[Interview] Sexual Assault Isn’t Funny, So Why Are So Many Joking About It?

Photo: (Getty)

Photo: (Getty)

It might seem obvious, but sexual assault is no laughing matter — so why are so many people taking it so lightly? Earlier this month, Rick Ross learned the hard way that rapping about rape or sexual assault is unacceptable, to say the least. The MC apologized on Twitter, saying that he doesn’t “condone rape.”

We’ve all been in those situations where someone uses the term rape to refer to something other than the crime itself. Because this month is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we wanted to get to the heart of the issue and find out why it’s never appropriate to take sexual assault lightly. We hopped on the phone with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) spokesperson Katherine Hull to talk to her about what to do when someone jokes about sexual assault in front of you and why it’s not joke material.

MTV ACT: It seems like an obvious thing not to joke about sexual assault, but Rick Ross isn’t the only celebrity who has made that mistake. Why is that?  

KATHERINE HULL: Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a number of different celebrities using terms or descriptions about rape or sexual assault to refer to something other than just the crime. And it’s really damaging to survivors who have actually gone through this. I know some celebrities, for example, have compared their experiences with paparazzi to the actual act of sexual violence. Those terms should only be used to describe those crimes of sexual violence. There’s sexual abuse, incest, rape, and sexual assault. These are very serious crimes; the FBI ranks rape as the second most violent crime following only murder, so it’s not something to be taken lightly.

I don’t feel comfortable speculating why these people use these terms. Americans’ viewpoints of these crimes have changed over the past couple of years. Even if we look at hyper-violent news stories over the couple of years (Steubenville, Akin’s comments, the suicides in Canada and LA recently), it’s important for teens and young people to know that this is not something to be joked about.

MTV ACT: Some people will say that a joke is a joke. Why is it important that people not joke about rape or sexual assault?

HULL: The problem with joking about sexual violence and rape is that it’s just not funny. It’s a very serious crime; joking about it can not only be damaging to those who have impacted by sexual assault, but also by those who love them. This is not a rare crime. Just to give some perspective, this is a crime that affects another American every two minutes. Nearly half of these survivors are under the age of 18. So chances are extremely likely that the person you’re talking to has either been personally affected or someone that they know has been impacted.

The second reason why it’s not important to joke about this is that this is an issue in which we can to create an environment in which this is taken seriously and in which survivors do feel comfortable coming forward and disclosing their experience to loved ones and reporting it to the police. And by joking about it, it kind of sets the tone that this won’t be taken seriously. We know that the first person a survivor discloses to can impact his/her decision to go forward and report the crime to the police. So if they feel as though someone is not supportive or doesn’t understand it, it can prohibit them from going forward and getting the help that they need.  It has real-life consequences for people who have been impacted by this crime.

MTV ACT: If you hear a friend joke about sexual assault, how do you address it? 

HULL: I came up with just a couple of them:

+ Leading by example. Don’t joke about rape or sexual assault or use those terms to talk about anything other than the actual crime.

+ Stand up for what is right. If you do hear a friend making a joke or talking about this in a way that makes you uncomfortable, say something and make your voice heard. Let that person know that it makes you feel uncomfortable and it’s not something that you agree with.

+ Help make it uncool. You’re just making it a social norm that we just don’t use terms like that. Sometimes we hear people use a phrase like, “Dude, we’re just not saying that anymore.” We’ve seen that approach used in other derogatory words that people use in our culture.

+ Bring it home. Another thing that could work depending on the relationship with the person is bringing the issue home for the person. Sadly, most people know somebody who was affected by this crime, whether they know it or not, statistically speaking. You know referencing individuals they know who have been sexually assaulted or by saying something that’s been in the news, like what came out of Steubenville. Just saying, this really isn’t funny; this is happening to people on our campus or happening to our friends and it’s all over the news. It’s not a laughing matter.

MTV ACT: For our readers who don’t know about sexual assault and how prevalent it is, where can they turn for information?

HULL: RAINN.org is probably the number-one source for information and resources and statistics on this issue. More than just the survivors come to us: loved ones, information seekers, students writing their college papers, policy makers, the media…. We see a really diverse audience coming to RAINN. We can help them understand the crime, learn more about it and really reflect the crime more accurately.

If you or someone you know need someone to talk to, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is free, confidential, and available 24/7 at 1.800.656.HOPE. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to someone over the phone, you can log on to the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline.

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If you or someone you know needs help needs help call this secure number at the Rape, Incest and Abuse National Network.