Hollow Laughter: Vanessa Place’s Rape Jokes

View of Vanessa Place's performance If I Wanted Your Opinion, I'd Remove the Duct Tape, 2016, at Kanuti Gildi Saal, Tallinn. Photo Epp Kubu. Courtesy the artist.

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“Can rape jokes be funny at all, is the question.” So the poet and essayist Patricia Lockwood inquires in her viral 2013 prose poem “Rape Joke,” a heartbreaking and, yes, sometimes comic second-person account of a rape and its aftermath.

To criminal defense attorney, poet, and conceptual artist Vanessa Place, the answer is clear: rape jokes are funny, even though—or especially because—they’re not supposed to be. Her new book, You Had to Be There: Rape Jokes (powerHouse Books, 2018), adapted from a performance in which she recites rape jokes for forty-five minutes, proceeds from this assumption—and then belabors it ad nauseum.

I won’t be quoting from You Had to Be There, not only because the rape jokes it comprises are in such poor taste, but also because the text reveals nothing about the genre. If you have ever heard a rape joke (and you surely have), it’s unnecessary for me to provide an illustrating example, and unnecessary for you to read this book. Place is one of the foremost practitioners of conceptual poetry, which uses strategies of appropriation to generate new texts, but here she demonstrates the method’s limits. Most of these jokes are not meaningfully distinct from those you might encounter in certain unsavory corners of the internet (from which much of the text is gathered) or, for that matter, at the back of a school bus. While the occasional joke succeeds at skewering rape culture itself, most simply make light of sexual violence against women and children, locating their attempts at humor in the transgression of what is acceptable to laugh about.

It would be wrong to reduce the problem of this book to “taste,” which might imply that Place’s failure here is primarily an aesthetic one. I could say instead that the jokes are offensive, or potentially triggering—though such characterizations don’t transcend the hypothetical (to be offensive is different than to offend, after all). They certainly aren’t funny. But I didn’t find them especially shocking either. As I read, I was mostly annoyed; I rolled my eyes a lot. Maybe this was a refusal to give Place, a perennial provocateur, the outraged reaction she so obviously craves. Regardless, these jokes—which are, by design, meant to risk offense—will offend some readers, and cumulatively they offer no compelling insight or commentary to justify that.

The text may be beside the point for Place: the fifty-nine pages of jokes are printed in an over-sized font, only on the verso side, and with margins so narrow that the right one gets swallowed up by the binding, making the text hard to read. Maybe the book is not meant to be read so much as to stand in for the larger project of the performance from which it is drawn. This might explain why the relatively short text is accompanied by not one (or even two) but five apologias. It is preceded by a blurb by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, an uncredited introductory note, and a truly bizarre foreword from critic Dave Hickey that begins with him considering his own “default rapes” before immediately dismissing them as “rock ‘n’ roll related adventures”; then followed by an afterword from novelist Natasha Stagg and, finally, by an artist’s statement from Place herself.

These framings do not do Place, or her project, any favors, though the presence of Stagg, who is significantly younger than the other contributors, at least precludes the reading that there is a generational divide in the opinion around Place’s work. While each writer seems to agree, rightly, that rape is both a uniquely terrible and terribly common occurrence, some shared fallacies also persist. The first is that, because our responses to rape are so often inadequate, we should give up trying to respond adequately. For Žižek, “every gesture of dignity and compassion is a fake,” and so Place’s project “is for everyone who has the courage to confront the horror of rape without the easy escape into comfortable compassion.” Hickey echoes this sentiment when he claims that the reader’s “resistance to [Place’s] cruel language . . . is more about resisting vulgarity than maintaining virtue, more about speaking from your social station to declare your status.” It’s troubling, to say the least, how readily these men dismiss the goals of compassion and respect in their responses to descriptions of rape. Stagg and Place, for their part, make discomfiting comparisons between sexual violence and art. In the conclusion to her afterword, Stagg asks, “What is rape? It depends. What is art, literature, poetry, comedy? It depends.” Place, explaining the (as she sees it) organic link between art and violence, insists, “Art is violence, to time and space and representation.” The specious logic of these supplemental texts offends me far more than the jokes themselves, none of which offends me as much as rape. As the poet Diana Hamilton succinctly puts it in her “Essay on Bad Writing”: “Fuck you if you think bad writing is more offensive than rape.”

Though Place’s project is only a few years old, the book already feels quite dated, as though she were absent for the recent discussions of rape and its representations. The unsigned introductory note—which doesn’t mention gender—cites a total cultural prohibition against rape jokes as the project’s catalyst, and, in doing so, conjures a bogeyman against which Place is posited as a brave defender of language. But, as poets like Lockwood and Hamilton have demonstrated with intelligence and sensitivity, humor can be incorporated into nuanced discussions of rape and assault—without belittling sexual violence or its survivors (see, in addition to “Rape Joke” and “Essay on Bad Writing,” Hamilton’s “Persuasive Essay for Sex Ed”). Even comedy has changed: Cameron Esposito’s stand-up special Rape Jokes, released last year, is now the top result in Google searches for the term. In the hour-long set, Esposito speaks about her own experience of assault, among other subjects, and explains why the rape jokes most (male) comics tell aren’t funny: “Those jokes have usually been like: RAPE. That’s the full joke.”

It’s a fitting diagnosis of the problem with Place’s book. Even as many of the jokes make use of puns, word play, and the reversal of expectation, what the genre of the rape joke has always really asked us to laugh at is the taboo itself. Place, as both a lawyer who represents sex offenders and a founding editor of the queer and feminist press Les Figues, might have some unique perspective to bring to the subject of sexual violence. Her 2010 volume The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality, and Law analyzes the expanded definition of rape in contemporary legal practice. But her latest book simply settles for cheap provocation. Lockwood and Esposito’s “rape jokes” are so in name only; their works appropriate the categorical designation in order to say something about the horrible—and personal—reality of rape, and to complicate what we expect those stories to sound like. Not all appropriation is interesting, however. The jokes Place tells are almost all in the voice of the rapist: a man who hates women. Even when this voice is ventriloquized by Place, it has nothing more to tell us. We’ve heard that one before.