Skip to main content

OPINION: 'Humour helps sexual assault survivors heal'

Concordia professor Emer O’Toole explains the ethos behind Rape is Real and Everywhere, a stand-up comedy show
September 19, 2017
By Emer O’Toole with Heather Jordan Ross

From left: Heather Jordan Ross and Emma Cooper. | Images courtesy of the artists Heather Jordan Ross (left) and Emma Cooper | Images courtesy of the artists

Emer O’Toole
 is a professor at Concordia’s School of Irish Studies, and a member of the Feminism and Controversial Humour Working GroupHeather Jordan Ross is a comedian and freelance writer, and co-founder of Rape is Real and Everywhere.

Need support? Visit the Sexual Assault Resource Centre.

After Heather Jordan Ross reported her sexual assault, she felt conflicted about mixing it into her stand-up comedy. She hated rape jokes, but she wanted to talk about her experience. Over beers, her friend Emma Cooper jokingly suggested they put together a comedy night that featured only survivors.

The first show went up in Vancouver three weeks later. It sold out, and so did the next two. Rape is Real and Everywhere (RIR&E) was born.

RIR&E has since played across Canada, made national and international news and even been the subject of a CBC radio documentary.

Now it’s hitting universities for shows and workshops, and Concordia’s first on the list.

The university’s Feminism and Controversial Humour (FACH) Working Group, who have been working with the RIR&E team to bring the show to Montreal, are excited to see their academic community connect with this challenging, brave and hilarious show.

But plenty of folks will still ask: should we joke about rape at all?

Rape jokes are amongst the most controversial that comedians can tell. In response to the ugly “har-har roofies” genre of gags we're used to hearing, many feminists take the position that rape is something you just can't laugh about.

While that conviction comes from a valid place, it’s also misguided. It plays into the silence, shame and secrecy surrounding rape and sexual assault — and these things are a big part of what keeps rape culture in place. 

Columbia University visual arts student Emma Sulkowicz famously carried a mattress around campus with her to represent the weight of her sexual assault. Her classmates helped her move it — up stairs, into lectures, classrooms, dorm rooms. 

The RIR&E performers are skilled stand-up comics, telling smart-as-sh*t and funny-as-feck jokes about their experiences. Laughing with them at the absurdity of a world that silences survivors and protects perpetrators is also an act of support and solidarity.

Not everyone grieves the same way. Some want to listen to an album or do slam poetry or stand in the rain. Other people need to laugh. Making jokes about life — sour parts, sweet parts — is, for some, the best mode of communicating what they’re going through.

‘RIR&E is about helping survivors process’

Ross knows this from experience. Before she started the show, she was hiding a part of herself, pushing what happened to her pretty far down.

Suddenly it was bubbling up and she didn’t know what to do with it. She was mean, drank a lot, axed friendships. In September of 2015, she called the suicide hotline. Soon after, she got a therapist. In December, she reported her assault.

After that, there was really only one thing left to do: make it funny.

When Ross was able to turn her story into something that she could share, something that would help others heal, she started to process. And the show does help people.

One woman messaged her and Cooper, saying that, after attending the performance, she’d stopped hanging out with the rapist with whom she had previously played nice.

For many individuals of a variety of ages and genders, the RIR&E team were the first people they had ever confided in about their sexual assault.

Complaints about the show haven’t tended to come from survivors, but from people worried on their behalf. But RIR&E founders maintain that the show is about processing and helping others to do the same. The atmosphere is one of solidarity and feminist community.

This said, RIR&E and the FACH working group are deeply conscious that the material is sensitive. The show’s title could be the most blatant sexual assault content warning ever to adorn a piece of art.

Concordia will also have volunteers from the Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC) on-site to ensure that if anyone becomes overwhelmed, there will be support on hand.

The Concordia RIR&E show on September 29 aims to be a night in which rape myths are busted, shame and silence are blown into outer space and the strength of Concordia’s academic community — united against rape and sexual assault — is revealed.

Organizers hope that everyone laughs until they've got abs like Channing Tatum.

The goal is for the audience to leave feeling impressed at the talent and bravery of the RIR&E comedians, uplifted at the warmth and supportive spirit of Concordia’s student body and utterly convinced that rape culture really is a f**king joke. 

Rape is Real and Everywhere
takes place from 7 to 10 p.m. on Friday, September 29, at the D.B. Clarke Theatre (1455 de Maisonneuve W.).

Need support, or have questions? Visit Concordia's Sexual Assault Resource Centre.


Back to top

© Concordia University