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Vanessa Kisuule on rape jokes and changing attitudes

Vanessa Kisuule on rape jokes and changing attitudes

**This piece contains references to content that some readers may find upsetting or triggering**

At the 2016 Bristol Women’s Voice AGM, we were lucky enough to hear Vanessa Kisuule perform. As part of her performance, she shared with us a post she had written on changing attitudes about rape jokes. Her post is written below.

Content warning: mentions of rape and sexual assault.

Last night, I had the most distressing exchange with someone on a thread regarding the comments Trump made. But this isn’t about Trump. This is about ‘rape jokes’ and the persistent notion that everything is prime punchline fodder. I just need to get this out because it’s been rattling around in my brain ever since I made the wise decision to step away from the conversation before I threw my laptop out of the window in blind rage. I am trying my best to think of a way that I could get people (men particularly) to understand how sad and scared we are. How can someone not respond and engage with that? Maybe I’m being naïve, but I’m thinking if I could only sit and talk with some of these people face to face, without the bombast and dick swinging that comes with online debate, then maybe… MAYBE they might understand. Maybe they might say ‘Okay. I hear you.’


Maybe I could sit down with a man who thinks rape jokes are funny and chat with him for an hour, two hours max. I’d make him a cup of tea and tell him that there is hardly ever a day where I don’t think about it. Rape. How it’s the one thing I truly fear above all other horrors that life can throw at a human being. I would bring every woman I’ve ever known into the room and we will sit there as they each recount every single instance of unwanted touching, lewd comments, coercion, grooming and assault they’ve experienced. These women are connected by one thing – they all know what it is to be sexually assaulted in some way. I have never met a woman who hasn’t got at least one story. He would sit there and listen. We would probably be there for days, if not weeks. I would explain to him what it is to sit opposite a female friend and have them recall that drunken night in their teens where they woke up to find the weight of a man on top of them. I will describe that strange, nervous laughter that will tumble from her lips and how quick she will be to dismiss that what happened was abuse. I will tell him how my aunt in Uganda told me of how she suffers systematic marital rape in a country that doesn’t even recognise this as a punishable offence.

I will detail the intricate club night rituals us women have – the texts we send when we haven’t seen one of the group for over an hour: ‘Babe, where are you? Text me back. We’re worried’. All we do is worry. I would explain to him how that fear is so commonplace, so demotic, so ingrained that I can’t conceive of a life without it. I will tell him that even as a person who believes in autonomy over my mind and body that I have not worn things, not said things and not gone places in case of what might happen. I will tell him that many women who have been assaulted were make up free, minding their own business, wearing an oversized hoodie, a burqa, a wedding ring, a blank expression, a close lipped mouth. Perhaps, even then, he might not understand.

So then I will take him to the centre I volunteer at for sex workers and I will show him the wall of Ugly Mug reports detailing the endless incidences of assault and rape that these women endure. We put these reports where everyone can see them so the service users might be able to spot potential abusers and not do business with them. They feature descriptions of the men, what they said and what they did. After two years of volunteering there and twenty five years as a woman well aware of the unique cruelties of this world, reading these reports still turns my stomach. I will tell him that many would consider these assaults an ‘occupational hazard’ because of the choices these women have made to survive financially. Then I will sit him in front of my laptop and make him read the statement from the woman Brock Turner assaulted behind a dumpster. A report that had me sobbing inconsolably over a sink for her and every woman who has and will suffer this ultimate violation of the body. I will tell him it hasn’t happened to me. But it could. 1 in 3. 1 in fucking 3. That means in a room of ten men at least one is bound to be a perpetrator. That means that no one gets to live a life where they or someone they love doesn’t suffer from this. I will tell him I want to live a life of openness, of joy and warmth and sexual freedom but this fact makes it hard for me and impossible for some. His cup of tea will be stood, cold and untouched on the table. I will tell him that I have to assess in every instance of intimacy with a man whether I am in danger. EVERY instance. 

Then I’ll get him to tell a rape joke. The best and ‘funniest’ one he has.

I wonder if he could still do it.

Maybe he could.

Maybe he truly cares more about his inalienable ‘freedom of speech’ than this rampant epidemic of sexual violence that is laced through our society.

And honestly. I don’t know what to do about that.

Does anyone know what to do?

Vanessa’s debut collection is available to buy from the Burning Eye Books, get your copy: Joyriding The Storm by Vanessa Kisuule.


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