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Sexual assault is not funny. Bianca Del Rio’s rape joke undermines a very real problem in LGBT community

Ella Braidwood September 1, 2018
Bianca Del Rio

Denise Malone)

Bianca Del Rio recently defended herself after making a rape joke on stage. But, with research showing that a significant number of LGBT+ people have been sexually assaulted, is it ever okay for drag queens—or, indeed, anybody—to make rape jokes?

“Then you’ve got that other bitch—‘I was raped!’” quipped Bianca Del Rio, as she mocked the moment RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Blair St. Clair told RuPaul she had been sexually assaulted.

Her words—captured in a video uploaded to YouTube—were received with boos from the audience. But Del Rio ploughed ahead anyway: “No, f**k you, you notice she wasn’t raped until she was in the bottom two? Think about that, that’s strategy. F**k you, rape is funny if you haven’t had it. And if you weren’t raped, remember this–you ugly.” Again, Del Rio was met with audible anger from the crowd. “Oh we’re supposed to have sympathy? F**k you. It is what it is, faggots,” she retorted.

This incident, from Montreal Pride in August, where Del Rio hosted a three-hour drag show, shocked many in the LGBT+ community. Even Del Rio, arguably the most successful queen to come out of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and one renowned for making controversial statements, could not get away with mocking a victim of sexual abuse. Because, for many rape survivors, not only are these jibes crude and tasteless, they are also offensive, hurtful, and re-traumatising.

With the global impact of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, sexual abuse is being more openly discussed, especially by the victims, many of whom have been empowered to tell their stories. And, in the world of drag, there is a heated debate surrounding the right of survivors to feel safe in queer venues—and the responsibility that these places have to protect victims—against those critics who argue that performers like Del Rio are there to push the boundaries of what is acceptable.

For rape survivor Jen Powell, who performs as drag king Adam All, making fun of sexual violence can’t be justified. “Rape is never funny,” they say. “Not during or after, not for anyone involved.

“Making a joke out of it makes light of a very serious problem in our society, normalising it, allowing people to see it as trivial or minor, that it happens, suggesting that people should just get over it.”

Drag queens, they add, also “have a responsibility to their community not to allow this to continue by making light of rape.”

Drag King Adam All. (Emma Bailey)

Several studies show that a startlingly large proportion of LGBT+ people are survivors of rape or sexual assault. In 2010, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that nearly half (46 percent) of bisexual women and about one in eight (13 percent) lesbians reported that they have been raped, compared to 17 percent of heterosexual women.

The same study found that more than a quarter (26 percent) of gay men and 37 percent of bi men have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to nearly three in 10 (29 percent) heterosexual men. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, meanwhile, revealed that nearly half (47 percent) of trans people are sexually assaulted at some point during their life.

Sarah Cheadle, a communications officer at The Survivors Trust, which provides counselling and support to survivors of sexual violence in the UK, agrees with Powell that “rape ‘jokes,’ no matter who tells them, are unacceptable and abhorrent.”

Cheadle describes Del Rio’s sketch as “disgusting and inexcusable,” adding: “By telling these ‘jokes,’ you are protecting perpetrators and desensitising them and society to the impact of their actions, silencing survivors and perpetuating rape culture.”

Shortly after Del Rio’s comments, Montreal Pride organisers released a statement saying sorry for “certain remarks” made during the show, adding that they will take “the necessary steps to ensure that such situations do not happen again.”

But an apology may not go far enough for victims of sexual violence. As Katie Russell, a spokesperson for charity Rape Crisis England & Wales, points out, there is a high probability that rape survivors were present at Del Rio’s show, who could have been re-traumatised by her remarks.

“The overwhelming likelihood is there’ll be multiple victims and survivors of sexual assault, sexual abuse and rape in any audience of any show, many of whom will understandably be upset and distressed by so-called ‘rape jokes,’ or have memories or flashbacks of their own experiences triggered by this kind of material,” she explains.

