**Trigger warnings or whatever**
I spent over a third of my life in prison by the time I was 30. I was heroin and cocaine addict from the ages of 15-26. I was locked up for about 10 years; I got out for the last time when I was 27. I’ve done time in young offender institutions all the way to federal penitentiaries. Not all at one go, mind you, I was more on what they call “the installment plan”: locked up for a few months or a year, then out again for a few months, but usually it was weeks…or days. However, my last term was 9 years for a crime spree which included a bank robbery and a bunch of hold ups and B&E’s. I served 7 years on that sentence. I’ve been clean 9 years, out of prison for 8. At this point you may be wondering a question I get asked very often “is it true what they say happens in there?” And no they aren’t wondering about the quality of the prison hooch, they’re asking if I was raped. This leads me to believe there is a huge blind spot and streak of hypocrisy contained within the popular concept of rape culture.
What is most fascinating to me is the frequency, and haste at which, I am asked if I was raped in prison. I have been asked by men, women, gay, straight, poor, rich, hipster, Chinese. Often these people didn’t know much more than my name when they asked me this; like not even a polite attempt at finding out my favorite movie or greatest passion in life, nope straight to if I was sodomized. Many times when I expressed that I wasn’t very comfortable with this question I was met with responses such as “Well you talk about being in prison, you have to expect it,” “Oh so that means you were,” “Why are you so touchy about it, who cares,” “look at you (I’m 5’7”, fairly thin, and white) you can’t blame me for asking,” “Why are you getting upset, I’ve seen the movies, it happens to everyone,” and my personal favorite “you obviously haven’t dealt with it if you don’t want to talk about it.”
Like what are they going to do with that info? Do we start a therapy session now, can we at least wait for the salad to arrive, you’re buying though right? Is this some kind of kink, cause if it is, it’ll cost you more than dinner. The reason that this bothers me is that even though I’ve been out of prison for years now, I still am not afforded the same level of privacy that others are. “I saw Oz so I’m allowed to ask.” It’s like I’m like a rock star, except rather than asking what inspired my first hit single, I’m being asked if taking a shower is really that dangerous. Now I could be wrong, but I don’t think any other situation would cause people to ask such an invasive and asshole-ish question. Depending on how foreign the concept is, the value of privacy seems to depreciate.
Because I’m a man it is assumed that the violence doesn’t affect me as much, if at all. I’m constantly hearing about rape culture in our society, but many people don’t realize that men are also victims of rape, and, research is showing, virtually just as often as women. Many still believe that a man can’t be raped, or just don’t want to admit it because it doesn’t sound strong, e.g. masculine. And men also have to deal with the whole “well you obviously wanted it if you didn’t fight back/did you say no/why didn’t your run, scream, seek help/you didn’t report it, so it must not be true” shit. Oh, we also get a bonus side effect, our sexual orientation being called in to question, both by others and ourselves.
Society has a very unique relationship with prison rape though: the view being it happened/happens to bad people, people who have committed crimes, evil doers. Can someone who previously victimized someone be a victim themselves, and if they can be, don’t they deserve it? This is probably the toughest issue of all. First, many people think it’s rapists getting raped, so who cares? 80% of inmates in prison are there directly or indirectly because of substance abuse issues, not sex crimes. Simply, most inmates are in prison because they did something while high or in order to get high. I know many loud and zealous people who rally to defend the marginalized, right up until their fixed gear bicycle gets stolen buy a crack addict (meth addict if it was a BMX). Then it’s “that crack head scum bag I hope he gets his in the prison shower!!” basically, rape has become the implied part of the punishment for crime as part of the imprisonment. I still don’t think stealing a DVD player warrants forced sexual intercourse, but hey, I stole a lot of DVD players over the years so maybe I’m biased.
I’m a comedian. I make jokes about all kinds of taboo subjects. Look at my life though, I don’t know what it was like to graduate or buy a home…breaking into one on the other hand…. Rape jokes are probably the most controversial subject in comedy. Some say it is NEVER okay to tell a rape, that none of them are ever funny, and that the joke and subsequent laughter may normalize the experience so as to inspire someone to commit rape, and finally, that the cost of potential harm due to re-traumatizing a survivor is never worth the laughs they might get. Others immediately invoke freedom of speech, that comedy cannot be subject to censorship, that comedy is the last bastion of liberty in the arts as it pertains to speech, and that democracy will surely erode should it be tampered with. I think they’re both kinda right, but both kinda wrong, and, interestingly, prison rape jokes prove my point.
