Jokes About Sexual Assault Are No Laughing Matter. Here's How To Respond If You Hear One

In 2016, the internet went aflame when The Washington Post published a part of a recording in which Donald Trump gloated about how he could leverage his power to canoodle and grope women. "I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything ... Grab them by the p—y. You can do anything," Trump tells television host Billy Bush in the tape. Trump's lewd comments were described as "sexual assault" by numerous commentators and lawmakers. 

Trump's quips were blatantly offensive. However, the toxicity of his sexist humor goes deeper than mere scandal-mongering or sensationalism. Not only do jokes about sexual assaults spread and perpetuate the message that sexual harassment can be normalized and even leveraged to gain attention or break the ice, but they can also make survivors relive their traumatic experiences. It's like speech violence because nobody enjoys being the target of (and witness to) dirty humor.  

If someone jokes about sexual assault and no one speaks up, it equals consenting that making fun of a person's traumatic event is acceptable. Worse, it indirectly supports a culture where sexual violence against women, in all shapes and forms, can be condoned. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and we hope you can play an active role in fostering a safe working environment and social platforms by confronting a sexually offensive joke when you hear one and teaching the tasteless joker how to live in the 21st century. 

Break down the sexual joke

If you hear a joke about sexual assault — even when you're not a target — do not apply Hanlon's razors and laugh it off. Even if the person makes that joke just because they don't know any better or it's the pressure of entertaining, someone must tell them that it's disrespectful in addition to being tasteless.

If you don't want to sound aggressive when confronting the person, you can make the joke fall flat by asking the joker to explain it. As writer E.B. White puts it, "Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind." In other words, explaining a joke decreases its intended hilariousness, save in those few instances where the futility of the explanation's attempt becomes a joke itself.

"Interesting that you think a serious crime like forcible sodomy is hilarious," you might say. "What else did they teach you in sex ed class?" or "What do you mean when you said the victim should consider herself lucky to have been sexually harassed because she is fat and ugly?" For every reply that the person comes up with, attack the validity of their argument by restating it, pressing for further clarification, and pointing out the flaws in their reasoning. If you can hold their feet to the fire, the joker will start to realize that the joke is not that entertaining at all. 

Remind the joker what sexual assault does to victims

It's not enough just attacking the premise of their jokes. To really impact the joker's mind, educate them about the long-term psychological, emotional, and physical consequences of sexually offensive behaviors on the victims. When it comes to sexual assault or making fun of it, the axe forgets, but the tree will always remember.  

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, victims of sexual violence tend to fall prey to sexually transmitted infections, self-harm, panic attacks, substance abuse, dissociation, suicidal thoughts, sleeping disorders, and eating disorders. There's no guessing the exact number of phases a sexual violence victim must go through to recover from their crisis and regain their sense of safety and trust. The recovery process can take months, years, or the rest of their lives. Exposure to news of sexual crimes and other people's reactions — like insensitive jokes — can quickly exacerbate a victim's post-traumatic symptoms. Some people have to be on medication for life. Ask the joker if they'd still find sexual assault funny if any of these things happened to their loved ones.  

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Tell them their joke makes you feel uncomfortable

If these jokes about sexual assault happen in the workplace and they come from your boss, do not be afraid to confront them. "Even if it makes you look like a prude, be as direct and clear as possible as to the office rules of engagement," psychiatrist and author Jody Foster tells CNBC Make It. According to Foster, you don't have to take the high road and endure it when your boss says something untoward. Every company has a set of rules about how employees should carry themselves during work hours, and it's your right to assert your boundary and request the person not to make that joke in your presence. 

Another way to get your point across is to refuse to laugh at the joke and stop engaging further in the conversation. Silence is also a kind of feedback. If the person is sharp, they will realize that their joke rubbed you the wrong way and will cut it out. If you have a good relationship with the person and you know they're just socially unaware, consider expressing your discomfort with them in private and telling them why they need to stop. 

If the person persists or you're afraid you'd get a pushback, report this issue to the human resources department and ask them to keep your name confidential. These people are responsible for ensuring no employee feels intimidated in the office.  

Turn it into a dialogue

Another way to flip the script is to turn the joke into a constructive dialogue, similar to an ideation session where you encourage sharing ideas to understand each other's perspective, address the problems at hand, and generate solutions. It doesn't hurt to dig deeper and learn why your friend, colleague, or family member makes light of sexual assault. For instance, the keyword "sexual assault" usually calls to mind relatable concepts such as "sexist humor," "no means yes," "victim blaming," "slut-shaming", and "sexual objectification." You can start a discussion and expand it based on these keywords. 

Maybe you think that jokes about sexual assault perpetuate rape myths. But perhaps your colleague thinks it's just harmless amusement. No matter what you think, you should hear the person's side of the story. You may acknowledge your feelings and share your personal experience but try not to get too emotional and attack the person's character. You'll never be able to find common ground if you get too obsessed about winning an argument. 

When you can have that kind of discussion, you, the person who made the inappropriate joke, and those who participate will understand each other's actions and reactions instead of internalizing them. You might be able to win your opponent over with your reasoning, or you might not. But at least you can get it off your chest and help spread awareness about sexual assault.