Vancouver transplant Heather Jordan Ross was raped two years ago, and she's starting to find that pretty funny. Apparently, at least six other comedians feel the same way: They've come together to perform an already-sold-out show made up of rape jokes on January 21 at Hot Art Wet City. The show is called Rape is Real and Everywhere, and it will be performed exclusively by rape survivors telling their stories about sexual violence. Ross spoke to VICE over the phone about when rape jokes can be funny and why she wants to start "confronting the narrative" about how survivors are expected to respond.
VICE: How did you decide to put on this show?
Heather Jordan Ross: Basically, I've been dealing with my own assault—it happened two years ago but it was in the past six months that my attacker started messaging me [online]. So I was of the feeling that I, A) never wanted to hear another rape joke again, and B), wanted to tell them all the time. It was this really conflicting feeling and I was talking to Emma [Cooper, fellow Rape is Real and Everywhere producer and performer] one night over drinks and I just said, "I don't know what to do, maybe we should just do a show just by rape survivors—"
And she said, "Oh, yeah. Actually we should."
So we came up with it that night, we started getting together names—we had a full roster without asking anybody—of people we knew who were comedians and who had survived assault. ... It actually just came together really beautifully.
You sold out [Vancouver venue Hot Art Wet City in three days] ... Were you expecting this kind of reaction?
Kind of, to be honest... Emma had the confidence right away to say, "This is going to be a killer show," and drove it home saying, "Yeah, this is happening ... in January, at a great venue, we're selling out, and we're gonna make hats!" Which we have. We've made hats.
And I want more shows like this. People are saying, "Ooh, maybe we should do this in Edmonton?" Yeah, fucking do it everywhere. We're not holding the leashes on this.
Can you tell me about how you went from the experience of never wanting to tell a rape joke again and being confronted with your assaulter to ... actually wanting to make humour out of this?
Well, I wanted to make the jokes all along. I just didn't want to hear other people tell them. Because it's the go-to joke that new comedians do... you're a shitty 22-year-old guy doing comedy for the first time, guaranteed, one of your first jokes is about rape. And I don't know why that is, but it happens.
I wanted to joke about it. I didn't really know how to talk about it for a while and I was going through a lot—I didn't really know how to make the narrative, but I've always used humour to get myself through. So, for me it wasn't a leap to tell jokes about it, honestly.
Do you feel like this is challenging the [often male-dominated] comedy scene a bit?
Yes, absolutely—and by no means am I saying no one else other than a survivor is allowed to make that type of joke, but I do think there's a lot more thoughtfulness that needs to go into it. 'Cause most of the new comics who are telling those shitty jokes ... they're telling shitty rape jokes that support the predator.
Like, the other night a guy told a joke where he said, "Is it okay to date rape a girl if she was going to drunk drive home?" And I just, like, my stomach turned, because guaranteed someone's done that. He thinks it's a joke, but he doesn't know what kind of world we live in ... if you don't have to see what people go through, you don't so you just live in this magical world where it doesn't fucking happen to people. So yeah, [our show] is confronting that narrative. And it's empowering.
I talked to one of the comedians on the show last night and she just said, "This is really empowering for me, this is taking the narrative back, I like being funny, and I'm glad it's back in my hands."
Survivors themselves are really looking forward to it—survivors that aren't comedians that are coming, and even those who don't feel ready [for this kind of show] have still been supportive. They've said, like, "Hey, I could not come to this whatsoever, but I'm glad you are doing it."
I know you said you don't know why [new comedians] are making these shitty jokes, but I kind of have a feeling you maybe have some theories.
Oh, it's for the sake of being interesting. When you start comedy ... guys just want to be edgy, and in their minds that's the worst thing that happens to people. But they don't realize how often it happens, I think. [To them] it's as obscure as a serial killer.
I have this joke where I say: "I always hear from guys, they say, 'If you can tell a murder joke, you can tell a rape joke, right?' And my response is always, 'I don't know if one in three men in this room have been—murdered.' I think we're talking about something a little different here."
Well, I was going to ask you how a rape joke could be funny because it was so baffling in my mind, but you've already thrown down, so...
We can't stop. Emma and I cannot stop making terrible jokes.
I was talking about how someone tried to rape me in high school, and I just thought, when it happened, I was like, "Ooh that was weird...well he's a nice guy, he couldn't have meant to do that. He was misunderstanding me." And then I found out it happened to other girls. Someone said, "Oh I've heard it about him before," and I was just like, oh no.
And Emma says, 'What, because you weren't special?'
We make jokes about everything. It feels so good. Because when it's happened to you it's a taboo subject, but if it's an "idea"—then you can talk about it? Which seems completely fucked, to be honest. People have been telling rape jokes. People are raped. Why have those two things not come together?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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