'How does Michael Jackson know when it's time for bed?' I am tense internally. A customer is trying to tell me a paedophile joke. I really don't know what to do with this. It makes me more depressed, more angry and more astounded than I can easily explain that I am still hearing this stuff. It has been painfully public in the last couple of years to what extent the abuse of children runs, the years it has been going for and the vast number of victims. We have been able to hear about what people have suffered and how it has left them as adults. While I am at work however I have to be professional. The best I can do is not laugh. Now that I am here, I can do what I want to do. What I want to do is explain everything I think is wrong with these jokes, and why I would like everyone to stop making them.
I suppose it's reasonable to ask whether this counts as censorship. I don't think it does, for two reasons. The first is that I am not in a position to censor anybody. I can't redact confidential documents, or pull a story or sack a whistle blower. I'm not telling, I'm asking. The second reason is that I'm not suggesting a ban on information, I'm just suggesting we don't tell jokes about it. A question comedians and comedy writers are often asked is whether there is any subject you can't make jokes about. I have a working theory that when it comes to suffering it depends where you stand in relation to the experience. You can make jokes about cancer if you have had it, because then you are able to laugh at yourself, or at your own experience. The late John Diamond wrote some very funny accounts of his own experiences with throat cancer. Jokes from outside the bubble seem, to me at least, like laughing at the expense of others. That's nasty, that's pretty much bullying. So maybe one of these days an abuse survivor will find some humour in their trials (although I find it hard to imagine). In the mean time I think we may have to take it seriously.
A question that troubles me is why people still make jokes about paedophiles. It's not as if the whole area hasn't been thoroughly exposed in recent years. My guess is that for all the public attention it's simply something that most people can't understand. I'm not a survivor of abuse and I don't know how it feels to be one. The best I can offer you by way of insight is the following analogy.
Imagine you have been burgled. Your own home, your own bedroom, broken into and your most prized and personal belongings stripped, Only it didn't happen while you were out, or even while you were asleep, but while you were in the room and wide awake. The thief wandered in, quite brazenly, and took your stuff as if they had every right to it. If you protest or resist they threaten you, or hit you. If you demand an explanation they tell you that you don't deserve to have these things. They tell you that are bad and dirty and that is why this is happening to you. They tell you that if you try and report the crime you will not be believed, and you will be taken away from your family and locked up. It may be that you accept this theft because it is the only attention you get. It might be that the thief offers you some feeble compensation by, for example, paying you a compliment about your hair. The result of this is that every time anyone pays you a compliment about your hair you assume that they are going to rob you. This pattern repeats itself for years, even decades, leaving you scarred and damaged as a result. Childhood sexual abuse is like that, but with something much, much worse.
I guess some of you are just wondering why I'm so uptight about a few harmless jokes. They're not causing any trouble are they? What does it matter? Well I have just two answers, and then I promise you can go.
For far too long the only you heard child abuse mention conversationally was in jokes. My generation's "comedy paedophile" of choice was usually Michael Jackson. That was also more or less the only time you saw it mentioned on TV, really the only time it was in the public eye at all. The silence about the seriousness and prevalence of the problem is fundamental to it's persistence. You may have read of convicted abusers who, until recently, thought themselves untouchable. This also goes for victims who thought that nobody was watching, nobody knew and nobody cared. That perception has to shift and to be seen to shift if we are going to make any collective progress. Also, finally, why would you find these jokes funny? Even if the joke is just between you and your mates what, honestly, does it say about you or them? Can you defend a joke about child abuse being anything other than callous or ignorant? I can't.