Last summer, in an act that seems almost compulsory for female writers of my age, background, and professional stature, I published a memoir about all the stupid shit I used to do when I was a little bit younger than I am now.
My book distinguished itself from a crowded field by mostly taking place in various European countries, which meant that had I could accomplish shit far stupider than anything like I might have done at home. For example: I swallowed the loose cap of my back molar, which led to me going to a party with a bunch of Italian guys who claimed to be dental students, which led to me being tackled onto a mattress by two such “dental students,” one of whom wore a only a zebra print G-string and kept telling me that he loved me, until I managed break free and expose my oozing, infected gum, which I guess was a pretty major boner killer.
Disturbing underpants and creepy Doublemint-twin threesome action aside, it was the kind of sexual assault that is familiar to, oh, about 99% of females: guy(s) start hugging and kissing and grinding pelvis into without your consent; guy(s) continue hugging and kissing and pelvis-grinding several beats beyond the point that you have made it clear that you do not care for him to continue; guy(s) finally stops after you have shouted and physically shoved him away; humiliated, guy(s) either apologizes profusely or acts like a petulant dick.
In the Case of the Predatory Dentists, it was the former, thank God. While I remember being kind of pissed off while the hugging/kissing/grinding barrage was actually occurring, I don’t recall feeling threatened or afraid or overpowered. Maybe I was just lucky (although I refuse to subscribe to the notion that because I was PWF, or “partying while female” I should have been expecting something like this to happen) but in retrospect, the whole incident seemed pretty funny, what with the bad English and the infected molar and the insane male-stripper underpants.
It never occurred to me that anyone might see it differently, which I guess just goes to show you that even though I am older now and no longer flailing cluelessly through the seedier youth hostels of Northern Europe, I can still be really, really stupid.
Relatives reacted in horror. Interviewers expressed (or at least, feigned) shock that I didn’t seem to be suffering from severe emotional trauma from the encounter. Readers commented or emailed me to scold me for not experiencing my…um…experience with more gravity; one simply said: “I’m sorry, but I just don’t think rape jokes are funny.”
Never mind that I wasn’t actually raped, and really never mind that pretending to suffer as though I had been would be unspeakably demeaning to actual rape surivors: it got me thinking: Are rape jokes are ever funny? Is there a way to find humor, however black, in a specific experience without trivializing the pain of others? And if so, what purpose might it serve?
Take the flurry of handwringing over the sexual assault of the journalist Lara Logan in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution and the more recent case of Lynsey Addario, a war reporter for the Times who was recently abducted with three others in Libya, which has led to all matter of pearl-clutching over whether we should even allow our delicate female flowers into the big, bad, woman defiling Middle East.
Lynsey Addario (who, by the way, is a total badass) had this to say: “What happened to Lara was horrible, by all accounts. There’s no question. And when I was in Libya, I was groped by a dozen men. But why is that more horrible than what happened to Tyler or Steve or Anthony — being smashed on the back of the head with a rifle butt?”
The answer of course, is because we expect, and in some way, glamorize, that sort of thing happening to male war reporters. Men make jokes about other men being raped all the time (like in every movie remotely involving even the specter of jail) and nobody bats an eye, because nobody sees men as being irrevocably damaged -- that is to say, tainted by it.
I refuse to buy into this idea that rape is the Ultimate Bad Thing that can happen to a woman (worse than murder, or poverty, or in a lot of places, what comes after the rape -- i.e., her devaluation by society and often physical danger) because it a) gives too much power to some shithead, fuckhole rapist and b) perversely buys into the archaic, subconscious notion that a woman's sexual inviolability is her most priceless and irreplaceable asset.
And frankly, I find the fact that Republicans in the House are trying to legislate away the crime of rape except in instances when some (probably black, right?) stranger holds a gun to your head in a parking garage and you can show your health care provider a requisite number of bruises/lacerations to prove that it was really super bad and not just you drunkenly whimpering "no" in some frat house to be a far bigger and more offensive mockery of rape than me making comedy out of a weird foreign semi-sexual assault by dental students in Amsterdam one time.
Rape, as we know, is fundamentally about power, and as any bullied kid on the playground knows, nothing asserts control over a situation like being the one who’s able to make a joke out of it. Let me be clear -- I’m not suggesting a return to the Mad Men days, when being say, raped on the floor of your boss’s office by your fiancé was just a “bad date” and nothing that should interfere with your wedding plans. I’m saying prosecute the hell out of the motherfucker, and then laugh in his fucking face.
Rape is horrendous, but to make it The. Worst. Thing. that we can NEVER say an irreverent word about gives all the power to the rapists. Sometimes humor is the weapon we’ve got.