What To Say When Someone Jokes About Sexual Assault

by Lani Seelinger
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

This year, there's been a lot of talk about changing the culture: How do we teach powerful men not to sexually harass or assault the people they hold power over? How can we band together to stop sexual assault and harassment? How can we stop rape culture in its tracks? So-called "jokes" may seem like the most minor of issues related to rape culture — but the first thing we all need to learn is what to say when someone jokes about sexual assault.

These jokes have nothing to do with your sense of humor, and everything to do with normalizing the idea of sexual assault. When people make jokes about rape, about men overpowering women, even about women deserving it, and no one calls them out on it, it's a signal that the joke's acceptable.

Sure, a rape joke is a far cry from an actual incident of sexual violence, but think of the rape jokes as the foundation of the pyramid of rape culture. If you take away the foundation — if you create a situation where rape jokes are unacceptable, instead of a situation where victims feel forced to bite their tongues and bear it — then everything else will be a little bit less likely to take root and flourish.

You never know when you might be in a situation where someone makes a joke about assault, so you need to be ready. Here are a few ways to respond, so you can choose the one that you're the most comfortable with.

Appeal To The Joker's Empathy

Sexual assault is everywhere. So are its victims. Estimates say that one in four women and one in six men has been a victim of sexual assault, meaning that it's highly likely that someone within earshot of the joke might have just felt an icy jolt of memory upon hearing it. Even if you were never a victim yourself — especially if you've never been a victim yourself, because it'll be easier for you to speak out — if you're comfortable doing so, you can privately tell the "joker" that they mat be speaking within earshot of a victim.

It's not a matter of safe spaces and trigger warnings. It's inconsiderate and unkind to make a joke that could have such a potentially negative effect on someone listening. Maybe the joker don't know how pervasive rape is, and you can be the one to remind them.

Break The Joke Down

Everyone knows that a joke is never funny when you have to explain it. You can use this to your advantage when it comes to rape jokes by simply explaining the joke back to the person who made it.

"I'm sure you didn't mean it this way," you might say, "But you actually just made a joke about a woman being sexually assaulted. Your joke rests on the basis that it's funny for men to physically overpower women. That's a serious crime, and the repercussions of living through a sexual assault can last for the rest of a victim's life."

Turn It Back To The Man's Perspective

This is the best method of responding to a joke that implies that the only way men can get women to have sex with them is through assault. Not only do jokes like that dehumanize women and take away their agency, but they also imply that all men are rapists, or at least that all men have the capacity to become rapists if they want a girl enough.

In a situation like this, you could ask if the person making the joke really has such a low opinion of men. Do you really think that men have that little to offer? Is it really so difficult for them to understand the concept of consent?

You've got to be careful with this one, though, because you don't want to turn into the rape-joker yourself; avoid shooting back a joke that insinuates that maybe assault is the only option he's got.

Remind Them What Rape Does To People

The emotional consequences of rape are far-reaching and varied, and it's likely that the joker hasn't entirely thought them through. You can remind them that there's a very close link between rape and suicidal thoughts; scientific studies have proven that survivors of sexual assault are much more likely to attempt suicide than people who don't have that in their history.

It may be uncomfortable to talk about this, but that's also exactly how the culture needs to change. The person making the joke needs to feel like they've said something totally inappropriate, rather than a former victim feeling like they're having to relive the worst moment of their life.

Note How Telling Rape Jokes Can Be

This is especially relevant right now, as comedian Louis C.K. faces allegations of sexual misconduct after years of making jokes that referenced exactly what he's accused of having done. Don't call the joker a rapist; instead, you can point out cases like this or say something like, "I know you probably don't think that rape is OK, but making a joke about it implies that you do. Please be more considerate."

Just Use The Facts

The statistics surrounding rape and sexual assault are absolutely heart-wrenching. For example, another American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds on average — that's one you could throw out at the joker, simply noting the frequency of the crime that he or she is referring to.

You could also note that sexual assault causes the highest incidence of severe distress in its victims, more than any other violent crime. Memorize a few number that you can use in response, because that's also probably something that the joker hasn't considered.

Express Your Discomfort

This one's more personal, so if you only want to use it around people who you know well, that's okay. If you hear a joke that makes you uncomfortable, simply tell the joker that you feel uncomfortable and why the joke makes you feel uncomfortable. You might get a defensive reaction, but in a best case scenario, it could start a conversation that could be beneficial at least the joker, if not for both of you. If you're a victim of sexual assault, you are under absolutely no pressure to tell the joker that it makes you uncomfortable because of past experience if you don't want to. That responsibility is never on your shoulders.

Turn It Into A Discussion Topic

Instead of letting people just laugh — or look away uncomfortably — and then move on, point out that the joke contributes to rape culture and then start a discussion of how to crush that culture. If you can pull this off, then everyone might walk away with a few new tools in their arsenal that could help chip away at that culture.

Just Walk Away

In a better world than this one, we'd all feel empowered to speak up whenever we hear something inappropriate about sexual assault. But in this world, sometimes it's simply too hard, for whatever reason. If you really don't feel comfortable speaking up for whatever reason, don't beat yourself up. This is not your fault. In this case, the best thing that you can do is express your disapproval in another way — for example, simply by leaving the conversation. If at least one person in the conversation is someone you trust, perhaps you could tell them why you left afterwards. If you feel comfortable to even just say something like "I don't think rape jokes are funny," before walking away, then your leaving will act as an exclamation point to that sentiment. Silence is a big part of the problem when it comes to victims feeling silenced, but if you can make it clear that you're walking away because you don't want to be part of a conversation that normalizes sexual assault, then it can also be a part of the solution.

There's evidence of rape culture everywhere, from stupid sexual harassment jokes in movies to prominent comedians "making light" of sexual violence in the news. It's easy to look at this as an insurmountable problem, but it's really not. There's definitely a long way to go, but you can help push that process along by calling out sexual assault jokes when you see them.