This post is part of the Bodies, Gender, and Domination OOPS Series.
When I first heard that the writer and attorney Vanessa Place had written a performance piece entitled “Rape Jokes,” I was intrigued. Within feminist discussion, the concept of “the rape joke” was always batted down as morally repugnant and triggering, and this condemnation was accepted without question. I was curious what an analysis of a rape joke would provide. I listened to the conference discussing her piece with panelists Jamison Webster, Jeff Dolven and Gayle Salamon. I only made it about several minutes into the panel recording, stopping midway through a recording of Vanessa Place’s performance piece on Rape Jokes. I found her performance, which was a series of arbitrary every-day rape jokes told by Place in a monotone voice, to be extraordinarily jarring and violent, juxtaposed to her monotonous tone. As I was listening to the performance, I felt myself bombarded with these images, I began to feel breathless and overwhelmed, and I felt waves of anxiety.
It was an odd reaction, considering the fact that they were “jokes,” but I think it speaks to the double layer of character of the speech act. The first layer was that it was a statement about rape, which is automatically disruptive. A statement about rape is disruptive in this sense because it evokes the image of both violence and sex. These two concepts are culturally censored out of an everyday discourse and interaction, so it was disruptive by nature of its being taboo. And the second layer of the statement is that it is a “joke,” which is characterized in psychoanalysis as “psychic disruption.” Perhaps my bodily reaction to the performance piece was related to its psychologically disruptive nature through these two layers, and my body rejected the disruption.
But why did my body reject the disruption? I say “my body” not intending to place this conversation through a dualist perspective, but in an attempt to fully elucidate the precise reaction to the piece. In this sense, I felt no cognitive ability to control the (a) breathlessness, (b) increased heartbeat, and (c) nausea. I would characterize these reactions as “bodily” ones. I was not expecting these reactions, as Webster opened the panel discussion with a warning about the discomfort that had to do with finding amusement in the jokes, and then being morally judged for finding them amusing. In light of this, I was more prepared to laugh than I was to panic.
I am wondering abstractly about this reaction, as I have in my research read, listened to, and watched sexual violence in the past. While I still feel uncomfortable or upset by these narratives, I was confused as to why I felt so uncomfortable by Place’s performance piece. I am a woman living in a society full of rape culture. Rape jokes (while disruptive on a local level) are still relatively normative in everyday language. Rape and bodily violence against women is a normalized component of our discourse. And because of this cultural phenomenon my reactions to rape as an image or narrative in everyday language tends to be one of a desensitized nature.
If I could venture to guess the reason why I had this reaction, I would point to the method through which Vanessa Place relayed the jokes. The monotonous voice actually raised a lot of anxiety, as rape jokes in a cultural sense are usually giggled/whispered/murmured. She also bombards the audience with the jokes, in a sense providing a verbal assault upon one’s ears. While the piece was horrifying, its effect as a disruption was concrete. The method through which Place relayed the jokes is a type of subversive performative repetition. It took the very power dynamic that the violence existed in and thrust it upon the listener, in a sense, without their consent. The piece is poignant and subversive, and I cannot say that I ever want to listen to it ever again.