18/10/2011 05:27 BST | Updated 17/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Rape Isn't a Joke for the Rest of us

What first struck me about the Facebook 'rape' pages is not what they say, but who they speak for. 'You know she's playing hard to get when your chasing her down an alleyway' frames the reader as the perpetrator of that act. Suddenly it becomes acceptable, something 'we' do, something it's OK to laugh at.

Rape jokes draw subtle boundaries between those who find them funny and those who can't. I could laugh at rape, but not when my involvement in activism against sexual assault led to friends and family divulging, one after the other, how it had happened to them - it was my boyfriend, someone whose house I went back to when I was drunk, a friend I let into my flat, my girlfriend, a stranger who broke into my apartment, my step father, my uncle. I could laugh about rape, but not when each journey alone late at night has me wondering if it's about to happen to me. Not when in the Congo eighteen month old babies are raped, their legs broken back; not when in Uganda men are gang raped until they can no longer hold themselves up; not when both of these things happen, and are ignored, in the UK.

Some might think I'm sensationalising the issue, bringing in stories which are nothing to do with an 'innocent' joke - but that only shows the limits to our understanding. Rape jokes are innocent to those who haven't experienced sexual violence, who have lived their lives free of having their body degraded and their freedom taken away for someone else's power. But I can't laugh, not when I'm too aware of the stories which lie just underneath our every day existence, the secrets so many are ashamed to tell: it was my father, my friend, my husband. Not when marital rape only became a crime in the UK in 1991, not when only 6.5% of rape cases end in conviction, with a further 90% remaining unreported. I know what it means. And it's not funny.

But these stories remain unspoken as the silencing of rape victims continues. While women who speak up about rape are treated with scepticism by authorities, told it was their 'own fault' or that they must be 'asking for it', Facebook uses a startlingly similar method to erase women's concerns, turning legitimate outrage at hateful statements into an irrational response to a 'rude joke'. It's an easy way to preserve a status quo; attacking those who challenge it by calling them irrational and over sensitive both makes the possibility of further debate impossible and absolves oneself of any responsibility, blaming the victim of hate speech rather than the perpetrator. The dismissal of those who raise legitimate concerns at rape jokes is eerily similar to the silencing of rape victims. Either we're exaggerating the issue and looking for attention, or it's the old nuggets: we should get back to the kitchen, and we deserve to be raped.

The most disturbing thing about rape jokes is how closely they mirror the realities of rape in our society, as well as the attitudes towards it. Rapists really do 'chase women down alleyways', women really do have their drinks spiked with rohypnol, old women really do get gang raped, many do think that it's 'impossible' to rape a sex worker and people really are raped 'for a laugh'. Statements like these would be unacceptable if more people were aware of the reality of rape, but rape victims are scared to speak up because everyone seems to sympathise with their attackers, to say we must be lying, to shove it under the carpet and tell us not to be so sensitive.

In a situation where rape victims have so little power compared to those who perpetrate rape or the vast majority who excuse and legitimise it, it's impossible to examine the issue without referring to its context of violence and shame. But let's put the issue in simple terms. A Facebook page contains pictures of women who are unconscious or screaming, and statements such as 'no means more' and 'i'm going to violently rape you' - yet the content is excused as a mere 'controversial' statement, as freedom of speech or as 'rude jokes' both by Facebook's leadership and by the majority of people. Let's do a little cultural reflection here: what the hell is wrong with us?

The End Pro Rape Facebook campaign can be seen here .