We are the ironic generation. Hipster or no, how many times have you laughed along with a racist, sexist, or homophobic joke, even guiltily, thinking to yourself: It's okay, I'm not really racist, sexist or a homophobe! It's ironic laughter!
But can we really joke about everything? Where do we draw the limits of humour in our supposedly post-feminist, post-colonial society?
On Monday, Oct. 5, The Underground, the official newspaper of the Arts faculty at the University of British Columbia, published a supposedly satirical article entitled "So-Called ‘Campus Rapist' Simply Exploring His Sexuality". Ultimately, the article served as yet another means for normalizing rape and sexual violence in our society, and in campus culture specifically.
For us, as anti-violence and feminist activists, this article defined the boundaries of humour with devastating clarity. The article read like a virtual instruction manual for sexual predators, complete with misogynous language and violent, triggering imagery. The main character of the piece, Johnny Bader, with whom the reader is at the very least asked to sympathize, if not identify, carelessly jokes about "sodomizing an unconscious freshman", and remarks about how big a turn on it is to "pin a woman down in an alleyway and have [his] way with her". The article also outlines his favorite technique for subduing his victims by bringing "an ether soaked cloth with him to parties". Johnny's frat buddies give this method a big thumbs-up, saying "it's totally cool- we call his move the rag and bag".
As for women, they make their appearances as either frat-party attendees with "sub-par intelligence in the early stages of alcohol poisoning" or as "lunatic bitches" (aka angry feminists, who shockingly don't like rape! Crazy!). Within the article, women (hetero or queer) exist only to serve the violent sexual impulses of heterosexual masculinity.
We were less than amused (read: made physically ill with disgust). In response, we turned to the modern day soapbox that is Facebook and created a group promoting increased awareness of issues surrounding sexualized violence on our campus. Within one day, we gained more than one hundred members. The response was overwhelmingly encouraging, and both the President of the Arts Undergrad Society and the Dean of Arts were inundated with letters demanding action.
Despite the initial wave of support, within the next few days, the Facebook group was splattered with misguided anti-censorship rage, claiming that the purpose of our campaign was to doom The Underground into non-existence. But at no point did we advocate censorship; we simply asked for an apology on behalf of the editor and the writer. The editor was very forthcoming with her apology; however, we have yet to hear from the author of the piece.
The censorship issue devolved into a distracting discussion around the politics of humour, in which several individuals used other triggering rape jokes in a (failed) attempt to illustrate the ways in which rape could be satirized. This departure from the original intention of the group serves as a very real example of the ways in which rape culture is either minimized or ignored.
In response to our concerns, the Dean of Arts hosted an open discussion purportedly addressing The Underground article and issues of sexual violence on campus. However, this "Meet the Dean" session mutated into a free speech fan-fest. After a concerted effort by anti-violence activists to reframe the discussion around rape culture, another forum with the Dean was scheduled.
This situation served as a wake up call for our increasingly complacent campus community. By reflecting back existing attitudes towards rape, the article casts light upon the ways in which we are complicit with normalizing sexual violence as an inherent part of campus culture. The very fact that individuals felt they had to manipulate the conversation away from sexual violence reveals our discomfort with acknowledging this complicity. In diverting attention from the ways in which we perpetuate rape culture, we deny the systemic nature of sexual violence. This individualizes rape, making it easier to place blame upon the survivor. It's also important to point out that rape is mostly constructed within a heterosexual context, which obscures the fact that it's about power, not sexuality. The hetero-context of rape also renders invisible the ways in which racism, ableism, class issues, homophobia and transphobia play a part in sexualized violence.
Far from existing within the realm of the absurd, the article represents a reality in which, according to Canadian statistics, four out of five female undergraduates will experience sexual violence at some point during their college career. Specifically on the UBC campus, incidences of sexual violence are downplayed by the administration. For instance, a woman was recently raped on UBC endowment lands and the administration made no attempts to notify students that a violent sexual predator was and is operating on their campus.
Attempting to place sexual violence within a humourous context, no matter how self-aware, both reinforces rape culture and obscures the lived reality of sexual violence. At the same time, such humour further violates the emotional and mental health of survivors. As anti-violence and feminist activists, The Underground article and response to it has reminded us of the importance of remaining critically aware of the prevalence of rape culture and our own complicity in it.
Alana Zacher is a 4th year psychology major at the University of British Columbia. She currently works with UBC's Sexual Assault Support Centre to raise awareness
around issues of sexual violence, as well as with the UBC V-Day campaign to raise funds for anti-violence organizations.
Anoushka Ratnarajah is a Women's and Gender Studies and Creative Writing Double Major at UBC. She is Co-President of the Women's and Gender Studies Undergraduate Association and the Workshop Coordinator for the University's AMS Womyn's Centre.
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