Ellie Levenson: Where jokes are concerned, context is all

Humour is a way we work through our feelings about difficult issues

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Some time ago I was on a train late at night on my way home from visiting a friend. In my carriage was just me and a man, a stranger. He started talking to me. He didn't seem threatening and the conversation turned to comedy – he was writing a sitcom. He said he would tell me a joke and it went like this: "A man walks into a bar and says to the barman 'I could have any woman in here that I want.' 'How's that?' says the barman. The man replied: 'Because I'm a rapist.'"

I laughed. Not because rape is funny, but because he'd broken the rape taboo, the unmentionable fear that all women have in this kind of situation. For I think most women would feel vulnerable on a train just them and a stranger, and indeed on realising it was just the two of us in the carriage I had already checked out the location of the emergency alarm and satisfied myself that there were people within sight in the next carriage. By making the joke this fear was addressed and dismissed, and I was able to relax into the rest of my journey.

There's a debate happening online about this on two feminist websites at the moment, on The F Word, a UK site, and on Feministing, a US site. The F Word debate is in response to a passage in my book in which I analyse the above joke, and the consensus on these websites seems to be that actually, jokes about rape can never be acceptable.

I don't agree. Are there any subjects where jokes are off-limits? We could say that racist jokes are unacceptable, and indeed in most circumstances they are, but what about a joke about an affectionate stereotype told by a member of that race to another member of that race? As with all jokes, context is all. If the rape joke had been told to me aggressively or if we weren't already talking about comedy, I may have read it as a threat not as a joke. But in fact the joke was not really about rape. It was about men's egos, and about reminding men that actually they tend not to be swoon-inducing attractive man that can just pick a woman and "have her".

Humour is one of the natural ways humans work through their thoughts and feelings about difficult issues. In the bleakest situations people find a funny thought. A couple of days after the tsunami that killed thousands of people across Asia, I went to a comedy show. The act was full of jokes about the tsunami – things such as tsunami being a high scorer on Countdown (presenter Richard Whiteley had just died) and the Tsunami (Toon Army) causing havoc across Asia. Did these jokes make me think the comedian, or the laughing audience, did not feel the horror of the natural disaster that had just happened? Of course not. We were coming to terms with tragedy through humour.

Laughing about rape does not make rape funny, but it does help us to work out our thoughts and feelings about a subject through the prism of humour and to understand that while rape jokes may be funny, rape itself never is.

The author's latest book, The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism, is published by Oneworld

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