“These aren’t new stories. But people standing in their truth and telling them? That’s new.”
Los Angeles-based comic Cameron Esposito is rewriting the rape joke.
Esposito’s latest stand up special, “Rape Jokes,” approaches topics like sexual assault, workplace harassment, toxic masculinity and rape culture from a survivor’s perspective—with damn good comedic results and an outsized feminist impact to boot. (Proceeds raised by the special will benefit RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S.)
“My art is comedy, so I approach everything and every topic that way. I see standup hinging on emotion and relatable personal experience. It’s a great tool for social change because it can make education accessible—i.e., I’m funny so the audience doesn’t even realize they’re learning,” Esposito told Ms. “Comedy and feminism intersect when the comic is a feminist. I am, so I my jokes use that lens. And of course: everyone should be a feminist.”
Maggie Hennefeld’s work emphasizes the importance of insightful satire and exuberant laughter during the early years of the feminist movement. Throughout history, wanting equal rights and having a sense of humor were seen as somehow mutually exclusive—when women laughed too loudly or pointedly, they were often disregarded as “hysterical.” Even though we no longer pathologize women’s humor, we still shun it, and many women are still fighting men over the basic notion that we, ourselves, can be funny.
Rape jokes have long been a presence and a subject of debate in comedy—but too often, their punchlines glorify and make light of violence against women. As Lindy West, comedian and activist, once said: there’s a difference between “a joke about women getting raped” and “a joke about the way that rape culture—which includes rape jokes, makes women feel.” The “rape joke” patois requires a reflective critical analysis that should push us to unpack, question and do more than just laugh.
Esposito purposefully weaves feminism into her work—and has a talent for not just making light of darker topics, but also bringing to light the culture that creates them. In “Rape Jokes,” she also makes space for healing. “I hope survivors will laugh, connect, release some pain,” Esposito told Ms. about her goals for the set. “I hope everyone will move toward empathy. That’s what the special is meant to be: a path to empathy.”
Part of the reason “Rape Jokes” is so powerful is because it steers the comedic conversation in a new direction, toward targeting rape culture and away from targeting survivors. Esposito’s special hit me in places I didn’t even know were vulnerable—while I found myself laughing at her jokes, her words also spoke to me on a deeper, more personal level.
“When you are raised female the thing you are taught you are valued for is your fuckability.”
Her words made me realize that the story of my assault(s) started long before the actual acts occurred. The story starts in middle school; a 13-year-old girl believes she is not worthy of love because grown men aren’t harassing her as much as they harass her other friends. The story starts in high school; a 15-year-old girl begins to find her own voice, and her peers work tirelessly to shut her up with a single warning: “No one will ever love you or want to touch you.” (Because the worth of a girl isn’t in her voice or her mind, her thoughts or her actions, but if a male will ever want to fuck her. Because physical action and attention equates to love.) The story starts at 16; the girl, exploring physical intimacy with a close friend, is told the next day that she disgusts him, that he just wanted to see what being with a fat girl was like. The story starts at 18; a girl who wanted to save her first kiss for someone special, giving up on the idea that anyone will ever find her worthy of love, kissing a stranger to get it over with and try to move on.
“I didn’t know what else to look for in men [besides their attention].”
After high school, I began to meet and hook up with a lot of guys in a very short amount of time. I wasn’t sleeping with them, but instead exploring other ways people could get physical with each other. It was partially a learning experience for me. Abstinence-only education had taught me a lot about how babies were made once the sperm and the egg meet—but left me woefully ignorant on how the physical puzzle pieces work together to create mutual pleasure. However, looking back now, I realize that the main reason I got physical with so many people I felt indifferent about was because I believed almost all men did or would find me revolting—and because of that, I had this sense of urgency inside me, a sense that I needed to be with these people, otherwise I’d spend the night (and the rest of my life) alone. These men were giving me, or specifically my body, attention—so I gave it to them. I had been brainwashed to believe that my body and what men could or wanted to do with it was where my value as a woman lied.
“I didn’t realize his behavior was fucked up.”
I never really talk about the first guy to enter me without my consent. In some ways, I blame myself for not paying more attention to the warning signs—for not understanding how wrong his behavior actually was. I met up with this guy multiple times; one night, after driving a half-hour to get to his apartment, he decided to tell me, right before he opened the door, that he had a friend over who was also interested in getting physical with me. Shocked, alone, and outnumbered I did what I felt I had to do to get out of there as quickly and safely as possible.
“I didn’t know I had the agency to tell them to stop.”
When I was in college, a male friend of mine pulled me into the bathroom and started kissing me. I responded willingly, but then he asked me to do more. I said no, but he kept begging and pleading; after a while, I realized with a heavy heart that he didn’t care if I kept saying no. He would just keep asking until he got the answer he wanted.
I used to do that when I was a child, asking my dad for a toy I really wanted, but I had grown up—and this boy had not. All at once, I wasn’t an autonomous person with the ability to decide for myself what I wanted or didn’t want to do. In his eyes, I was just a toy to play with. And he was blocking the door.
“So many people are disconnected from their own agency.”
The stories I’ve shared could be considered “mild” experiences when it comes to sexual harassment and assault. Unfortunately, I believe these stories still need to be shared because many people can relate to them in their own way—just as I related to Cameron’s words.
The survivor’s perspective that shapes “Rape Jokes” is a hilarious but stark reminder that sexual violence stems from an ingrained part of our culture that sees women as objects—attractive, silent fuck toys. Rape culture is so much bigger than one instance or one story: it’s omnipresent in the society we live in, one that creates predators and silences victims. At long last, “Rape Jokes” changes the narrative and breaks the cycle.
Suddenly, survivors are in the spotlight, emboldening each other to share our stories and speak out loud. Now, we have a path to empathy to walk with each other—and we’ll change the world with each step.