No, I Can’t Take This Joke
My sandwich was shaking in my hands as I sat frozen on the cold, metal bench. My friends, too, stayed quiet, no one wanting to make any noise that might cover the voices drifting from the table over. It was a group of guys, all upperclassmen. I recognized a few of them but as a freshman, there was no way I was going to approach them. But I could listen and I did, transfixed.
I could only hear snippets of what they were saying, but what I caught was enough. In between the mutters of “slut” thrown out like gut punches, the message was clear. They were making rape jokes.
I didn’t finish my sandwich.
A couple hours later, I was walking to my last class of the day. I’d managed to stop running over what I wish I’d done at lunch, what I was too scared to do. Instead, I comforted myself with the half-hearted promise that next time I’d say something. Until then, I was just going to have to get over it. I’d write a poem or an Instagram caption about it when I got home, get some comments from friends assuring me that I was doing important work by mentioning the issue, and ease my guilt. Like I always did.
So I slid into class with a quieted conscience and rock-free gut.
Then I saw him—one of the boys from earlier at the back of my creative writing classroom. He was sitting against the chalkboard, slumped back in his desk, chatting with another student. And there it was. My second chance. I could go up to him, call him out. I could tell him how wrong he was to say those things and how many people he’d inadvertently hurt in his carelessness. He was so close.
But I couldn’t do it. I felt frozen, just like at lunch. I was a freshman and he was a junior. I didn’t hold any of the power and I didn’t even really know what I’d say. My hands started to shake and I collapsed into my seat. “Listen,” I whispered to a friend sitting in front of me. “I have to tell you what happened today.”
We began an intense discussion about where the line is for jokes. A couple minutes into it, I could feel someone’s gaze burning into the back of my head. Even before I turned around, I knew it was him.
“What’s your deal?” he asked me, words sharp and accusing. “Can’t you take a joke? Why do you care so much?” I clenched my fists as he rolled his eyes at the apparent absurdity of my reaction. This was it. I could either concede to being uptight and humorless, defuse the situation, and force myself to live with my silence, or I could actually, finally say something.
Third time’s the charm, right?
So I spoke.
“It’s not that I can’t take a joke,” I started. “It’s that yours wasn’t funny.”
I told him that what he’d said wasn’t humorous, it was dismissive. It made a mockery of unimaginable pain. Worse, it normalized, condoned, and even encouraged assaults. I brought up statistics about how only five out of every thousand perpetrators will spend even a single night in jail. I tried to explain to him how what seemed like a casual joke was actually a symptom and an agent of an entire culture in which survivors of rape are tossed aside every day.
I wasn’t anywhere near my most eloquent, and my voice shook as I attempted to articulate why his words hurt. I even stood up, scrambling to demonstrate some show of strength when all I felt was irritated and dismissed. He continued to scoff and shake his head, but I held his attention. He listened, at least insofar as he didn’t turn away from the conversation. And when I finished, I felt awash in something I’d never experienced before. I’d listened to myself. I’d risked the derision and fear and stood up for what I could feel in my bones was right, maybe for the first time ever.
Somehow, when the boy rolled his eyes and said, “Whatever. You just didn’t get it,” I didn’t care. He didn’t “get it,” but frankly, that wasn’t the point. I felt strong in a new, indescribable way. I’d proven something to myself. And I knew that the next time I heard rape jokes midway into a bite of a sandwich, I’d be able to reach past the knot forming in my stomach and find this feeling again. I’d be able to say something.
Plus, he wasn’t the only the person in the room. Maybe another boy heard what I said. Maybe it gave him something to think about. Maybe he was the one to protest the next time his friends cracked inappropriate jokes.
Or maybe someone else who’d been too afraid to stand up for themselves in the past had found comfort and solidity in my words. I don’t know and I can’t ever know for sure, but I choose to believe that what I said that day made a difference for someone in that room.
And now that I think about it, it did. It changed me.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Cohn, Emma. "No, I Can’t Take This Joke." 14 May 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 10, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/no-i-cant-take-joke>.