Why These Survivors Of Sexual Assault Are Telling 'Rape Jokes' On Stage

"When all these comics have these stories ... why shouldn't we be finding a way to laugh about this together?"

It's likely you, or someone you know, has been a survivor of sexual assault. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) , one in five women will be raped in their lifetime. Many find it difficult to ever speak about their experience, much less joke about it. That's their right. But for those who choose to share their story, they deserve to have a platform where they can tell it on their own terms. 

And for 13 New York comics who have survived sexual assault, those terms include reclaiming the 'rape joke' on stage. 

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"The first time I heard a comic talking about her assault on stage was probably in the last six months, some time after the #MeToo [Movement] ... it felt kind of like this epiphany," Kelly Bachman, a New York-based filmmaker, told A Plus via phone. "It felt like such a cathartic experience to me that I wanted to explore it further." 

While she'd laughed and shared stories with friends "behind closed doors," as too many women have, seeing it onstage was unique and empowering. "I found it so refreshing in the midst of a lot of kind of bad rape jokes I was hearing on the #MeToo Movement that I found myself searching, almost desperately, to find a show in New York specifically for this genre of joke that I was starting to hear peppered into women's sets," she explained. "I couldn't find it anywhere." 

Figuring "If you joke about it, they will come," she set out to create her own — Rape Jokes: By Survivors.  At 7 p.m. on April 28 at Caveat in New York City, over a dozen comics will take the stage to tell jokes about their own experiences with sexual assault — on their own terms. In addition to the live show, Bachman plans to create a documentary film combining footage from the comedians' sets with individual interviews about the joke development and healing process. 

"... In my life, every woman I know has a #MeToo story, or knows someone who does, and when you're talking to women in comedy, you feel like, 'Who doesn't have a #MeToo story?'" Bachman said. "...When all these comics have these stories, I wonder why these stories should be taboo because why shouldn't we be finding a way to laugh about this together?" 

The answer is one these women know all too well. Up until very recently, men in comedy have controlled the mic, influencing how the public perceives not only rape jokes, but rape culture, often contributing to the latter. 

Making a joke about one’s own sexual assault, however, is still a relatively rare occurrence on the comedy scene.

During comic Rosa Escandón's first year in comedy, she heard "hundreds" of rape jokes that ranged from being simply "dated" or "hacky" to downright "hurtful" and "upsetting" to a survivor like herself. While Escandón believes any comic can make any kind of joke about any subject, hearing variation after variation of the same lackluster rape joke inspired her to spend all of April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, performing sets of only rape jokes about her own sexual assault.  "... I wanted to see if I could take something that used to really scare me about comedy and make it something that I liked," she said. " ... It was something that I wanted to do just to see if I could reclaim that." 

She continues that reclamation by taking part in Bachman's Rape Jokes: By Survivors show, as well as through her darkly comedic web series Assault and Other Stagesa fictionalized account of her own sexual assault. "The crazy thing about making something about your experiences is that you not only have to revisit something about yourself, but you have to confirm something about yourself over and over again and I think when it comes to saying, 'This happened to me,' it's easy to say it once and never talk about it again," Escandón explained. "The scary, and I think, the hard thing for women who want to make art or make comedy or make anything about their assault is it becomes something that you don't just say once. You say it hundreds of times, and people watch it hundreds of times." 

Though that may be painful, she and her fellow comics do it because, as Escandón explains, they hope it will make it "a little bit easier for someone else to have that one moment where they get to say it."

Brittany Brave, another comic and sexual assault survivor who will perform in Rape Jokes: By Survivors, agrees. "Your abuser can take a lot from you, but what you create in the wake of their behavior is your decision," she told A Plus via email. That is the ethos that fuels the comedy show. 

As Bachman began the early planning stages, she asked a friend in the comedy community if they knew anyone who might want to participate in it. Within just a few days, she went from having one name to 40. "I was impressed with how fast I had a list of names, but I was not surprised by how long the list of names was," she said, likening the experience to the first day #MeToo. 

