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Cameron Esposito Is Taking Rape Jokes Back for Survivors

Cameron Esposito. Photo: Getty Images

Cameron Esposito hadn’t been planning to talk about her sexual assault onstage. Then things kept happening in our culture — the release of the Access Hollywood tape; the election of the man featured in it; the revelation of sexual misconduct by prominent men in Hollywood and in comedy specifically; the fact that comeback narratives are already being written about those disgraced prominent men — that made her feel as if she “just couldn’t not talk about it anymore.”

The result is Rape Jokes, a blistering, masterful, tragic, hilarious hour of comedy about sexual assault and the culture that supports it, which Esposito conceived and developed as one piece. The process of putting it together is fascinating, and it is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and those who tell them.

Esposito doesn’t just talk about the show as if she’s on a mission; she is on a mission. The hour was created to make space for survivors’ stories in comedy and expand the dialogue currently happening around sexual assault. And she wants as many people to see it as possible, as soon as it is possible. That’s why, just days after our interview, she realized she couldn’t wait any longer and decided to go ahead and film Rape Jokes as a special.

It will be released on June 11, and we’re honored to announce that she decided to premiere it exclusively on Vulture.

Since Esposito’s primarily concerned with people being able to see the special, her plan is to use a pay-what-you-can model, with proceeds going to an organization that works to support victims and stop sexual assault. In the meantime, this episode of Good One features Esposito discussing the experience of doing this material onstage and the unique way she shaped it, as well as, for the first time, a portion of the show. You can read a very brief excerpt of our conversation below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Before we talk about you talking about sexual assault onstage, I want to talk about not talking about it onstage. You’ve always had jokes about Law & Order: SVU, but as far as I know, you’ve never discussed your own experience.
I am so glad to start there. It’s hard for me to talk about this because I had one of those experiences in college. First of all, I was in a terrible position because I was at a college where I couldn’t come out, and I was realizing I was gay. This was also during the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal and I was very Catholic, and I was living in Boston. So this all happened against the backdrop of realizing things about my church. Reading what the church said about women, and realizing that I was gay and not having anyone I could tell, I was in bad shape. Something I did to cope was drink and party and hang out with dudes just to sort of have the cover. Because it’s very hard to figure out if you’re valuable if you’re a woman who’s realizing she’s gay in this culture. And our culture puts so much of women’s value on their fuckability. And so if you’re like, “Well, if I don’t even want to do that then what does that mean about your value? Are you valueless?”

I also had somebody who repeatedly encouraged me to put myself in bad positions. He was like a drinking buddy, but was invested in me drinking a lot so that I would hang out with him. He also provided the alcohol. It was in that situation that I was — I don’t even use the word raped, which is weird, because I didn’t realize what had happened to me until a bunch of years later. I used to tell this story to people as a funny joke. Like this is how disconnected I was from my own agency, and my agency over my body. “Yeah, this guy totally got me drunk! And then I was just like drunk and naked and my roommates came in and I was like drunk and naked and he was like on top of me, and it was so funny!” It was a male friend of mine who said, “Cameron, what you’re describing is date rape. You were assaulted.” And I thought about it and I was like, “Oh, yeah. That is what happened.”

But this is such a taboo topic, I didn’t know this had happened to me. Even in the new hour, where I’m trying to talk about how hazy it is when your story isn’t the archetypal story of like, “I was knocked down by a stranger and I knew when it started and I knew when it ended.” That was not my story.

So, I haven’t talked about it on stage because how do you fit all of that information in. What I figured out is that you have to do the full hour. You can’t just do it halfway. You have to really do it. And this felt like the time to do that.

As a comic, you are constantly pulling from your own experiences. It must’ve been hard to have this thing that you felt you couldn’t talk about. You’ve been doing comedy for 15 years — what changed, and made you decide to tell your story onstage?
Well, this is gonna be really intense, but this is just real. I feel a general un-safety all the time in the world, and especially around men because this was my story. Because when I was coming out and I was in my most vulnerable place, I really thought I was going to hell. My parents didn’t take it well at first. I didn’t have friends that I could tell. The first person I told didn’t talk to me for the rest of the school year. I don’t know that I’ve ever really re-trusted people. And then this man wanted something from me that I couldn’t give, and so he took it.

So, hearing the audio of Donald Trump, the “grab them by the pussy” audio, which is about what I’m talking about — that taking what you want. That was another marker. I will maybe never recover from having had that happen to me. Having had somebody just not care about what I wanted, and then hearing somebody say that’s his whole M.O., and then having that person become president. As a comic, sometimes you talk about things on stage because you get to this point where you’re like, “I can’t not talk about this. I have to. I can’t not. This is where I’m at.” That’s what happened for me with the election. I just couldn’t not talk about it anymore.

