In particular lately I’ve been thinking a lot about rape jokes. In real life no one actually thinks rape is fucking hilarious. If someone said at their office meeting on Monday ‘so I raped my girlfriend last night, har-de-har-har’, I guarantee no one would laugh, (unless you work in an office full of total rapist assholes).
A solid decade ago I went to a comedy show at Indigo (currently the empty venue formerly known as San Francisco Bath House). It was a great show. A comedian announced onstage to his girlfriend who was in the audience that he was going to rape her later. The joke tanked. From that point his act tanked. He was met with 40+ stony glares from the entire audience, he cut his act short and fled the stage. On the way out of the gig my friend and I discussed how proud we were of Wellington for not laughing. For not letting our instinct of sympathy for a fledgling performer override our sense of humanity.
So why have rape jokes become A Thing in Burlesque shows? I’ve been to at least two shows in the last year, with difference MCs, where a component of the MCs patter has been commentary along the lines of “Wasn’t that perfomer hot? She’s so hot I’m going to rape her later.” The first time people laughed. I didn’t. Neither did the woman next to me. I felt uncomfortable. The jokes were repeated. After the show I wondered why I didn’t heckle, or at least draw attention to the rape jokes. Some people left at half time. I didn’t. I've always thought of heckling as rude, there was an international performer and I wanted to see her and the other performers do their second acts. The performers were amazing – blow your mind awesome – but I wondered about how hard it would be to go on and perform after a MC has made a joke about raping you later. I thought about emailing the producer afterwards about the rape jokes. I didn’t.
The second time I saw a different MC telling rape jokes, I emailed the producer. I felt better, but I didn’t get any reply.
As recently as November the Roastbusters story broke, which threw a spotlight, albeit a dirty and thoroughly rhinestone-free spotlight, on rape culture and how we discuss rape and the nature of consent in New Zealand. As it turns out, we are shit at it. Ten years on from rape jokes being met with an uncondoning and icy wall of silence in a dive bar, two mainstream media presenters on Radiolive victim blamed and slut shamed a young woman who rang in to share her experience of the reviled members of the ‘Roastbusters’ group. Rape: thoroughly trivialized. The older male ‘journalists’ implied that the thirteen year old girls who were raped by these boys were sluts and were asking for it.
One in three women in New Zealand will be physically or sexually abused by a partner in their lifetime. Around 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys in New Zealand have experienced sexual abuse. That’s one in 4 girls in your audience and one in 10 boys. That percentage of your audience at least will be finding your rape jokes far less than hilarious.
This is why rape jokes bother me. A burlesque performer gets undressed on stage, a MC jokes he’s going to rape her.
Just because you don’t use the ‘R’ word doesn’t mean what you are describing isn’t rape. Saying that you’ll tie someone up and force them to have sex with you is describing rape. Yes that is rape, even if it’s your partner you are talking about. Especially if it’s your partner you are taking about. Most rape and sexual abuse in New Zealand is committed by someone the victim is in a relationship with. Even if you’ve oked the ‘joke’ with the performer first – the audience doesn’t know that – they aren’t privy. All they are getting from it is that rape is supposed to be funny, and a reinforcement of rape culture.
As a performer and an audience member, one of the reasons I perform burlesque, and why I go to shows, is because I enjoy seeing women (and men) perform with sexual agency. It’s exhilarating to see someone who thoroughly inhabits their own body, is aware and comfortable in front of an audience, is in command of their sexuality and able to use it in a way that both pleases them and entertains an audience. The best performers to me are those who are obviously having a blast and are truly engaging with their audience in a free and reciprocal exchange. Yes, we live in a culture that sexualizes and objectifies young women and burlesque is a performance style that intersects and plays with notions of sexuality, gender and objectification. This is why it’s a delicate balance and why burlesque is so interesting and so exhilarating to watch. Rape jokes shit all over this dynamic and take away your power as a performer and your humanity as a human being. At best, they are trite, at worst there’s a rapist in the audience (whether he considers himself one or not) who takes the nervous laughter as encouragement. Let's all not laugh next time. I want to be proud of burlesque audiences and the burlesque scene here in New Zealand. The audience takes it’s behavioral cues from MCs, please don’t let those cues be that it’s ok to rape.