One day this summer, staff of our oldest boys came up to me.
“Jen,” they said. “Can we do a group on rape comments? The sexual jokes keep coming and yesterday [Name] made a joke about what he would do to [Celebrity] if he found her drunk and passed out. They just don’t get that rape isn’t something to joke about. And I think they get so much of this from the internet. They just don’t understand.”
[For a little more context: these boys, besides being clueless adolescents, also happen to all have Asperger’s Syndrome, or related social-cognitive challenges.]
And so the following morning I sat with the group of 13-15-year-old boys.
“Remember a few weeks ago we talked about jokes?” I began.
“Yeah, like the deadly jokes?” one of them asked.
“How you can’t joke about suicide or religion or race,” another added.
“Right. And what did we say about sexual innuendo jokes?” I asked. We quickly reviewed how, at their age, innuendo exists, and it’s funny. It can be funny to look at a banana and think it looks like something else. It can be funny to hear someone say “I blew so hard,” when talking about blowing up a balloon. It’s okay. That’s expected. It just depends on who you share innuendo with, and when. You don’t make that type of joke with a staff member, or a teacher, or a parent.
I asked them if they knew of any other deadly topics that we hadn’t talked about, and after guesses like, “family” and “disabilities” (they are such good kids, SUCH good, sweet kids…), one of them guessed, “sex?” And another guessed, “rape?”
They all burst out laughing. As expected. But I waited, and then I asked them, “Who knows what the definition of rape is?”
As we began to walk down this path of conversation, laughter came in and out, but I held their gaze and I told them, “It’s okay. It’s an uncomfortable topic. People laugh when they feel awkward or uncomfortable. It’s okay. If you need to walk away or take a break, it’s okay.” They all stayed.
We talked about what rape is. We talked about where they hear rape comments (the internet, they said. One boy said, “Everything is inappropriate. It could be a video of a TREE on YouTube, and if you scroll down, there will be racist and sexist jokes and comments about sex.”).
Next we talked about the difference between sex jokes and rape jokes.
“While sex jokes are often “deadly”, meaning that they can have negative consequences depending on who you say them to, rape jokes are ALWAYS “deadly”, no matter who you make them with. And that’s because sex and rape are not the same thing.” I said.
“But they kind of are,” one boy said. “It’s the same actions.”
“I’m glad you brought that up,” I told him. “Does anyone know why people have sex?”
They laughed again.
I told them they were right. “Does anyone know why someone rapes?”
Silence. And then,
I looked at them and said: “A person rapes for one reason: power. When a person rapes someone, it isn’t about sex. It’s not about attractiveness.”
“Wait,” one boy said. “I get it. So even though the physical actions are similar, the intent is different.”
Another boy added, “I guess you never know what someone has been through, which is why you shouldn’t joke about it?”
Yes. Yes. Yes. Kids are so smart.
“Right.” I told them. And then I shared some statistics about sexual abuse and rape. I watched their eyes widen as they looked around the table, counting the number of boys and the number of women. “Wait….” one of them said. “So someone here might have had that happen to them?”
You just never know. You don’t take that chance.
We talked about how damaging it can be for someone to hear a joke about rape. We played out some scenarios, doing Social Behavior Mapping, to look at the effects of a rape comment. They talked about how maybe people would feel unsafe around them, might be worried that they were going to harm them, might think that they disrespected women and maybe wouldn’t want to be around them anymore. These were their ideas. Their thought processes. They got it.
We talked about the kind of people they want to be. We talked about what they can do if they hear a rape comment or joke. How they could be a bystander or not. How they can choose to laugh or not. How if they choose to laugh, what message it sends. They got it.
We could’ve skipped all this. We could’ve sat them down and said, “You will have a serious consequence if I hear one more of those comments.” We could’ve. But what would that have done? The thing is – we have to have these hard conversations. It’s okay if they laugh. It’s okay if they want to walk away. It’s okay. But we have to talk about it, because otherwise they don’t know. Otherwise they don’t have the space to ask the questions. Otherwise they go on doing what they’re doing because nobody has given them a reason or an opportunity to do otherwise.
So we talk. We have the conversations, and over and over again, we talk.