Disclaimer: rape and graphic language discussed in this article
I read a tweet once that said: “Rape isn’t always bloody and violent, it can be silent, slow and enacted by your friends and family.” There’s something shockingly impactful about pulling the rug from underneath your feet, falling face-first into the hardwood panels of reality and truth. And that’s basically what Vanessa Place does in her book, “You Had to Be There: Rape Jokes,” based on a live performance in which she straight up tells rape jokes for the entirety of a 45-minute show. As an artist, writer and criminal appellate attorney, Place has encountered and defended the appeals of countless felons, namely sex offenders. She has mastered the art of hitting the hardwood floor — nothing to brace herself with, just a free-fall into the cold, hard reality of rape, pedophilia and sadomasochism.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, “Why rape jokes?” Because that’s definitely what I was wondering. What could be funny in the slightest about rape? It feels inhuman, sick, twisted to even consider cracking a smirk at a single joke regarding rape or pedophilia or sexual violence. But here you have it, folks.
Humor serves many purposes, and when dealt with correctly for even the most sensitive, too-hot-to-touch topics, it can be an artistically- and politically-potent piece of work. Place’s humor is designed to remove the veneer that has concealed our failure to deal with the subject of rape and sexual violence effectively and appropriately. It is a piece that forces you to “confront the horror of rape” without having anywhere to hide or escape back into the comfort of disregard for the more perverse things life brings to the dinner table. And in each of Place’s shows she witnesses the guilty giggles and shameful smirks that escape the taut lips of countless audience members. And this is where the activation of art and language comes into play; words that are fraught with humor, sickness and dismay find a home inside the dustiest corners of our minds. What I’m really trying to say is that Place, as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes, “bitch-slaps you into consent.”
Place devours cultural schisms, splintering them wide open for the world’s eye to behold. She asserts that rape culture “is our culture” and it is most exposed in our “media-driven” society today. She starts with fairytales (“Call me ‘Prince Charming,’ but there’s nothing more kissable than a teenage girl in a coma”) and ends with pornography (“‘Barely legal’: when ‘almost underage’ sounds a bit too creepy.”)
The repetition of crude text and content compile into a monotonous chant that dominates the reader’s emotional and mental safety net. In a way, her jokes end up mirroring the structure of the act of rape itself — “a violent discharge of repressed sexuality.” Even the term rape has been overworked and sensitized into ambiguity. “Sex” is a term we all know — even the word “fuck” is graspable, risky but not explosive — but “rape” requires taking a plunge into uncharted territory.
It’s not all meant to be shocking, though. Most jokes are rooted in a statistical reality we are all too sickeningly familiar with. Some jokes that prompted this response for me include: “Only 6 percent of all rape cases end in conviction. Anyone else like those odds?” and, “I live for sex. Unlike my victims, who have sex to live,” followed by: “If God doesn’t need a woman’s consent to get her pregnant, why the fuck should I?”
It’s easy to see why Place’s work is, more often than not, considered too controversial to be performed live, but Place is merely stripping away the boundaries of art making and doing what many artists are too afraid to do. By being overtly politically incorrect she has unlimited legroom to challenge the unduly sensitive political landscape we have constructed today. Place’s humor serves a different purpose, when telling rape jokes, than that of “Tosh.0” host Daniel Tosh or male comics like Dave Chappelle. Instead of allowing people to look down at their feet when the topic of rape arises, Place’s work forces readers to be wide awake to a subject matter that has been stashed away for so long. And she does this by surfacing the voices of the convicted, those outcasted from the perimeters of human-coded normality and sanity.
Place’s work is risky from start to finish, but that is what makes it so uneasily potent. To Place, “Art is violence, to time and space and representation.” Her work fully lends itself to risk because it thrives on tension through antagonism and the brutal honesty of the darker shades life has to offer. Some denounce Place as racist, some say she is a rape sympathizer, but I would rather appoint her as an artist with no limits or bounds in a subject matter that is often erroneously and blindly suppressed into nothingness.