I was at a relative’s birthday party not long ago with a lot of people I didn’t know. All of the guests were already close friends, and for the most part they, like me, were in their 20s. Some of them were a good deal older, though, and one man—who seemed to be about my parents’ age—appeared to be the leader of the bunch. He was raucous and inappropriate and had a penchant for finding chops to bust; what he did not have, it soon became clear, was any sense of decorum.
At one point, while the whole group was outside on the deck and engaged in fragmented conversations, the man loudly interrupted his wife while she was talking to another woman. He wanted to tell a joke. He did. Or, I guess, he thought he did, because when he was finished most of the group started laughing. But the “joke” he told turned rape into a punch line. It was something he said in hopes other people would find it funny, and it sucked.
I wasn’t the only guest who didn’t respond with laughter, but I think I was the only one who didn’t even crack a smile. Everyone quickly turned back to their conversations, but I leaned over to another relative and whispered, “Glad rape jokes are still in vogue.” I pulled out my phone and fired off some similar snark for Twitter, then went inside to eat some more salami.
About 10 minutes later, when everyone was back in the kitchen filling their plates with food, the rape joke-teller stopped me as I passed him on my way to the dining room. “Hey,” he said, “someone pulled me aside to say that you’re a big feminist, so you probably didn’t appreciate my joke. I want to apologize.” He went on to say that rape is never funny, and that he knows people who have been sexually assaulted and that he would never want to make fun of their trauma. All in all, the jokester said some pretty enlightened things. But then he finished his remarks by saying something about how he was just joking, but he really hoped he didn’t offend me too much. He asked for a hug to let him know I had truly accepted his apology, to show that I knew he wasn’t a bad guy. I relented.
In case you’re wondering, he did not apologize to anyone else (especially not to the women whose conversation he interrupted).
Immediately, I felt like an asshole and a coward for allowing myself to be hugged. I was being disingenuous. I did not want to hug this person, who frankly I found very obnoxious, or forgive him for saying something awful. He engaged in the sort of behavior I criticize professionally, committed the sort of microaggression that I believe to be at the root of why we condone violence against women. He really, really upset me—but what upset me more was that he and I both knew I was alone. That’s why he apologized to me and no one else—because I’m the "big feminist," and so it’s my responsibility to get pissed when someone tells a rape joke at a dinner party.
The fact that I am always the one to get pissed floated through my mind as I agreed to give the rape joke-teller his hug. This is why I felt like a coward: because I’m not, usually. I always make a scene, am always alone in making a scene, always alienate people around me because I can’t just chill out and take a joke. On Thanksgiving, I stormed out of the room in tears because I thought everyone around the dinner table was blaming domestic violence survivors for their assaults. My beliefs are often announced dramatically.
And I’ve found that my readiness to self-identify as a feminist often does to me what people fearful of the label think it will do to them: It separates me, makes me different and sometimes it makes people scared of me. Or, it singles me out as the one person in the room who can absolve people of their own ignorance and sexism, though I hate to say that’s not usually why I go to parties.
What I find confounding about this trend of people apologizing to me—and, if I haven’t made it clear, this is a trend—is that people usually know why they should be “scared” I might step in as the token feminist spokesperson. They know exactly what they have to apologize for. It seems they choose to apologize to me because they know I’m most likely to find whatever it is they’ve said to be repellent, but the decision to say sorry requires them to see something offensive in their own comments. People don’t apologize to me about their rape jokes because I’m a mean person who’s prone to fits of unintelligible rage, but because they know they’ve said something insensitive, sexist and problematic. I guess that’s better than people being totally, genuinely oblivious to their own sexism, but it’s also a sign of willful stupidity. It is, I suppose, what we call “a start.” It’s OK. It’s better than nothing.
But you know what would be better than “better than nothing”? People not laughing at rape jokes or even cracking smiles. Party guests thinking it’s not appropriate to tell rape jokes in the first place, or to even call them “jokes” at all. Acquaintances not tiptoeing around the “big feminist” after they decide to say something stupid, when they would otherwise make rape jokes without a second thought if the big feminist weren’t there.
Those are high hopes, apparently, so here is something I can settle for: I would love for people to stop apologizing to me for their rape jokes, and instead go apologize to someone else—preferably, someone who laughed. If jokesters do still feel the need to apologize to me, the one who’s “different,” I would like them to consider how different we really are. Do they consider sexual assault to be funny, or do they consider it to be a serious problem that 1 in 6 women will face in her lifetime? I would like them to think long and hard about what it is that they’re apologizing for. I would like them to think about what is funny about rape.
Then, I would like them to encourage other people to do the same when a different jokester makes a crack about violence against women, or women being objects or anything involving women making sandwiches. Maybe there won't need to be a big feminist on the sidelines; instead there can be one right at the center of the conversation.