’s rampant. Emily Waters, the research and education coordinator at the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, said there really aren’t numbers or resources that relate to sexual violence and harassment against queer and trans people, but anecdotally, we know it happens constantly. NCAVP does gather data and release reports about Intimate Partner Violence in LGBTQ and HIV+ populations and about hate violence against us.

2014-ipv-infogr

“The conversation that’s being had on a national level about sexual violence is very heteronormative,” Waters said. “Society is not talking about how sexual violence impacts LGBTQ people and the nuances in that, and that creates more invisibility for LGBTQ people.”

There at Louie Louie’s, I wanted to shrink into nothing. I just sat there and didn’t clap or laugh or react at all. GP wanted to say something to him, and my brain was screaming at me to leave, but instead we stayed for another hour, even through the next duo’s jokes about how women can’t drive. I nailed every word of “Want You To Want Me” by Cheap Trick from our table at the front, and the performers were very impressed. Our side of the room definitely won the loudness contest during “Living On A Prayer.”

I should have bolted. My feminist brain is mad at me for giving audience and energy to violent people. I stayed because I was having a good time, and I knew I could never go back there after that night. I wanted to make the most of it. I wanted to insist on my right to be somewhere that had already denied my safe welcome.

But that joke, that one-liner at my expense, kept pinging around my head. Inside queer bodies — my queer body — rape jokes sound like “Your choices are impotent,” sound like “You are an object,” sound like “You can be fixed,” sound like “You are a spectacle,” sound like “Shut the fuck up.”

I wonder what it would be like to live in a brain that thinks roofie jokes are funny, that can literally turn rape into a jingle. I wonder what it would be like to live in a body that isn’t afraid of the whole world.

This is not a specifically queer problem. The discussion about rape jokes came to a head in 2012, when Daniel Tosh said it would be funny if an audience member got gang raped. He weakly apologized while many industry leaders raced to his defense. Women comedians, like Lindy West, have been consistent and vocal about fighting back against a culture of misogyny in humor.

And although it’s not often spoken of, it is uniquely insidious when rape jokes are made at the expense of LGBTQ people: It’s one of many ways that our straight cisnormative culture asserts its dominance over our bodies, our stories and our sexualities. Bi women in particular face heightened risk of sexualized violence and harassment. Repeated reports, like this one from LGBT MAP, have shown bi women experience higher rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence than cis lesbians and straight women. Based on anecdotal data from bi victims, cis men see bi women’s sexuality as threatening and use violence to assert control. Waters said,

“Sexual violence humor minimizes the experience of sexual violence, and that, in combination with this hypersexualization of LGBTQ women and of bi women, especially, can often make survivors feel like ‘maybe what happened to me was my fault’ and also ‘maybe it’s not as bad as I thought it was’ because it’s being minimized by the greater culture.”

I sat in that bar as a bisexual woman holding hands with my butch girlfriend, who herself has survived incidents of sexual violence, while a guy with a microphone told a playful lie to a room full of strangers about fucking me without my consent. He didn’t know our stories, and from his piano bench he wouldn’t have cared to. If he had known that I read and write about the horrific violence against my community by day and process the trauma of that work in my journal by night, maybe he wouldn’t have said it. But I bet you he would have resented the implication that he shouldn’t.

So much of my personal universe is queer, and I’m pretty good at navigating the rest of the world with my bisexual genderqueer heart in ways that make me feel safe. I think most people are easily confused but basically good. Joey the piano player meant harm. He read the room, he read me, and instead of changing the subject, he dug in and made it personal. I guess that’s his schtick, and it’s a gruesome one. I could have told him that. I could have heckled or sent up a note disguised as a request or found him at the bar between sets.

But instead I’m writing about it on the internet. Maybe that makes me a coward.

In that moment, though, I couldn’t internalize what happened. I couldn’t respond with anything but mild disgust, because I couldn’t allow the threat to be realer than that. The crushing anxiety and fear came later that night, and the next day, and every day since. Where is the line between a joke and a threat? What if next time there’s not a piano in between me and the asshole who thinks it would be hilarious to rape the dyke when their girl isn’t around?

We don’t need data to know how constant and ugly this problem is. All we have to do is talk to each other and we’ll find that we and the people we love are having these experiences. I hope we find ways to talk louder, to talk so loud we drown out all the rape jokes until the people who make them take a hike, or maybe even come up with something funny to say.

Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a sometimes-heretical Presbyterian. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @audreywhitetx.

Adrian has written 141 articles for us.

55 Comments

  1. Ugh I’m sorry for this awful experience during a night out.
    Rape jokes are always awful, but especially when targetted at making fun of the victims it shows how little those who make the jokes (I’m 99.9% sure they’re all men) understand about rape and how deeply they’re buried in rape culture. How do you not get that in a room with X women inside, there is a pretty high statistical probability of at least one of them being a survivor ?

