The XX Factor

George Saunders Makes Very Funny Rape Joke

Ayn Rand’s big book of rape (and other ideas)

Photo by Manan Vatsyayana /AFP/Getty Images.

It was probably inevitable, given how heavily rape, “forcible rape,” “legitimate rape,” girls who “rape easy,” and God’s rape have figured into our political conversation these past few months, that as the election draws to a close, rape jokes would enter the cycle as well. Some of these riffs have worked, while others fell flat. But they’re all an illustration of how it’s possible to use humor to discuss sexual assault, as long as the targets aren’t victims but instead power, privilege, and ignorance.

In some cases, jokes about sexual assault have made their way directly into the campaign news cycle. Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson made headlines he may not have intended this week when Jimmy Dore and Sarah Silverman both told jokes about sexual assault at a fundraiser for him in Los Angeles. Dore joked that his wife used to tell him that he’d have to rape her so she wouldn’t get pregnant in the days when they were too young to afford birth control, a line meant to mock Todd Akin’s assertion that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” and prevent pregnancy. It’s a decent joke! Though not as powerful as W. Kamau Bell’s all-out attack this summer on the reasoning that contributed to Akin’s bizarre statements—a routine that dismantled Akin’s line of thinking on rape and pregnancy rather than accepting his worldview as a condition and setting a joke within it:

Probably the best riff on sexual assault this cycle belongs to George Saunders, who wrote a comedic piece in The New Yorker this week about being Ayn Rand’s lover as a young man before being jilted for Paul Ryan. One of the slyest parts of the piece is the way Saunders points out that the intellectual mother of the Ryan wing of the Republican party had her own decidedly weird ideas about what constituted rape. (Nora Ephron memorably wrote that after reading The Fountainhead, “I spent the next year hoping I would meet a gaunt, orange-haired architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect.”) Saunders writes of his faux affair with Rand:

All I know is, there was a lot of initial unwillingness, followed by a lot of rapture, and an admission that the initial unwillingness was a test, a test to see if the one doing the raping had the purity of vision to see that the raped one understood, with every fibre of his or her being, that the truly rapacious ones were not the capitalists—who were, in fact, the only ones capable of freeing the earth’s great treasures for the use of all—but, rather, those who would cry victim, and pillage that which the capitalist had earned, thus undercutting the most powerful thing a man has—his sense that he was a God walking the earth, and must take power, and enjoy power, and never apologize for being, you know, powerful.

Then sometimes afterward we’d watch “The Brady Bunch” or “Three’s Company.” She didn’t love these shows, but raping me was hard work, as I was pretty buff in those days, so by the end of the night, being in her seventies and all, she was tired, and would pretty much watch anything.

The piece doesn’t mention the inconvenient-for-Republicans fact that Rand was a staunch supporter of abortion rights, once writing that “Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?” Funny Paul Ryan doesn’t talk more about that.