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Can You Joke About Rape?

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After 10 years of working almost exclusively with female comics, I've heard jokes about most taboo topics including, you may be surprised to hear, rape. I was at the Edinburgh Fringe for the duration and, outside of our own female-centric activities, it seemed that misogyny abounded with an unusual amount male comics telling jokes about rape and domestic violence.

Most educated, intelligent, human beings absolutely know that rape is not a laughing matter but it does still happen, and in some cultures it is endemic. Shocking as this is, maybe, just maybe, certain people have the right to talk about something so far at the wrong end of wrong, because of their personal experience or cultural background.

In the case of rape, women are most commonly the victims. Nobody bats an eyelid in Western society when young checked-shirted male comics, commonly refer to a whole range of border line sexually invasive activities such as 'fagging', the antics of naughty priests, and other dubious practices commonly described in all-too-much detail. So, it's not really surprising that today's new generation of female comics include material about 'paedos', incest and, occasionally, rape.

Njambi McGrath is a Kenyan comic now based in London, who includes some edgy material about escaping her roots commenting that rape would be inevitable if she'd stayed - she 'owns' this experience and it is her right to 'joke' about it. What is said is not directed at the victim but about rape in general. Indeed Njambi presents herself as a potential victim. Humour is a form of attention seeking after all, and shocking people into a laugh is all part of the game plan, as their rape jokes illustrate. I don't personally subscribe to the kind of humour that makes people so uncomfortable that they laugh out of nervousness, but recognise that this does have its place.

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Guardian journalist, Tanya Gold, challenged young male comic, Chris Turner, at the Edinburgh Fringe because he made a joke about hitting his girlfriend. She wrote about her experience here, and explores what she sees as a 'current trend' for jokes about rape and domestic violence. I think that they've always been there along with Punch and Judy and the sexist 'mother-in-law' jokes, but we've become more sensitised to the wrongness of it all now that society openly rejects and abhors such practices.

Culture is direct reflection of society and humour is used liberally to communicate - through spoken word, in print and virtually. Maybe we do have to 'joke' about rape now to make people more aware that, despite our cultural indignation, it still happens within domestic environments as well as political regimes.

Experienced campaigning organisations like Amnesty International have been using humour for over three decades to bring attention to human rights and are currently engaged in getting the Russian girl band Pussy Riot out of jail - no prizes for the number of inappropriate 'pussy' jokes in circulation at the moment but if this helps to set them free, surely this is a good thing?

Women in western society can speak freely and, as potential victims, it is their human right to talk about rape, as part of a stand-up routine or as a political speech. Men shouldn't joke about beating up their girlfriends but if it is a generalised reference to rape or domestic violence, we have to accept this in a live comedy environment or rely on diligent censorship for broadcast content.

It is the objectification of women by men that we find offensive, as is the act of rape itself.

Funny Women is supporting Women's Aid, the national domestic violence charity that helps up to 250,000 women and children every year. The charity works to end violence against women and children, and supports over 500 domestic and sexual violence services across the country. All proceeds from this year's Funny Women Awards final at the Leicester Square Theatre, central London on Monday 24 September, will be donated to the charity. For more information read HERE.

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