For eight years before becoming a stand up comic, I was a psychotherapist. I practiced in both the US and the UK and initially, my intention was to work exclusively with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. And initially, I did just that, until the work quickly burnt me out, and with good reason. Rape remains one of the most devastating issues in modern society and I know firsthand the impact it has on its victims, both female and male.
Comedy was always my secret love and several years ago I made the career change and this year took my first solo show, Reverse Psycomedy, to the Edinburgh Fringe. I decided not to pull any punches when it came to tackling topics in the show - after all, therapy takes you down some dark and dismal roads of human suffering and anyone who's dealt with such issues knows that dark humour is often a way of coping with the unbearable.
I think the dark sense of humour you often encounter in the UK is both a beautiful thing and also indicative of a pattern of cultural coping: as a historical stereotype, the "British way" is not about emoting and showing vulnerability - but rather "getting on with it." Keep Calm and Carry On was not just an iconic war slogan, it's a mantra of a culture which historically valued that style of perseverance.
As a female comic who has dealt head on with the issue of rape, I debated whether to include it in my show this year. It's a hot comedy topic to be sure - between the controversy with Daniel Tosh in the US, and the countless anecdotes of male comics shoehorning it into sets for shock value, as illustrated by Tanya Gold's well-written piece in the Guardian at the weekend.
But what of female comics addressing it in their sets? To be certain, this can be done as badly as any male comic, if the intention is also to simply shock, or worse, indulge in the destructive notions surrounding rape: that women are at fault for it, are "asking for it," or secretly, enjoy the idea of it, ie the notorious "rape fantasy." Although even then, it's about intention - playing on the irony of any of these notions can be done to wonderful effect. Sarah Silverman is often the go-to example but there are many other female comics who have tackled the issue over the years.
Like any topic in comedy, context is everything, as is the experience and intention of the deliverer. To me, rape and violence against women could, with care, become one of those issues we take over as comics and turn the message around - perhaps in the same way that non-white comedians have had to tackle racism over decades, or gay comics the topic of homophobia.
I get nervous when anyone declares topics off limits in comedy, because I think comedy remains the forum for which we can reflect on our discomforts and failures around all sorts of issues.
Unfortunately, society goes through ebbs and flows of awareness and sensitivity towards topics, and rape is an issue which seems to have fallen slightly by the wayside in terms of both. Recent polls in the UK showed an overwhelming belief that women are in some way "at fault," if she is raped, and people who campaign against violence towards women are sadly marginalised as "overzealous feminists."
Not to make a sloppy analogy, but there was a time when environmentalists were marginalised as overzealous hippies, until increased awareness (combined with clever marketing for "Going Green") became the norm. If you recycle and reduce waste you're now just doing your job as a citizen. Perhaps awareness of violence towards women will increase and become a better staple in the public consciousness in future years. I hope so.
Bad comics will always do bad comedy, about any number of topics. In the meantime, the answer isn't keeping the topic out of comedy - it's doing it better.