    I remember an intro to law I had to take in my first year of college. The teacher was all around awful (law professors in France, at least in my college, were known to be super conservative) and after pushing his views of abortion (claiming it’s an example of “authorised murder”) he used the example of self defense as another example of “authorised murder” (which again, i’m not sure that’s even true). Explaining that the self-defense act has to be an immediate response to the attack, he JOKED to us ladies that if we were ever raped, we better “seize the opportunity” if we wanted to “retaliate” in the middle of action because we wouldn’t be “legally allowed to” afterwards. I remember wanting to puke in the lecture hall, there must have been 400 students in there, 200 women. How many had been assaulted?

    (looking for an example on commerce, he also talked about “trading your daughter for 5 cammels”, WTF? I wish I had been strong enough back then to report his ass to the dean).

    It’s just violent enough that this is a thing that happens and that it happens so often and to so many people (most of whom are women), but the fact that some people THINK IT’S FUNNY ? I will never ever get it.

  2. I know I sort of live in a lefty feminist bubble, but I am also shocked and disgusted that someone who makes roofie jokes can actually get gigs… It just isn’t funny, at all. I’m so sorry you had that experience.

    • Yeah, spending so much time in the bubble can make the real world harder at times. It’s such a weird thing to navigate. How to we allow queer and feminist spaces to renew us without making is more vulnerable to the horrors of the rest of society? I don’t know the answer.

  3. Audrey, thank you for writing about your experience. This particular line really stuck out to me:

    “In that moment, though, I couldn’t internalize what happened. I couldn’t respond with anything but mild disgust, because I couldn’t allow the threat to be realer than that. The crushing anxiety and fear came later that night, and the next day, and every day since.”

    My reaction to being sexually assaulted felt a lot like that. I honestly just froze up. I thought as a good feminist, I would do more. I would somehow be louder about it. But in the face of that kind of violence, it’s actually a normal response. We always hear about fight-or-flight, but there is actually a third response to stressors and it’s freeze.

    Rape jokes are a violent reinforcement of heteropatriarchy that both isolates victims and reinforces a rapist’s understanding that his behavior is okay. I am so sorry that you and your gal pal had to deal with that. I also hope though that you don’t stay mad at yourself for your reaction because I think it is understandable in the face of that kind of insidious violence. And you writing about it and allowing other people to comment and talk about it is incredibly important work. So thank you.

    • You wrote what I was thinking better than I could!

      I thought the sames thing; that as a “good feminist”, I’d have the rebuke ready when I guy invaded my space at a bar. That I’d tell him where to get off when he obnoxiously rubbed up against me. But all I did was minimize and move away.

      Is it some unconscious reaction about feeling a threat and knowing that since you can’t win in a physical contest, the only thing to do is de-escalate?

      I was so angry later (safe at home), that I didn’t tell this jerk to leave me alone.
      And talking to guy friends in my life about it is tough. They can’t understand (I can’t either) the inability to act.

      What is really frustrating is that not speaking out lets guys like that think that what they’re doing is ok.
      It drives me crazy that I didn’t do anything.

  4. thank you so much for sharing this. as a queer transwoman who is a survivor and a comedian who’s talked about my own rape on stage I’ve struggled with this topic from so many different directions and I’ve felt sick to my stomach and scared or my life in situations where a malicious rape joke happens. too often queer and trans voices have been left out of this conversation and really the voices of anyone most effected by rape jokes and rape culture are made to sit on the side lines while it’s debated without us. again thank you for this because this conversations is too important.

  5. This is exactly how I feel about rape jokes in public by strangers – sure, I wish sometimes I could be louder and respond in a way that the comment deserves – but my capacity to believe that men who make rape jokes wouldn’t engage in the act of violence given the opportunity just doesn’t exist.

    • yes! Honestly that’s why I brought the piece here. I’d rather figure out how we can support each other as a community than put ourselves at risk trying to engage with people who don’t even see us as human.

  6. you are not a coward.
    you are not a coward.

    what you did – staying, trying to make the most of it – was an act of self-preservation, a radical gesture of space-taking as a queer person. or that’s how I see it from where I sit.

    you are not a coward. & I love you.

  7. Yes, all if this. Thank you for capturing how I feel when out at a public space and someone makes a rape joke. As soon as it’s said in disconnected and angry and floating in my own head. And it’s hard to come back but when I do I always STAY at the event. And then you said this: “I wanted to insist on my right to be somewhere that had already denied my safe welcome” YEP YES THANK YOU

  8. Oh my goodness. What a horrible person. What a horrible culture.

    Thanks for writing about this and processing out loud in this way. I would say I wish that the dude would read something like this, but somehow I have a feeling that it would never hit anything like home for him.

  9. “Our heternormative culture hypersexualizes queer and trans women and gender-nonconforming people while stripping us of sexual agency and denying the legitimacy of our sexuality. This makes sexual violence against us seem semantically impossible, even though it’s rampant.”

    I feel like I’ve needed to hear someone else say this for a long time, but didn’t realize it until I read your article. Thank. You.

