A rape joke walked into a bar….

by Kathryn Heyman

I grew up with a temper. Mostly I kept it under wraps. As an adult, I learned to use anger with control, to stand up for myself, to notice my feelings, to be assertive. But still, sometimes it got the better of me. Sometimes it still does. And when it does, I say the worst things.

Once, in Oxford, I was driving home from teaching a class. That was my first mistake – there’s a reason people cycle in Oxford. Parking is stupid and the road I had to drive home on – the Botley Road – has been undergoing road works since 1995. When I visited last year, the same road crew were there, hammering bits of crap into the road.

But on this day, in the heady first decade of the road works, I was heavily pregnant and I’d had to get off my bike and into my car. I was exhausted – that comes with pregnancy – and I think I’d had a bad teaching day. Not to make excuses, just giving context. And as I drove along the road, in my little white Ford Fiesta, a rock from the road works flew up and smashed down onto the bonnet of my car. I hesitated for a nanosecond and then I pulled over to the side of the road, huffed my way out of the car and checked the whacking great dint now in the bonnet.

Before I go on with this story, I need to tell you that I have never spoken about it in public and I can feel, as I write, a terrible giddy shame washing over me. I don’t come out of this well.

Deep breath. Right. So, tired and emotional and very, very round, I waddled up to the guy operating the machinery which had spat the rock onto the car. I started out ever so rational. “Hi.” (Nothing offensive there, right? Don’t worry, it gets worse). “Your machine spat a rock onto my car. I think I should get the insurer’s details, so that I can claim the repair.”

The guy was grey-haired, stubble-faced, and had a gut quite a lot rounder than mine. He was, in medical terms, almost certainly morbidly obese. This becomes important later on. He glanced down at me, and said, “It didn’t touch your fucking car.”

Thrown – I was being so courteous, why was he not co-operating? – I pointed to the dint. “No, it did, look. There’s a dent there. It came from the rock.” Helpfully, I then pointed to the machine and added, “The rock came from the machine.” The road worker looked down at the car, then at me and said, “That dent were already there.”

This was the point that I could feel the swirl of hormones and anger starting to build. I was the hulk in a slightly stained black Monsoon maxi dress two sizes too large. I was being reasonable. Why was he being such an arse? How could he not understand what I was trying to say? I tried again: “I can’t afford to repair it. Your machine did it. I won’t get you in trouble, I just want to get it fixed.”

He didn’t even look at me this time. “You can’t get me in trouble. Don’t be so fucking stupid.”
I’d lived in Britain for a long time by then, so I said, “I’m sorry, I -”
And that’s when he interrupted me. “Just fuck off, all right, you stupid cow. Fuck off.”

Powerlessness often gives way to rage. And rage, although forceful and sometimes useful, lacks control. It veers around like a balloon, farting air and consequence, while anger drives to its target like an arrow. I was enraged. And in my rage, my balloon-like anger farted around, looking for a target.

I opened my mouth to say: You’re just angry because you think I’ve got a better life than you. And I FUCKING WELL HAVE. But I didn’t say that. Oh, no. Though, as it turned out, that would have been better. Part of my brain, seeing the thought-bubble of classist insult about to burst out of my mouth, snapped in, hero-like, sliding to the forefront with an alternate phrase. And what came out was this: “No YOU fuck off, you great fat fuck. And go on a DIET for god’s sake. You’re disgusting.”

And then I huffed my way back to my car and squeezed myself back in, looking as lithe and elegant as a sick wombat, and drove home shaking with disgust at myself.

I’d spent my late teens and early twenties – like, oh, quite a lot of women – battling eating disorders. Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue was handed to me in a paper bag and it changed the way I thought about my body. I’d come to accept all body types. I was anti-body shaming.
And yet, a stroke of unrestrained rage, and that was the first place I went to.

I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the way my own insult made me feel about myself. The guy was an arse – but his size didn’t make him an arse, his personality did. Or maybe, like me, he was having a really bad day.

Anyway, all of this comes back to me now because this week a comedian at the Melbourne Comedy Festival made a joke that went something like this:
‘So you know how gay people can make jokes about being gay, and black people can make jokes about being
black, well I can make jokes about rape.’
A woman in the audience, apparently already tired of the festival guests trotting out jokes about domestic violence, slid off her chair and onto the floor in a silent protest. At this stage, according to reports, the comedian – gripped by what I can only assume was the kind of balloon-farting rage that I experienced that day in Oxford – walked over to her and said, “Good on you for taking a stand, but you’re a piece of shit and I hope you die.” And then ended his show.

I should say here that I once had a brief flirtation with stand up comedy. I had co-written and performed in a show at the Edinburgh Festival with the very gifted comic Jo Enright, and our director thought we should perform excerpts at the Bear Pit, a venue notorious for its harsh audiences. Let’s just say that from the moment we walked on stage in our Edwardian wedding dresses, we knew it wasn’t going to go well. At the worst moment, I started quacking like a duck. No, I don’t know why. But I do know that if I’d been able to think of one clever thing to say to the loud booing people, I would have. If I’d been able to think of one hateful, shouty, angry thing, I would have. But, as I said, all I could think of was quacking.

My point is that stand up is stressful. It’s terrifying. The great people (like Jo Enright, actually) make it look easy. They manage hecklers with aplomb, because they practice and craft and rehearse. Dying on stage is like pooing your pants at an interview. It’s mortifying. If I’d been able to blame my stage death on someone, I’d have gone for them. I’d have been enraged instead of merely shamed.

In rage, we have no control. I have no doubt that the comedian in question is feeling pretty bad about himself right now. I’m almost certain he has experienced at least one moment of ‘I wish I hadn’t said that’ shame. In a public forum, he was brought up short by the realisation that not everyone finds his rape joke funny. I don’t know if it’s funny. I didn’t hear it. What I’m interested in is his response to the woman’s lack of co-operation. Shamed and enraged, he lost control. Rage got the better of him and he told her he wished she would die.

I’m not going to absolve him, and I’m not going to absolve myself. My response to the arse in Oxford was shameful and revealed something about my values that I hadn’t acknowledged. Something in me that was still broken. You’re disgusting. Really, I wonder if I was talking to myself in the voice of the fat-shamed teenager that I’d once been.

In the case of this male comic, his shame should lead him to the same reflection. Not ‘when is a rape joke funny?’ but: why, when faced with the disapproval of a woman, is your first response one of violence (I hope you die)?

These words come out of our mouths in rage; we don’t think we mean them. But, somewhere, deep inside, we do. And before absolution comes repentance. Before repentance, comes questioning. Why did I say that? What did I mean?

I hope you die. In classical terms, it’s a curse; one step away from a threat. A death wish directed at a woman. You don’t have to dig too far too ask yourself the most important question: what can I do to make it better?

(And for an example of a comedian being funny about this territory, try Hannah Gadsby.
And to counter every rape joke you’ve heard, there’s always Patricia Lockwood’s Rape Joke.)