Silencing Sexual Assault
by R. L’Heureux Lewis
The internet is a funny thing and Twitter is a funny place. I find myself on there getting all sorts of information, as do many Black folks given that the Pew center says that 26% of Twitter users identify as African-American. At best, it is a fast paced way to share information and at worst a fast paced way to spread pain. One Friday night, comedian Lil Duval decided to get a subject going called “it aint rape.” He started out with “It ain’t rape if you order from the entrée side of the menu.” Essentially, it was a fill-in-the-blank festival that, for some, led to laughs and that, for many others, led to pain. Lil Duval’s tweeting falls squarely during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, demonstrating that too many in our community take sexual assault as a joke.
Lil Duval’s quickly took a step back and said, “Rape ain’t funny but women putting theyselves [sic] in [expletive] up positions is.” By saying rape doesn’t exist and that rape is based on poor decisions, Duval joined a line of Black comedians who have found humor and sadly greater acceptance in our community.
The first time I ever heard my mother disagreeing with my father in front of me was when my father was arguing that Chris Rock was hilarious. My mother stopped, stared at him and said, “I do not think Chris Rock is funny. Rape is not funny.” My mother continued to express her pain and frustration while my father remained oblivious to her hurt. Chris Rock had gone on Arsenio Hall and told a “date rape” joke which polarized the audience, causing Hall to apologize the next day. Later Rock admitted telling the joke helped, not hurt his career. We, as a community, are in a strange place when our community embraces someone more for joking about heinous crimes than when we repudiate the joke and seek healing for the survivors.
The reality is that sexual violence is one of those issues that ends up being so wrapped up in our families and communities that dealing with it necessitates an investment in others lives that many of us have grown accustomed to not having. Off the stage, when issues of rape come up in our community, I often hear, “we don’t know all the facts”, “I wasn’t there, so I don’t know,” or the most dangerous of them all, “well what if she wasn’t a victim.” Despite this disavowal of ability to judge, we are able to maintain a level of comedic commentary. That’s part of the problem. It’s easier to laugh at something than to deal with it. The lengths we go to laugh at and justify sexual assault, particularly violence again women, is painful, disheartening, and does a disservice to providing the space for our community to heal.
There are many things about sexual assault that are not easy to joke about. Among those who report it, we know that one in four Black women have suffered from sexual assault and one in six Black men have. We know the bulk of cases actually reported are of people under 18, our children, and sadly, Dr. Gail Wyatt’s research has shown us that nearly 50 percent of Black women living with HIV were sexually assaulted as children. There is nothing funny about that. From childhood to adulthood, there is a continuum of hurt that we continue to turn a blind eye to, except when it’s comedy time.
While many of us dog pile onto jokes about rape, incest, and other abuse, we’re likely ignoring our loved ones who are dealing with the scars right next to us. However, comedy is not the only culprit in silencing sexual assault. When “Precious” debuted there were many conversations about race, body image, and representations of Blackness, but too few commentaries that seriously dealt with the role of sexual assault in our community. Are we alone in having sexual assault in our community? No. But do we have a special responsibility to engaging this malady for the health of us all? Yes!
While those suffering from sexual assault should seek the help of a professional, we non-professionals can help by creating an environment ripe for healing. While there is the old saying “laughter is the best medicine” unfortunately when I look around, I see we use our laughter to silence the pain of sexual assault and miss out on the medicine.
Visit the anti-sexual assault organization Rainn.org for more information.
R. L’Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His research concentrates on issues of educational inequality, the role of race in contemporary society, and mental health well-being.