  10. I was at a concert with a girl once when she began to Burn With The Fury. This guy in front of us was being very drunk, and throwing his beers when they weren’t quite empty, and acting like in the stands at a Lorde concert is the place where his mosh pit is gonna happen. So I offered her the rest of my beer to pour on him on our way out.

    This is not at all like that, there’s really no beer to offer here, but I hope one finds it’s way down his shirt anyway.

  11. Thank you for writing this, Audrey. Thank you for your words and your story and your feelings and everything.

    I aim to obtain a super-power level of iciness and icy staring when misogyny happens in conversations. I’m getting pretty good at it, and I have acquired an accompanying remarkably blunt style of calling dudes out in the fewest words possible.

    But in big public entertainment places, where as you so brilliantly stated, self-preservation and even your own right to be there is being challenged, and when perhaps the person on the other end of this has a microphone… it’s a helluva lot harder to find any course of action that allows me to feel big.

    And rape jokes. Rape jokes. I just… the paradox of that phrase. Rape is so unfunny, inherently without any humor at all, and then on top of that, the jokes are always extra stale because they’re so tired and overdone. And the staleness makes it even more depressing, more violent because it’s just a reminder of how much this happens… how much men have raced to defend their right to make others violently uncomfortable… I cannot express with strong enough language my loathing for the phenomenon of the rape joke.

  12. (I hope we find ways to talk louder, to talk so loud we drown out all the rape jokes until the people who make them take a hike, or maybe even come up with something funny to say.) Very well put.

    Regarding the question of “the line between a joke and a threat”….I’m interested if anyone has any thoughts on this article by the feminist writer and founder of Feministing.com http://www.thenation.com/article/anatomy-successful-rape-joke/

    My own feelings on it are mixed and I would preferred a different title. To put this awful matter gently, I thing there is a difference between “a joke about blank” whatever that unfunny topic blank is and “a blank joke.”

  13. Love you. Thank you for writing and sharing this.

    I had an experience today shortly after I read this.

    I got off work and was headed towards a pick-up futsal game. A person walks buy me, nods and says “whats up dude!”…thinking it was a youth I encountered at work, I say ‘hey! have a good one” And kept walking.

    10 seconds later, this person runs up to me asks “What are you doing tonight? Do you want to go pick up women with me?”

    I turn and size up this person. He appeared to be a young male professional wearing business attire under a hoodie.

    I say “No.”

    He says “is it because I am a straight white male and we are predators.”

    I pause, zero facial expression, look at him and say “Yes. Exactly it. So you should really keep moving.”

    And he turned around and walked off.

    So frustrating. Like whaaa?!

  14. A few years ago my sisters coworker would make jokes about roofies a lot

    She thought him simply ignorant, but not actually inclined to violence

    Then another coworker, our roommates boyfriend, said that this man and another would take girls to bars, get them drunk, and “you know, run the train on her”

    I said “wait, what?”

    My sister said, angrily, enunciation with hard consonants, “you mean date rape”

    Our roommate didn’t say anything

    The man, who before was trying to say how he didn’t like this coworker because of how he treated women, backed off

    “well, I don’t want to go around making accusations.. ”

    But my sister said “no, that’s date rape. You literally just described date rape”

    Roommate continued dating this man for some insane reason.

    Eye opening for sure

    You never know who is “just joking” and who actually acts on those ideas

  15. The complete lack of empathy and common decency that allows a person to joke about something as horrific as rape is something I’ll never understand. So sorry you had to deal with such an awful excuse for a human on what should have been a great night out.

  16. I’m sorry you had to experience that. You did what felt right at the moment, and that doesn’t make you a coward. That guy is a sad, insecure tool and an untalented comedian. It’s pathetic that has to sexually harass women to feel better about himself.

  17. I tried to ignore this essay but it wormed and wormed it’s way through my brain since it was first posted Friday and I finished reading it before a single comment was posted.

    The reasons it wormed became an essay of its own but in the process of writing I found my self summing it up. Summing it up as that moment where you be that “crazy bitch” or fake calm.
    Sometimes “making scene” is just a waste of your energy and sanity. You can’t be warrior every second and that does not make you a coward that makes you human.

    I have had plenty of moments where I have been the crazy bitch and plenty where I’ve held it in and faked calm. One moment where I could of gone with crazy and didn’t I still regret and (stupidly) feel shame for, but if I had gone with crazy I might of been incarcerated for. Or worse gotten away with it which would have most honestly been a miscarriage of justice.

    Don’t hold on to your choice with shame.

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  20. I am straight, white, cis-male, and I just … I can’t … I find it offensive on *so* many levels that someone would even TRY to make that joke, let alone actually do it in public. I’d be offended if it were made to me — it’s not a “queer” issue, it’s a *human* one. That idiot ought not be allowed to speak, and certainly you ought not think yourself a “coward” for not speaking up. You showed more class by your silence that he ever will by his speech. I know it may not matter, but since he never will *I* apologise for the joke.

    — Yes, I’m male, but please, don’t hold it against me; it wasn’t my fault. —

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