Regarding the first camp, the “never evers,” I have seen audiences laugh at most prison rape jokes, even shitty, hack, lazy ones. Some of those audiences, especially in the epicenter if political correctness and liberal enlightenment, Vancouver, would have been appalled at even the most finely crafted and delivered “normal” rape joke – even if Louis CK or a resurrected Robin Williams had told it. So a rape joke CAN be funny. Can a rape joke inspire someone to commit rape? Most rapists were raped or abused at some point in their life, actually, not in a joking way. I would hazard a guess that this probably had more of an impact on future behavior than any media they were exposed to. There are many movies that deal with and depict rape, some even having graphic scenes, but I don’t think these have influenced any one to go out and try it. “The Last Tango in Paris” had the infamous butter scene, which was arguably one of the most artistic instances of a rape I have ever seen! Now I never raped anyone after seeing this, but I did use butter for consensual anal sex once…probably won’t do it again, it reminded me of pancakes and I couldn’t stop worrying about my cholesterol levels. The last point, the issue of triggering or re-traumatizing a survivor due to a joke, I’ve decided to dedicate an entire paragraph (or more) to in just a moment.
As for the “anything goes” crowd, prison rape just goes to show that there is a blind spot in the “never evers” reasoning. It would seem that some jokes aren’t quite as “never ever” as they were saying. However, not everyone is going to like all jokes all the time, and the audience will let us know if they don’t. I think that as comedians we should let audiences be the censors, and not in the "go home and complain about it on Tumblr" way, I mean with their laughter, or not. The joke will either work or it won’t and if it won’t, keep trying until it does - or becomes clear that it won’t. Some audiences will give you an applause break; some will throw stuff at you. While this is shitty and could constitute assault, they have just as much right to be offended and criticise as we do to tell the joke. This is free speech. Also, if we’re going to tackle edgy or controversial subjects, knowing the stakes will make us that much sharper, smarter, and better. A veteran comedian whom I admire a lot once told me “be undeniable,” meaning be so funny, people have to pay attention and laugh.
Prison rape is one of those phenomenon that is so alien to the average person, that it falls into the same category as watches with lasers and bored housewives having sex with the pizza guy (I’ve never met a pizza guy I’d fuck). While rape itself is not an obscure subject, as we’ve discussed, the tragic fact is that most people know someone who has been raped or sexually abused, or at least know someone who knows someone. But how many people do you personally know that were the victims of a rape in prison? Well if you took a few minutes to ponder, maybe even went through your Facebook friends list, and still shook your head in the negative, now you know at least one. Yes, I was raped in a correctional institution. It happened in a youth facility when I was 15. No, I’m not going into the graphic details - sorry to disappoint some of my more kinky readers – but suffice to say it wasn’t my happiest memory, and it still affects me to this day. So I get being triggered and having to deal with flashbacks that occur at the most inconvenient times. I know what it’s like to feel that wave of shame come over me because of some seemingly insignificant subtle happening – a smell, a facial expression, the tone of voice in that smug receptionist’s voice as she told me the person I’m looking for isn’t in - in day to day life. I’m all too familiar with lying in bed all weekend because I feel too dirty to be around people, and have to fend of intense urges to do self-destructive acts or even commit suicide. And even though it was around 20 years ago, I have done immense amounts of therapy, have a pretty strong community around me, the urges still get the better of me sometimes. That’s just the way it goes as a survivor. I hate that word by the way, but can never find a single word, as opposed to “person who was raped,” to describe my relationship to the abuse.
I say all that to say this: I have sat in a dark and foreboding room as a survivor and heard my experience made into the punchline of a joke, and watched it be met with laughter and delight of hundreds of people. I have pondered if they would find it as funny if they knew I was once a victim of what they were laughing at. I have even looked around the crowd hoping to find one concerned or confused face to feel some kind of safety or refuge with, just so I didn’t have to feel so alone. I know what it is like to have the worst (okay, I had a colorful life, so top 3…errr, 10) thing the ever happened to me made into a joke. But, if the joke was funny, I still laughed. See for me, as a comedian, my only rule is “was it funny?”
