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When survivors take back the rape joke

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Image: Facebook/Sexual Assault is Present and Pervasive

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Rape culture is everywhere and with it a proliference of terrible rape jokes. But what if the people telling rape jokes were survivors? That is the idea behind Rape is Real and Everywhere, a national comedy tour.

The show is the brainchild of Vancouver comedians Emma Cooper and Heather Jordan Ross. The two came up with the idea over drinks after work one evening. They discussed how they never wanted to hear rape jokes again but also wanted to perform material about their experiences. 

"We kind of said it in jest at first and then we were like no wait we should do this, this is a great idea," says Jordan Ross.

The show is a mix of stand-up comedy alongside more serious moments where performers reflect on their experiences and rape culture. This includes reminding the audience that "no one is allowed to hurt you" and offering support if audience members want to talk. It challenges the idea that rape jokes are never funny and puts the power to control narrative back in survivors' hands. 

"I think when it comes to telling rape jokes you have to consider who is laughing at the joke," says Jordan Ross. "There are two kinds of jokes you can make; punch up and you can bring something new to the conversation or you can punch down and you can make a victim feel uncomfortable." 

During the May 15 Vancouver show at the Rickshaw Theatre, performers discussed media coverage, language and there was even a Lord-of-the-Rings-themed joke. There were also a diverse array of performers representing that rape affects everyone. 

As a former reporter, Ross knows how the media can contribute to unrealistic expectations of survivors. 

"Reporters are like, 'well we saw her smiling on the sidewalk and that means her rape didn't happen, she would be crying for the rest of her life if that was true,'" she jokes. "It's like we're people, we have to keep being people. If we're funny, if we're bitchy, if we're crazy we're going to keep on doing that after we get raped, it's not like some switch was turned off and now we're just grey people."

She says she would even sometimes refer to her experience as her "alleged sexual assault." The complicated language often used to describe rape is one of the reasons Cooper and Jordan Ross decided to use the term "rape" in the title. "Rape is real and everywhere" comes from a piece of graffiti spray painted on a wall in East Vancouver.

"'Sexual assault' just kind of slowly falls of the tongue, it doesn't describe the horrible thing that happened to you and it's so vague," explains Ross. "'Rape' sounds awful because rape is awful."

Issues like language and media coverage can also make it difficult to define rape. This is compounded by a culture of silence and inadequate discussion about consent. Many performers said they didn't immediately realize what happened to them was rape. 

"You're told the narrative that it's like 'man out of bushes' 'harmless innocent girl.' So If you're anything other than 'harmless girl' and if he's anything other than the 'man out of the bushes' then you have a ton of questions for yourself and you just kind of tuck that down," says Ross.

While talking about these experiences is difficult, she says the experience has been cathartic. Many survivors have also come out to the show.

"To have the words to say, 'no this isn't my fault and everybody seems to be going through this and we're in a nightmare situation so why don't we just work together and start talking about this', that has been the greatest gift," she says. 

After two sold out shows in Vancouver the duo decided to turn it into a national show. Each show will be unique and feature local comedians. 

While response to the show has been largley positive, Jordan Ross says the show is not for everyone. 

"If you think this show is the right fit for you, if you want to laugh, if you want to cry then come out and if not then that’s okay, we respect that decision as well." 

Rape is Real and Everywhere performed by Heather Jordan Ross and Emma Cooper started its national tour May 15. It has shows tonight May 30 in Montreal and tomorrow May 31 in Fredricton. More details can be found here.

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Image: Facebook/Sexual Assault is Present and Pervasive

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