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Rape jokes: not funny now, not funny ever

Sexual assault is no easy topic of discussion, let alone a joke. So why is rape such a popular punchline? Is there a way for it to be respectfully incorporated into a stand-up routine? Are “rape jokes” something that comics should be allowed to make? These are some of the issues that Cameron Esposito tackles in her stand-up special “Rape Joke” from 2018.

There are many vessels for expression that help survivors deal with their experiences, but Esposito takes on a pretty blunt approach. Throughout her special, she shares her own experience as a survivor against other topics of female sexuality, lesbianism and her own conservative, Catholic upbringing.

Why make rape jokes at all? “They are just a part of our culture,” says Esposito, but is that a justifiable excuse? She explains that modern society has belittled the voices of survivors, making conventional discussion very one-sided towards the perpetrators. Why not actually discuss the lack of consent, the fear and the actual elements of rape when making a rape joke?

Well, of course, then it is suddenly not funny. Rape culture feeds off toxic masculinity and the inability to properly talk about sex and consent, says Esposito.

Growing up, no one ever explained any of these vital topics to her, a byproduct of her extreme Catholic upbringing that ultimately led her to confuse assault with normalcy. However, as Esposito explored her sexuality as well as the limits and extents of consent in her world, the complete disregard for her own survivor experience remained ignored as ever.

Esposito’s comedy special is unique in its ability to balance both raw and lived experience with humor, without letting one spoil the other. This particular screening in the UMBC Sports Zone was put on by the Women’s Center and We Believe You to kick off Sexual Assault Awareness Month this April.

Given the growing amount of discussion on sexual assault on campus and survivorship, April will be an important month for UMBC. As the Women’s Center works to raise awareness on resources and consent, Esposito’s “Rape Joke” serves as the perfect jumping-off point in the mission for creating meaningful change.

A facilitated discussion followed the screening in the Sports Zone as audience members discussed what stood out, what Esposito did well in discussing such sensitive topics, and the important takeaways regarding survivorship, rape culture and bystander intervention.

Esposito told one particularly powerful story about her coworker who stood between her and her attacker, who was calling her names and rushing towards her. Her coworker’s simple act of kindness and compassion made a huge difference in her life, leaving her eternally grateful to the bystander’s intervention.

That’s the most important thing you can do, she reiterated near the end of the special. Calling yourself an ally is one thing, but believing survivors’ stories and simply putting oneself between a victim and a threat can truly change lives.

It’s time to eliminate rape culture and rape jokes from everyday discourse. As UMBC passes through April, raising sexual assault awareness will definitely extend further than just one month. This campus has learned a lot, but still has a long way to go.

“I believe culture evolves, and language evolves,” says Esposito. “I believe that’s often a person who’s speaking from a position of enormous privilege that doesn’t usually have to worry about their evolution because they’re on top and people will just put up with whatever they’re doing. But as a comic, No. 1, I want to work with kindness.”