When Rape Jokes Are Performance Art, Is It OK to Laugh?

'I'm never offended,' says Vanessa Place, the author of 'You Had to Be There,' a book of jokes about sexual assault.

Vanessa Place. Nicholas Alan Cope 2018

Warning: This piece includes a graphic discussion about sexual assault.

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Criminal defense attorney, author and conceptual artist Vanessa Place is incapable of being rattled, which is not to say she’s without feeling. She’s not a nihilist, nor is she out to change the world. At one point during our interview in a Greenwich Village café, she looked me dead in the face and said, with total seriousness, “I’m bad.”

For a living, Place represents indigent convicted sex offenders on appeal, and it was her proximity to unfathomable sexual impulses that prompted her to write You Had to Be There: Rape Jokes. The book (out now through powerHouse) is a text version of a performance Place has done semi-regularly for years. In it, she spends 45 minutes reciting graphic jokes about sexual assault to a seated audience.

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Her frank way of addressing disturbing topics can come off as punishingly unsentimental. In 2015, Place worked on a long-running project that involved tweeting, line by line, the entirety of Margaret Mitchell’s plantation epic Gone With the Wind. She was widely denounced for perpetuating the book’s racist language and imagery, seemingly without challenging Mitchell’s perspective, an accusation she doesn’t rebuke.

“I always say my critics are always right,” she told me. “You’re free to reach your own conclusion.”

In the same year, the Whitney Museum canceled a scheduled performance of Place’s work called Last Words wherein the artist would have recited the last statements of all the inmates in Texas that had been executed since 1982. The Gone with the Wind fallout had rendered Place too controversial to be accommodated by the institution.

But if Place knows that she’s ostracized herself from certain communities by continuing to make art about death and rape jokes, she doesn’t seem to mind. It helps that luminaries like philosopher Slavoj Žižek are in her corner. “Place’s book is for everyone who has the courage to confront the horror of rape without the easy escape into comfortable compassion,” Žižek writes in his blurb for You Had to Be There.

When asked if she feels responsible for the effect her work has on others, Place replied, “I would say that I’m not responsible, but I’m accountable. I’m willing to pay the price for what I do.”

Observer: Why did you decide to represent sex offenders for a living?
Place: I started out just doing every kind of appeal—all kinds of criminals and killers and murders and robberies and everything. And what I found was that with sex offenses, there were no equities. In other words, nobody liked your clients. Nobody liked these people. So it seemed to me to be a perfect form of the law in the sense that there’s no sympathy driving a decision. It’s only whether or not you prevail legally. So it became appealing in the sense of, in the endgame, whether or not you believe in due process. Because if you believe in due process, you have to apply it to these people, but they’re the first to be sacrificed.

Sacrificed in what way?
The moral altar, the political altar, the sense of, “Well, who cares what happens to a child molester,” for example. And so for me, what became important was this idea that if you judge a society by the way it treats its worst members, then these are, by many people’s accounts, the worst members of society. So they’re the people that are most easily cast aside. And that became very attractive to me, in a sense. If I’m going to represent criminals, then I want to represent the people who really have no hope. They have no hope of leniency. They have no hope of mercy. All they can hope for is that the law will do what the law promises to do, which is to treat everyone with the same regard.

You said that society believes sex offenders are the worst people on earth. Do you believe that?
On Earth? No. That’s a very metaphysical question. The way desire and sexuality are structured, what sex offenders do is they take it too far. We who are not sex offenders understand there’s a limit. They’ve missed the limit. I would say in some ways the greater criminal—or the greater crimes—are those structures to begin with. So the fantasy we have that we can control desire is a very dangerous fantasy, because it pretends that there’s this thing that we can regulate, and I don’t think that’s the case. The problem is that some people, whether it’s because of neurological reasons or psychological reasons or both, are incapable of that regulation, or abiding by this limit. But the limit is, in a sense, arbitrary.

Is that what got you interested in rape jokes and writing You Had to Be There? Because there are similar boundaries with humor. Some things are considered “too far.”
One of the things that’s interesting about when I perform the rape jokes is that the performance usually lasts about 45 minutes. The people that start off the performance listening and watching and laughing—at some point there’s going to be a joke that goes too far and it’s not funny anymore. And by the same regard, the people who start off the performance deciding that they’re not going to laugh at any of the jokes, at some point, something strikes them as humorous. And so I think what the performance shows is that even within ourselves, these boundaries are a little porous. They’re a little pliable. And we’re all kind of part of the fray.

Do some people surprise themselves when they’re listening to your performance? As in, they might start out not laughing, but they eventually relent? 
They do, and they become very self-conscious of it because not only are you laughing, but you’re also in a sense watching your neighbor. Is your neighbor laughing, and when are they laughing? And you’re watching your neighbor watch you, and you’re watching yourself. Is it all right for me to laugh? Is it not all right because the performance isn’t taking place at, for example, a comedy club?

What sort of venues do you perform in?
Museums, galleries, some theater spaces. It’s very structurally an art performance, which again throws this a little bit into suspense. How am I supposed to act? Am I supposed to, because it’s an art performance, take this very seriously and not laugh at all?