"These are the women who are qualified to make that joke. We've all heard from a lot of male comics, mostly male comics, chiming in on this topic, and a lot of it is sugarcoating the perpetrators and kind of diminishing the reaction of the victims," Bachman said, noting how Louis C.K.'s sexual misconduct hindered his victims and their comedic careers has been trivialized by the media and other male comedians.

According to Bachman, the comedy scene is "a dangerous environment for sexual harassment," as female comics often find themselves in male-dominated spaces late at night. Because women are often underestimated in the comedy industry, they're forced to take advantage of every networking opportunity, no matter how uncomfortable. That makes for many "environments where someone at the beginning of their career is gonna be in a room alone with someone at the top of the career," Bachman explained. 

Louis C.K. is just the renowned tip of a larger, more insidious iceberg. "Being a survivor of assault… automatically sets you back in your career, no matter what your career is. It's automatically an obstacle that you're constantly recovering [from] and, for people who are assaulted in their industry, it sets them back even more," Bachman continued. "... It adds this whole other layer of trying to be successful and so, the point of this project is to really shine a spotlight on these comics who are telling funny, bold, and empowering stories about their own experiences with assault." 

"I think, right now, we need to be giving those women the mic and giving them the platform."

Brittany Brave  Photo Credit: Brian Friedman 

Brave considers telling rape jokes "a win-win" because it allows her to minimize and maximize the issue simultaneously — shrinking her pain while doing her part to further the discussion and work toward a solution.

"This show is progress. The fact that we can even create something this visceral and vulnerable shows how far women and culture have come," she said. "It's a reflection of each individual comedian's progress in healing and rebuilding their sense of agency and a way to progress the issue in the world at-large. There was a time every one of these comedians were terrified to tell even the people closest to us that this had happened, and now we're comfortable enough to get on stage and share these stories ... It speaks to our resilience and reminds everyone of the importance of comedy."  

Bachman chose to create a documentary film about the show and its place in the overall New York comedy community to chronicle just how each comic's joke development process has aided in the healing process. "There are different stages of ready represented in this show," she said. While some comics have been telling a full set of rape jokes for years, others have just started developing this joke over the last year as they've started to feel more comfortable sharing their sexual assault story after seeing others — in comedy and, well, everywhere — come forward with theirs. 

"It’s different for everybody, but for me personally, I’m granted the opportunity to talk about things that are NOW equally traumatic and formative to me and do it in a setting where I feel unstoppable, powerful, and uplifted."

Courtesy of Kelly Bachman

And that's why they're telling rape jokes: for every woman — and man — who can't.

"More than anything, I'm making the show because I hope survivors will come ... It's such a cathartic and powerful experience to hear these jokes because it's people who've decided not to feel ashamed, not to make this a secret, not to bury it inside," Bachman said. "And people are totally allowed to do that. No one owes it to anyone to tell their story. It's very much up to the survivor how they want to tell their story or never tell their story, but these women have decided to tell their stories. And I think the way they have is so powerful for another survivor to listen to." 

That said, she believes the show and its forthcoming documentary offers "a new perspective on what it means to be a survivor" to those who have never experienced sexual assault. "So often survivors are just statistics; they're just, 'Oh that poor thing.' People don't understand the dynamic nature of the story because they're so often not hearing the narrative from the survivor," Bachman explained. "... Comedy is such a bridge to empathy, and it's the way a lot of people are able to relate to topics and to people that they wouldn't normally relate to ... so I hope people are able to laugh and listen and learn something about the perspective of another person who's been through this."  

Those interested in seeing Rape Jokes: By Survivors, featuring Brittany Brave, Rosa Escandón, Wendi Starling, Adrienne Truscott, Jasmine Pierce, Irene Fagan Merrow, Rebecca O'Neal, Arti Gollapudi, Vanetta Schoefield, Maggie Widdoes, Chloe McGovern, Marla Moon, and Pauline Murphy, can buy tickets here. Those interested in its accompanying documentary film can learn more here

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