Gail Stern — co-founder of Catharsis Productions and co-author of Sex Signals — was supposed to go into stand-up comedy, but in the early 1990s she trained over 800 Chicago police sergeants on “cultural sensitivity” and soon began using her humor to connect with audiences to educate them on rape culture and sexual violence instead.
“If I can use comedy to get people to think about the world in another way so they don’t totally reject what I’m saying, that’s got power," Stern said. "That’s awesome."
Stern presented “The Canary in the Coal Mine: What Rape Jokes Signal about our Culture” to Michigan State students in the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams on Thursday as a part of It’s On Us Week of Action – a campus-wide initiative with the goal of creating an honest dialogue about sexual assault and campus climate.
In the presentation, she discussed how a culture of violence is reinforced by jokes and images about rape and sexual assault.
Stephanie Nawyn, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and co-director of the Center for Gender in Global Context, said several groups coordinated to have Stern as the keynote speaker. She said it was inspiring to have these groups help create an event that motivates the university community to create change on campus.
“Of all the great things going on here, of course over the last year and a half, we’ve had to struggle with not very great things,” Nawyn said. “And how we, as an institution, have to look at the ways in which our university has been set up to perpetuate bad things.
“And how we can change that institution to perpetuate good things and make the culture of MSU a place that supports all of us, that’s a good, healthy place for us to be that isn’t exploitative, that isn’t oppressive, that isn’t doing violence to the most vulnerable among us.”
Stern discussed how sexist jokes and jokes about rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are telling of how our society views and reacts to these issues.
“What I’ve come to believe after teaching this for almost 30 years is that the rape joke itself is offensive but what is more powerful to look at it as what I call the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ as an indicator of something that’s really foul and awful,” she said. “When I think of rape jokes, I think of them as the canary, as a signal that we have a toxic environment.”
Throughout the presentation, Stern showed examples of advertisements, images and social media posts that used jokes about sexual violence. She said society’s negative stereotypes and ideas about sexual violence become reinforced through these kinds of jokes.
Because of the way society addresses these issues, there are often debates surrounding what is considered rape, how serious a rape case is and whether or not rape is preventable, she said.
Additionally, it’s often straight, cis, white men and women who are included in the conversation regarding sexual violence, Stern said. Black women in particular are often left out of discussion.
“They’re not even in this picture," she said. "We’re not even devoting any time and care to them. They’re missing from the conversation. Think about that.”
Stern also discussed consent, blaming, grooming and hostile work environments.
She said people in society often portray survivors of sexual assault as wanting attention when they’re in the process of coming forward. She mentioned former MSU Interim President John Engler’s comments he made about survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse “enjoying” the “spotlight” as an example.
“They’re not just words,” she said. “Those words enable those who are willing to actually exemplify that they’re given a wide berth. Then, the people around them have an increased tolerance for it, whether or not they actually support it officially.”