Which also presupposes that art isn’t funny. “We must take art seriously.”
But I think ever since, you know, somebody put a urinal in a gallery, art has a sense of humor. Part of what interests me about working with the jokes is that humor refracts and plays with our sense of what’s appropriate, and it also allows us to laugh, inappropriately.

I was watching The Office yesterday, and Michael Scott is being reprimanded by his boss for making horrible jokes, and he says that there’s no such thing as an appropriate joke. But as an authority figure in that space, he truly can’t tell his coworkers he wants to take baths with them.
Well, you can, but then something happens after that. You can always do the transgression, but what’s the aftermath of that act?

But just because you can do the transgression doesn’t mean you should. Do you think about the “should”?
Well, again, part of what got me interested in working with rape jokes specifically was that there was a time, about five or six years ago, when there was a debate online about whether you could tell a rape joke, or whether anybody could. And the conclusion was that no one could, because rape jokes aren’t funny. I remember at the time thinking, Oh, that’s interesting, because they are. But they’re funny because I think that we experience our own sense of desire as a bit unmanageable. We don’t decide who we desire, we don’t decide when, we don’t have control over it in this sense. So it’s experienced, I think, as a little bit of a violation. Desire itself is experienced as a violation.

There are religions built around that idea.
Exactly. And desire is inappropriate. We can have it for the wrong person. It can happen at the wrong time, in the wrong place. So I think what the rape joke does is address that, and turns it into a joke. So it’s a little bit of the same kind of effect. A little shock, a tiny transgression that mirrors the greater transgression of desire being something we can’t control. But there is some resonance to our experience where, to put it bluntly, we are raped by our own desires. It violates us. So it’s a way to turn the tables on that a bit.

What I’m hearing is that you interpret rape as, like, the end product of uncontrollable desire. But I think a lot of people would say that people can control it—they just choose not to.
I think that’s very utopian. It applies to certain people, in certain situations. Some do and some don’t. I think that there are people who have neurological disorders where they’re unable to control impulses—that’s just the way their frontal cortex is arranged. There are people who have had a certain kind of massive psychological trauma at a certain age. They do not seem able to withhold acting upon certain desires. One of my clients was a serial rapist who liked to rape old women, and clearly that person has a profound psychological situation that I can’t pretend to understand, but I think that I also can’t pretend that that person could not do that. He shouldn’t do it, but I don’t know if he could make himself not do it.

Did you ever ask him?
No, that’s not my business in the sense that I’m not there as a psychoanalyst—I’m there as their representative. My objective is to help them with the criminal prosecution against them—to try to gain their liberty if possible, and whenever possible. I’m not there to make sure that justice is done. That’s not my job, that’s the judge’s job. I’m the only thing between them and the state, so I have a very clear position.

So when I did the rape jokes performance, part of it for me was that I’m telling these jokes. Most of these jokes are from the point of view of a perpetrator, a rapist, a child molester. But I’m telling them. I’m a woman, and I’m also a lawyer. So I’m representing, in another way, the voices of this kind of unmanageable desire, that for the purposes of the joke is on a much lower scale than the actual event.

And the jokes themselves, where did they come from? Did you write them or did you find them?
They started off being appropriated. I found places online where people liked to tell each other these kinds of jokes. People would post the jokes, and other people would vote on them, and then depending on your vote you would go up or down in the ranking. And so that was interesting too—that there was this social media culture around them. And there were rules: You couldn’t post the same joke more than a few times. You couldn’t steal other people’s jokes. And I was completely stealing jokes.

But then after I started working with them for a while, I also started becoming really interested in the form of the joke almost as a poetic form. So then I would get these jokes and sometimes I would massage them a little bit—you know, make them a little bit better. This has a few too many words; you could clip it and then it would be better. And then at some point I started writing a few of them just to see if I could.

How’d you do?
I think the best one I wrote in terms of a classic was, “If you don’t like rape jokes, why did you come?”

Ugh. Puns always make me groan.
It’s a pun, but it’s an elegant one.

It’s seems like you’re not easily offended.
No, I’m never offended.

Were there any jokes you found that were so disgusting that you were like, “There’s no way this is going in my book?”
Well, there were many, but I would say that it wasn’t because they were disgusting and ridiculous—it was because they were bad jokes. They were disgusting because they were stupid. They weren’t funny. My standard was that the joke had to be in some way funny.

How would you like the book to be regarded or used?
One of the things I think art can do is throw something into a state of suspense. Do I like it, do I not like it? Are the jokes funny, are they not funny? It’s like a painting on a wall, or a statue. It just exists. Because it’s just suspended that way, and it doesn’t signal how you’re supposed to feel about it, you actually have a chance to feel many different things, and to think it through in a different way. And you can think it through, but not to necessarily reach a single conclusion. You think it through to see the range of desires, fears and fantasies, and the way that these things package so much that we can’t resolve.

One of the jokes I wrote, which I’ll say isn’t even among the best jokes in the book is: “Freud said that a joke is a discharge of repression and hostility, often sexual, often violent. So it looks like the joke’s on you.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

When Rape Jokes Are Performance Art, Is It OK to Laugh?