Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes was made for times like these—the comedian and Take My Wife creator said as much in a press release announcing the new special earlier this week. When Esposito set out to start a discussion on consent and sexual assault in the midst of the #MeToo movement, she knew a five-minute stand-up bit just wouldn’t cover it. So she expanded her thoughts into a new special that she released for free on her own website, with donations going to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (once she’s recouped production costs). But Rape Jokes isn’t a polemic—it’s a canny mix of personal revelations and pointed commentary that ends with a word of advice.
The title of the special was unbeknownst to the audience that attended the taping, but Esposito quickly sets the tone by referring to the alleged serial abuser who’s in the White House. The rueful observation is brief, though, as Esposito would rather focus on the few uplifting moments afforded by Time’s Up, and mock the disingenuous hand-wringing over shifting social mores. Focus on your work, Esposito tells those who complain about not being able to cross the line in the office anymore, while also noting that “statistically, you’re probably the boss.”
That upward-facing criticism continues throughout Rape Jokes, as Esposito takes to task anyone lamenting the end of the good ol’ days of getting away with sexual harassment—which were only “good” for the abusers—as well as her peers who cry censorship when their casually racist or misogynist jokes don’t go over well. That’s not censorship, Esposito says: “It’s feedback.” When she tells her contemporaries, “If there is any particular word you need to do this job, I’m better than you,” the huge laughs she gets are a reminder that punching up makes for some of the best comedy.
Esposito maintains a high level of energy throughout, her smile and sillier segues cutting through the more loaded themes. She lightens the mood by riffing on the limitations of ride-share services or recalling the days of scouring the internet for The L Word recaps when she didn’t even have cable. She exults in her queerness, joining other artists and creators in emphasizing the joy among LGBTQIA+ people. But there’s an underlying sense of vulnerability that proves even more compelling than her animated delivery. The anecdotes about her Catholic upbringing will feel familiar to fans of Esposito’s comedy, as will the jokes about the many instances in which the comedian and whoever her girlfriend (or spouse) was at the time have been mistaken for siblings.
Esposito’s look at her past also leads her to a painful memory, one that she first made public in January 2017. As she tells the story of being sexually assaulted while in college, Esposito’s delivery becomes almost halting. It’s not reticence, but a search for the “right” phrasing, for words that might somehow capture her pain, the sense of betrayal, as well as the confusion created by a society that equates young women’s value with their “fuckability,” and religious tenets that tell them their value lies elsewhere without telling them where it is, exactly.
Rape Jokes begins and ends with Esposito acknowledging how universal this story is—not just in its occurrence (according to RAINN, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds) but also in the rocky foundations that undermine discussions of consent to this day. We laugh as she describes a nun using Billy Joel’s “Only The Good Die Young” to promote the backwards notion of chastity, but this non-scientific approach is what passed for sex ed at Esposito’s Catholic high school. Esposito has a greater understanding of consent and her own agency now, but she admits she’s still building the vocabulary. And this is the common ground where she’s prepared to meet anyone who’s suddenly concerned about giving out compliments, or wants to know how they can help survivors. “Believe people. Talk about your own stories,” Esposito urges her audience. Though the title might give you pause, Rape Jokes is ultimately a great work of humor and empathy at a time when we’re sorely in need of both.