How did you then get to the point where you thought, I need to dedicate myself this?
I waited. I waited for someone to say what I felt about this topic. I didn’t feel like I wanted to be the voice on this. I wanted to hear some voices. Instead, what I saw was a lot of centering of dudes who did bad things. I saw a lot of articles that detailed the things that those dudes did, and I saw a lot of people talking about how sad they were that they lost their heroes, and conversations about art versus artists. And, man, that’s not the first place my brain goes.

I want to know how are you still alive? If this happened to you, how are you doing? What is your day like? How did you have a relationship after this? How do you have sex when sex is related to sexual violence? Rape is not sex, but how do you separate the two? I had an eating disorder as a young person, and the similarity that I’m gonna present to you is like, when you’re in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, the thing that you can do is not drink or use drugs. When you’re in recovery from an eating disorder, you still need to eat. So, again, if you’re somebody who’s recovering from sexual violence, how do you have a human connection? How do you go out in the world? How are you not scared? And it’s not one guy. We can take down whatever the growing number is. The eight dudes whose names we all know. And that doesn’t change shit. They should be shamed and they should face consequences, but this is culture. This isn’t eight guys. This is culture.

Yeah, and if anything, having eight guys makes it easier for people to move on.
Absolutely. Having the eight guys separates you from the eight guys. I want to talk to straight, cisgender dudes about this. I want to tell them that I also have had sex with a lot of women and this is something that I have to think about, as somebody who has sex with women. I have had sex with women who are survivors, so we actually have a lot in common, you and I, random dude. I understand that you probably are afraid. You’re afraid that you might fall into this category. I understand that maybe you can look back at things that you’ve done in your life and you’re not sure what those events were. Maybe you were young, maybe you didn’t get sex ed. Maybe culture didn’t prepare you to be at college with alcohol around. And maybe you never knew that women had agency over their own bodies. And I want to hang with you, and I want to fix that. Or at least talk about it.

What was the moment where you were like, “I’m going to do an hour about this?”
I woke up in the middle of the night — literally! Woke up in the middle of the night and sat up in bed and just went like, “Rape jokes.” That’s what came to me first because, again, when we talk about assault, it’s always very like, men versus women. It’s always these really black and white cases. That’s also what tends to be joked about.

These are rape jokes. Jokes about culture and my experience and my whole life, this hour, this is rape jokes. What if, when you Google “rape jokes,” this was the first thing that came up and not that stupid Christopher Hitchens article. “Yeah, I’m gonna go on about whether or not women are funny and then we have to go down that rabbit hole, and then we start on the concept of women aren’t funny and then we go to rape jokes,” and suddenly we’re harpies. Women are unfunny harpies that are telling you what you can’t talk about. And “it’s PC culture that’s keeping you down, but if it wasn’t for PC culture you’d be fucking brilliant.” No, man. No!

What was your experience with rape jokes before this?
In my television show, Take My Wife, we wrote an episode in 2015 where Cameron and Rhea come out to another comic about being survivors of assault after that comic tells a rape joke. Because that is something that has been a part of my life. And in 2014, I wrote a column in the A.V. Club about how I want comics to tell rape jokes. I just want them to be good and I want them to be jokes that work for justice and that work for the greater good of understanding. The thing is rape jokes are usually kind of bad. They’re not well done. They’re not really interesting. I haven’t seen a ton of rape jokes that I feel break new ground. People assume that women don’t want to hear rape jokes, and I’m like, “I want you to talk about this. Just be good at it. Care enough to be good at it.”

Don’t just use the fact that people laughed because you said “rape” in public and be like, “That’s a good joke!”
It’s a button-y word. You’re cheating. Have more respect for yourself as a comic than just using a taboo word to get a laugh. I don’t do that. I have never used taboo words to get a laugh. That’s a challenge that I would throw to other comics: “I don’t need to do that. Don’t just throw something out.”

Do you have a sense of what Rape Jokes is going forward?
I would love to do it as a theater piece, except there’s also timeliness to this. It’s not like I think that this conversation is gonna be over or fixed. But what I do see is that we’re moving on a little bit. I’ve started seeing some “rehabbing their images” pieces and also a bunch of industry news about different #MeToo-focused television shows that might happen. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I had something to say. I would like to enter the pantheon of this conversation. I would like to be a part of this before we move on from this because I think what I’m saying is a little different than what other people are saying.

It’s survivor-focused and about trying to move through shame on all sides, trying to talk about the ways in which culture fails us, and how we do not know how to talk to each other about sex and how that creates this huge imbalance and this huge fucking problem that. This huge fucking problem. It’s a problem with fucking that blurs a line between assault and sex that should never be blurred because assault is not sex. It’s power and it’s brutality. It’s not sex. The fact that that’s so blurry, we clearly need to do more education and have more conversations. That needs to happen now.

Cameron Esposito Is Taking Rape Jokes Back for Survivors