Rape is funny, sometimes

It seems like it should go without saying that rape isn't funny. Yet jokes about rape persist. Heather Jordan Ross is a rape survivor who recently co-produced a comedy show about rape where all the performers were survivors. She explains what makes some rape jokes funny and why she wants to tell them.
Heather Jordan Ross, a rape survivor, is tired of hearing rape jokes, but wants to tell them all the time. (Jessie Hannah)

Two years ago Heather Jordan Ross was raped. As she started to come to terms with what happened to her, she had to make a decision: as a comedian, could she joke about it? 

She was sick of hearing amateurs at open mic nights make bad rape jokes, but she also found that the topic was always on her mind. So she joked to fellow comedian Emma Cooper that they should do a comedy show all about rape, led by those who knew the experience too well. To her surprise, Emma agreed — and wanted to get started right away. 

Rape is Real and Everywhere: A Comedy played to a sold-out crowd in Vancouver in mid-January. Heather Jordan Ross stopped by to tell The 180 host Jim Brown about the show, and about when, and why, she thinks it's ok to joke about rape. 

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length. 

Just for the sake of people who might not hear a lot of comedy, how often does the topic of rape actually make its way into stand-up and sketch routines?

If you're going to polished shows, it doesn't show up as often. But if you're going to open mics — it's a go to, and if you go to a lot of open mics — you're hearing it pretty much every week. People often haven't found their voice yet, they want to be edgy, they want to be able to say things they weren't allowed to say before. It's so weird because for women it's period jokes, and for guys it's rape jokes. And maybe period jokes make sense, but with the rape jokes, it's like why are you doing that? 

You're a rape survivor — how does it feel to hear someone crack jokes about rape? 

It depends on how they're doing it. One of the things I wanted to be clear in putting on this show is that rape survivors shouldn't be the only people allowed to tell these jokes. It's about being able to bring something new to the conversation. I've been doing a lot of processing over the last six months and it's been really rough. I almost stopped doing comedy altogether because I couldn't hack it. It was just too awful. 

So why do you want to tell jokes about rape? 

Well this is the funny thing - I have been processing what's been happening to me. It happened two years ago. I didn't realize it happened to me until my rapist started sending me messages this spring, and I just had this feeling like I wanted to talk about what was happening in my life and that was the most prescient thing in my life at the time, and yet I never wanted to hear those jokes again. So it was a really big conflict because every time I'm on stage I'm telling you what is new in my life and I had this jagged piece in my life that wasn't folding in easily and I wanted to be able to explore that. 

But you don't just tell rape jokes in shows that are about rape, you do this in regular comedy routines? 

Kind of. I have what I call my "counter rape joke" rape jokes so that when a guy goes up and tells a shitty rape joke, and I go up after him, I've got a great little army of jokes to disarm whatever conversation he was trying to start. 
They're never going to stop. But I even talked to a guy who went up one night and told a bunch of shitty jokes and he talked to me afterwards and he said "did I offend you?" and I said "I'm not your mom, I can't tell you what to do, but I can tell you that your jokes punched down at the victim and I felt sick to my stomach." And that's just how I felt. How I feel doesn't dictate anyone's life, but it is good to have other people taking that narrative. 

Has the experience of putting on this show taught you anything about how people think and feel about rape? 

One of the reasons I almost stopped doing comedy is that because I thought telling rape jokes would alienate me, and it turns out that when you are open to talking about experiences and when you're willing to laugh, people are on board. It felt so good to joke about this and people don't talk about this — it felt so good to call my rape a rape. Every victim goes through a stage of deciding their rape was not rape-y enough to count... So it felt so good to say I'm raped, I don't deserve this, and I want to laugh about it — if you want to come with me. If you don't want to come with me, don't. But this is how I'm grieving, this is how I'm getting through it. 

Click the blue button to hear the full interview.