BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
A man and woman are in a room. A man and a woman are in a room without their clothes on. A man and a woman are naked in a room and they are kissing in a bed. A man and a woman and a room are one. The man wants to have sex; the woman says her pill won’t work because she’s on antibiotics, doesn’t think it’ll be a good idea. He says OK. She thinks everything is OK. They’ve known each other for a month. While they walk Brooklyn’s streets, he holds her hand—momentarily cradles her head on his shoulder while riding the F.
He inserts himself. Not into a conversation but into her vagina with a cocked gun. She freezes—when she says she isn’t ready, when she says no, he continues on like she isn’t there. Her vagina isn’t actually part of her, but merely a hole in space. She pushes him—he slaps the side of her face—her left ear starts ringing until she can’t hear. She can’t hear anything for about three minutes. She wonders if she will go deaf. She wonders if the ringing is a telephone. He calls her a bad girl. She waits until it’s over. He puts his hands around her throat. She can’t breathe. Her ear is buzzing with flies. Her breath is a timed pulse, growing louder inside her body. She waits until it’s over.
Later, he walks the dog he’s pet-sitting. It’s raining sharp like splinters. She’s walking alongside him, debating whether or not to run. He yanks the dog’s leash hard—the dog whimpers. The man says, don’t think that I abuse animals. Please don’t ever tell anyone this. I don’t abuse animals. She feels like a wet dog. The wet dog feels like a wet dog. She follows the man back to his apartment. They fall asleep together. She lays on her side, stares into black.
A few weeks before, she is asleep. She is asleep and wakes up to a body. The body is a man’s. The man’s body is on top of her. He is thrusting his penis into her and she doesn’t know what to do. He says I love you. She is a silent pulse. If she tells him to stop, she’ll hurt him. She is tired—maybe she doesn’t like it because she’s just tired. He finishes, rolls onto his side, and says you liked that right? Was that okay? I hope I didn’t just rape you…She turns on her side, doesn’t say a word, and pretends not to hear.
Somewhere else, a comedian tells a joke onstage. He talks about how if it weren’t for men pushing their cocks into a pussy, then the human race would die out. The audience laughs. A female comedian talks about how other people told her no one would ever want to rape her, because she’s fat. In articles and comments on the internet, people argue whether a rape joke can be funny.
In a quiet bedroom in another part of the country, someone didn’t say no. Or maybe no was said halfway through sex. Maybe that’s rape. Maybe it isn’t. It’s time the grey areas are acknowledged. Instead of censoring a discussion with the “it is or isn’t” mentality, let’s talk about trauma. Regardless of what label is used to describe an assault, it is crucial to start a dialogue. Learning how to say no, learning we don’t owe anyone our bodies cannot be fully taught if popular media still portrays getting drunk, wearing revealing outfits, or having any sexual contact are reasons to imply someone has the right to sex with you. Learning that yes means yes is what matters.
Any word formation can come out of a person’s mouth. Words don’t have to be ethical or “right” or moral, especially given the First Amendment. There are too many debates about what is actually funny, rather than focusing on the real issue: Why rape? Why are we, as a society, obsessed with making rape comical, making rape less scary? Instead of asking, can rape jokes be funny, let’s ask, do we understand what rape actually is? Unless we, as a society, understand what rape means, it is impossible to make a joke relevant if the context is muddled. It’s like listening to a man at a bar talk about how the color green is hilarious to a blind person.
A joke is funniest when the audience understands the context and socio-political commentary imbedded between the lines. Can rape jokes be funny? Maybe, if there is a properly argued commentary on what rape actually is—however, most mainstream culture does not try to understand rape. If a politician is able to say pregnancy cannot occur in a ‘legitimate rape’ or if Serena Williams states in an interview that a girl should not get drunk if she doesn’t want to be taken advantage of, then there is a serious lack of understanding.
The lack of understanding lies in how it affects a society: How does a victim react months after, how does a victim remember, how do expectations of a high libido mold men, amidst the mentality that men cannot be trusted? How does rape actually happen? Most times, we still picture back-alley, stranger rapes and drunken high school girls, instead of boyfriends, wives, husbands, mothers, brothers, and sisters as the victims & perpetrators. We, as a society, haven’t learned how to communicate rape—what it is, how it truly affects men and women. And then there's the problem with victim blaming and shaming, which has personally happened to me. And self-ascribed feminists have done this, intentionally and not intentionally. I've done by this accident--all of us have. And while it's hard to admit, it's also a way for us to learn to be better. Why is it that we treat rape victims differently than other victims, as if the trauma is somehow lessened? Or somehow, the victims' fault?
As humans, we react differently. Some people react in anger, fear, or sadness. A relative dies & some people don’t cry, while others spend years in therapy. Rape is similarly complicated—no two people react the same way. At a funeral, a woman is laughing. She is laughing at the memories of her mother with green hair after a bad dye job. A man asks her, why aren’t you crying? You should be crying. You must not be sad enough. I don’t believe you’re sad. I don’t believe you. Your mother must not really be dead. If she really were dead, then you would be crying. You’re lying. You’re mistaken. Would you really say that to a person in mourning at their mother’s funeral?
Let’s use that same logic for someone who experienced rape: You weren’t raped hard enough. You’re not upset enough to have been raped. You should have fought back more. Don't let yourself be a victim. He held your wrists back? Then you should have screamed louder. You didn’t say no loud enough? You only said no once? Well, he has a penis and penises are hard to control. Once it’s erect, you have to let a man finish. You should have said no more. You are wrong.
If we don’t condone burning flags and books as an act of censorship, don’t censor someone’s experience by dismissing their situation as “rape or not.” Don’t burn a person’s ability to say no. Don’t laugh because someone couldn’t fight back hard enough. Don’t laugh because someone should have known better. Don’t laugh because it seemed obvious. Don’t laugh because everyone else in the room is. It’s all a comedy of errors, after all.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015) & Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the chief editor for Luna Luna Magazine.