Sexual Assault Jokes are Nothing to Laugh About

A threat of sexual assault is written in a public square. Everybody laughs. Your immediate response to the juxtaposition of those two statements is probably “Where’s the joke?” but in a certain sense this same joke occurs all the time. It’s not always messages of sexual assault – it could just as easily be racist, homophobic, classist or other bigoted remarks – and it’s definitely not everyone who laughs. Usually there is a vocal group of people who feel most threatened by these remarks and stand up to say they don’t get the joke either. However, there is also usually a sizable group of people who protest that the remark was just a joke and it’s not necessary to be so serious about it. In this reenactment the powerful reveal their control of discourse by claiming what is and what is not a joke, while marginalized folk continue to be stereotyped as humorless.

If it is not apparent already, I am referring to the incident last weekend where, during Bev Scavvy, racist and sexually violent statements were written in front of Frary. After seeing them I was instantly reminded of Bev Scavvy from my first year, where homophobic remarks were written on Walker Wall immediately after it had been painted rainbow for Gaypril. Much of the discussion then, as I suspect it is now, was whether the act was a case of hateful vandalism or just a tasteless joke. I suppose the idea was that no matter how offensive or hurtful the words were, as long as they were intended as a joke it was impossible to force anyone to claim responsibility. Admirably, several participants of Bev Scavvy that year went back to repaint the wall, regardless of individual culpability. 

Yet since then I have seen the same issues occur again and again regarding the relation between humor, responsibility and systematic discrimination. Very broadly, let us say that there are two kinds of jokes. There are those that allow the powerful to glorify themselves and deprive others of their humanity. When the humorous aspect of a joke is just the very existence of the person/group being made fun of, then it highlights how different they are from “us” (whoever has the power to tell the joke) and thus funny enough to mock. The other way to make a joke is expressly from a place without power, to take the joke of the powerful and throw it right back at them. To “change the joke and slip the yoke” as African-American writer Ralph Ellison put it. A complex dialectic exists, then, between the joke of the powerful, whose effect derives from its attempt to explain the world as the powerful see it, and the joking of the oppressed, meant to subvert that very worldview. Obviously the world of humor is much more complicated in its details, but this dichotomy is true enough to fit several kinds of situations and comedy.

A joke is never just a joke, then. It is often a highly coded and contingent mode of communicating with others, both in the community of the joker and with others of different positions. Given this understanding it is possible to see that, despite all intentions, jokes can hurt, just as words hurt. Not just psychologically but always materially as well. It is impossible just to make a joke without invoking complex communal and personal histories for everyone involved. To dismiss something as a joke is never a justified excuse, but just another way of not listening to those without power. In all likelihood I have not done the complex work done on the politics of humor justice, but I hope this is sufficient to show why joking should not be taken as an excuse for any kind of violence.

Returning to this specific case, to make a joke about sexual assault is to threaten everyone’s physical safety. It is to create the kind of space where any kinds of violence, physical or verbal, become accepted as normal. It also invalidates the claims of survivors while silencing others. Beyond just Bev Scavvy and drinking culture there is a real problem at the Claremont Colleges when it comes to talking about and understanding systematic discrimination. Many people are actively resistant to discussing the contemporary problems of power relations in America and the world as manifested at the 5Cs. Perhaps this moment could serve as an opportunity for some self-reflection and change, but I doubt that will happen. Instead, more jokes will be made, and the cycle of violence will continue. Now that’s nothing to laugh about.

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