“Sexual violence and abuse victims and survivors deserve to be able to enjoy stand-up comedy and nights out as much as anyone else. And as a society, we need to stop making light of these topics.”

To those who think that comedy should have no boundaries, Manchester-based drag artist Cheddar Gorgeous says that the conversation about whether rape jokes are ever excusable should be led by the victims.

“We have to take the lead from those people. From people who have experienced that. And recognise their voices in this, and where their opinion lies, and where they consider the boundary of what is appropriate humour,” explains Gorgeous, who has previously worked with Survivors Manchester, which supports male survivors of rape and sexual abuse.

Cheddar Gorgeous said that rape survivors should lead the conversation about sexual violence in comedy. (Dan Jolly)

Del Rio’s rape joke has also sparked a conversation within the drag community. Gorgeous said she discussed the incident with with drag queen Tilly Skreams, DJ Danny Olsson-Lane, and her boyfriend Michael Morales, who she is currently on tour with.

“What really made people angry here was how Bianca Del Rio has really failed to recognise the wider context of the #MeToo movement,” she explains, “and actually how more inappropriate her humour in that particular situation was in the context of the fact that you have a huge turning of attention and recognition of the very, very serious issue of rape.”

Del Rio isn’t alone in using rape in her comedy. A couple of days after Del Rio’s skit, another drag queen, Manchester-based Blaq Ivory, made a rape joke during a performance at gay bar Queer Junction in Sheffield. In a comment directed at an employee handing out glow sticks, the queen allegedly told audience members: “Everybody rape the bastard.”

Despite a customer complaint, Queer Junction defended Ivory over the incident. In a private message sent to complainant Eliah Ward, and seen by PinkNews, the bar said: “Drag queens are notorious with pushing the boundaries in all areas and are there to entertain the majority in jest, not worrying about offending one or two people on the rare occasion. She was speaking to one of the staff on this occasion, she knows her boundaries.”

But for Ward, comedy based on sexual abuse should only be allowed if it supports survivors. “Unless the joke is empowering victims and coming from an empowering position, any using of the word rape in a joke context for laughs can make a lot of survivors feel hugely uncomfortable,” he tells PinkNews. “It can bring back traumatic events.”

Talking about Queer Junction’s response, Duncan Craig, CEO of Survivors Manchester and a rape survivor, questions whether jokes like Blaq Ivory’s comments are actually funny.

“As a rape survivor, I find the inciting of someone to be raped not funny,” he says. “However, I do accept that this is subjective, but question where is the joke in saying that? What is actually funny about a drag queen telling the audience to rape someone?”

Craig, who is also a trauma-focused therapist, acknowledges that drag performers have “always pushed boundaries and took audiences into uncomfortable and awkward spaces,” and that humour is used as a tool “to soften the blow.”

Duncan Craig, CEO of Survivors Manchester and a rape survivor.(www.thephotographyemporium.co.uk)

But in permitting such comments, venues risk harming survivors in the LGBT+ community. “When it’s used directly to ‘attack’ or belittle an individual that has already experienced one of the most abhorrent crimes known, rape and/or sexual abuse,” Craig says, “then we have to ask ourselves as a community, what are we allowing here?”

Certainly, for drag king Powell, gay clubs and bars have a responsibility to create a safe space for both customers and performers, and, they say, it “falls to the venue to ensure the artists they book don’t jeopardise that safety.” Ultimately, Powell argues, queer venues have a duty to call out drag artists if they do make jibes about sexual violence.

“A venue may not be able to control every word an artist says,” Powell says, “[but] they can support vulnerable members of our community by condemning an action or statement by the artist and calling for a formal apology, and not defending an artist when they do or say something offensive.”

More: bianca del rio, Blair St Clair, Cheddar Gorgeous, Duncan Craig, Manchester, Matt Taylor, Queer Junction, rape, sexual assault, Sheffield, Survivors Manchester, US

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