The amount of shitty prison rape jokes I have heard is legion; the problem usually being they rely too heavily on a stale and hackneyed premise, the punchline usually being some variant of “hehehe, dudes get dinks forced in their bum in prison, hehehe.” However, I still defend and celebrate a comic’s right to tell said joke, even if I’m the only person in the crowd that gets disturbed, or even triggered by it (for the psych majors, social justice advocates or warriors, and bloggers, here is a good place to point out that there is a difference between getting upset/offended and being triggered: the former are more about tastes and values, the latter is an organic and involuntary neurological reaction completely separate from a person’s will or beliefs). I don’t believe my issues should stop others from enjoyment; I’m the one with the issue, not the crowd. They are just laughing at something they found funny. Even if the joke was horrible, there is no malice in it, it was said in the spirit of a joke, to entertain, and I realize that it just wasn’t written or delivered well. I will sacrifice my issues for the sake of the larger group, or leave if I can’t handle it. I’m utilitarian like that. Besides if one joke upset me and I started to protest, what other jokes that made fun of other sensitive subjects did I not pay any mind to? I’m a white able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual (well there was that confused period in my teens, but these days it’s pretty certain) male, I bet there are tons!
I was at a show recently, and a female comedian made a joke about potentially raping me on the way back from the show. The joke relied on her being stronger than me and me being an attractive ex-con. Here is an example of a rape joke that wasn’t general, but specific to me: I was the butt and target. The audience laughed, and so did I. Cause it was funny. Now why was that one funny? Because a woman, usually the victim, was saying she was going to rape a man, usually the offender, and the absurdity of that image. Fun fact: women can and do rape men, although it is less common comparatively. But who cares, it was funny, and the audience let her know as much. It was also said in the spirit of a joke, no hate or anger was in her heart when she said it, and I know that. It was as pure as comedy can get: all normative rules of communication in society were suspended for a moment and we were all together and in on the joke. Brilliant if you ask me. My only complaint is she didn’t even try to make good on her promise. Bitch.
I’m not very good at pretending things didn’t happen, which is a social skill that would probably serve me well in many areas of my life, like many people I know. I know that publishing this is going to invite a lot of comments, and even criticism. But the thing that worries me the most is that sometimes when I talk about this very obscure and un-relatable topic, I get further dehumanized. I become “prison guy,” or even worse “prison rape guy”: The rude and inappropriate questions flood in, the unsolicited advice, the critiques on my experience. But the thing that stings most of all is when I’m seen as a sort of teachable moment, a lesson in bravery and authenticity, and not just Mark, the guy who sure, has been through a lot, but likes heavy metal, comedy, and ferrets. Am I strong? Sure, I should by rights be in a mental institution or dead from drug overdose, accidental or otherwise, so some kind of resilience must be there. But I want to be seen and treated like a whole person, which can include bravery/courage/honesty, but is not exclusively so. I don’t always deal with anger well, I’m impulsive, I say mean things, I’m bad with money, I’m lethally handsome…okay maybe I’m not that bad with money. I think the reader sees what I’m getting at. I don’t know if I proved my point here, after I got writing, inspiration took over, and I’m not going to edit this much, but these are things I have wanted to say publicly for a few years now. Maybe if you ever meet anyone who has lived a life far different than yours, tread carefully with the questions. Soldiers and veterans don’t always want to talk about if they killed anyone in battle, police don’t want to talk about the crimes they’ve seen, and ex-prisoners don’t want to tell you if “it’s true what they say happens in there.” But yeah even though it was horrible, I still drank the hooch.
Notes: I’ve included some links that better articulate some of the points I’ve made in this essay:
On male rape: https://news.vice.com/article/a-hospital-in-sweden-is-going-to-open-a-rape-clinic-for-men
Trigger warnings: http://www.salon.com/2015/10/28/i_wanted_to_be_a_supporter_of_survivors_on_campus_and_a_good_teacher_i_didnt_realize_just_how_impossible_this_would_be/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow
Political Correctness in comedy: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/21/arts/television/political-correctness-isnt-ruining-comedy-its-helping.html?nytmobile=0&_r=2