Juana Summers, NPR Ed
Juana Summers is an education reporter at NPR
There's nothing funny about sexual assault. But the absurdity of how some colleges respond to it can make you laugh.
This week, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart became the latest comedian to crack wise about the rape crisis on America's college campuses: Reports are up, yet many schools still fail to adequately address the problem.
"Even the classic Virginia safety school is no longer safe," Stewart said of James Madison University, where a woman alleges university administrators merely gave a slap on the wrist to the men she says assaulted her on a spring break trip. The students' punishment: expulsion upon graduation.
Stewart, along with correspondents Jessica Williams and Jordan Klepper, ran through a fast-paced primer on how the unofficial rules for staying safe on campus differ for women and men.
For men, Klepper advised: "This is a big one, guys: Don't pass out on the couch. Someone might draw a d - - - on your face."
For women, Williams said: "Do not pass out on the couch, ladies. Someone will put their d - - - on your face, at the very minimum."
"Let's be real here, Jessica," Klepper jumped in. "You're telling me that women just spend the whole day navigating an obstacle course of sexual menace?"
"Yeah, pretty much," Williams responded, without a hint of sarcasm.
Klepper: "Sorry, but not all men are bad. Some are still gentlemen."
Cut to Williams: "I'll keep that in mind the next time a guy says he wants to lick my back while I'm walking to work."
Her visible exhaustion at running through the long list of rules for surviving college likely felt familiar to any woman who has had to sit through a freshmen orientation.
But, if you're an advocate working hard to end sexual assault and rape on campus — or worse, if you're a victim — was this shtick funny?
"I definitely laughed. I really appreciated the mainstream portrayal of campus sexual assault in a way that makes it more accessible for wider audiences," says Wagatwe Wanjuki, who was sexually assaulted by a fellow student at Tufts University.
There's a difference, Wanjuki says, between making a rape joke and making a rape culture joke.
"When we talk about humor in regards to rape, we have to be really careful about who is the butt of the joke. Are we making fun of rape victims?"
That, she says, crosses a line.
"Rape and sexual assault is about power," she explains. "If you're making fun of the people who are already disempowered, then I have a problem with this joke."
The Daily Show bit worked, Wanjuki says, because it gave voice to "the absurdity that I and my friends have been trying to highlight and combat all this time." In short, Stewart — and Williams specifically — gave voice to the powerless.
Sophie Karasek is a University of California, Berkeley, senior who went public with her allegations of rape and sexual assault. She is one of several dozen current and former Berkeley students who filed federal complaints against the university for mishandling sexual assault investigations.
The Daily Show clip, she says, actually made her feel better, because it highlighted "how ridiculous the oppressors, if you will, in the situation are being."
"Even though it's horrible what they're saying, it reminds me why I'm doing the work in the first place. Because it's just so ridiculous that this is even a problem," Karasek says.
The Onion, the satirical news website, echoed similar themes in its parody coverage of the campus rape crisis. One headline read: "Date Rapist Tossing His Mortarboard Into Air 3 Rows In Front Of You."
"At press time, sources reported that the proud alum, who has a history of forcing young women into unwanted sexual situations without their consent, was beaming as he posed for pictures with professors and college officials."
"This is too real," was Wanjuki's immediate response to the story. "It was just very on point."
In another attempt at humor, headlined "College Rape Victim Pretty Thrilled She Gets To Recount Assault To Faculty Committee," The Onion quoted a fictitious student:
"Don't get me wrong, it was great being interrogated by the local and campus police, but this way I get to tell university officials who have a vested interest in minimizing campus rape statistics and ensuring the steady inflow of alumni donations what exactly I was drinking and why I could have misremembered events."
Humor like this, Karasek says, can be both hard to read and a powerful coping tool.
"Sometimes it just gets to be so much for us. We just have to laugh at it sometimes. If we didn't, we just wouldn't be able to function."
But, as Buzzfeed suggests, poking fun at tough topics may require a feather-light touch. It's easy to go too far.
Last summer, The Onion published "Adolescent Girl Reaching Age Where She Starts Exploring Stepfather's Body." The post stirred outrage online.
Here's a typical response, from The Frisky's Jessica Wakeman:
"This piece isn't mocking Craig the incestuous stepfather at all; he's barely in the piece at all," Wakeman wrote. "Had he been in the piece, saying something entitled and creepy and dumb, maaaybe the piece would have been cringe-inducingly funny. Instead, it's mystifyingly uncomfortable. What's the punchline here? Sexual abuse is terrible? Adolescent girls are preyed on by older men? HA HA!"
Sophie Karasek says that when it comes to riffing on campus rape and assault, comedians have to be careful not to cross the line.
If the humor is "making fun of survivors, it would be a totally different story. If the pieces were making fun of the struggles that we go through and the struggles that we go through with our universities, that wouldn't be OK," she says.
In short: Just about anything can be played for laughs. It all depends on the execution.