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Emma Cooper (seen here) and Heather Jordan Ross are co-producers of Rape Is Real and Everywhere: A Comedy Show.

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Can you be a funny rape victim?

Emma Cooper and Heather Jordan Ross are setting out to find out. The women, Vancouver comedians who both experienced sexual assault, are co-producers of Rape Is Real and Everywhere: A Comedy Show, a controversial stand-up tour hosted by sexual-assault victims telling "rape jokes."

With their provocative tour now crisscrossing Canada, Ross, 26, and Cooper, 30, are reappropriating the vile rape joke from drunken frat boys and putting it into the hands of survivors. It's a rethink of the rape joke as a serious narrative tool.

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"There have always been rape jokes and there have always been survivors and now they are coming together," says Ross, who was violently sexually assaulted in Burnaby, B.C., by a co-worker she had been sleeping with. Ross now "jokes it out" on stage as therapy: "When you get to say, 'This happened. I didn't deserve it. Now I'm ready to laugh,' that's empowering."

The show underscores how straitjacketed sexual-assault victims remain in the courts of law and public opinion. Victims who don't fit the mould of solemn, scared and seemingly ashamed are still distrusted. As we learned through the Jian Ghomeshi trial, unconventional accusers remain especially challenging. And so the comedians quipping about their attacks in Rape Is Real and Everywhere have taken a special leap of faith. ("If you don't laugh at these jokes, I got raped for nothing," one male survivor teased the audience.)

Cooper and Ross spoke with The Globe about society's insistence on "perfect victims," and the darkly cathartic power of a well-told rape joke.

How can you "joke it out" about rape, as you put it?

Heather Jordan Ross: If you're a regular human, after an experience happens you think, how am I going to share this with the people I know? When you're a comedian your first thought is, how do I make this funny? For me, it was one of the most natural things in the world. It's actually a relief to joke it out.

Give me a sample.

Emma Cooper: My rapist left a poem on my bicycle beforehand. In the poem he misspelled the word "beautiful" with two L's. I need a higher standard of rapist. My rapist is an idiot.

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How does cracking jokes about your assaults help you?

Cooper: A joke isn't a joke until you take it in front of an audience, and an experience like this is less real in your own mind until you communicate it with other people. It's helped me process it. It's made me talk about it with my family. It's opened dialogue with other people who have shared their story. After talking about it with different people I understood that someone felt more entitled to my body than I had felt entitled to say no.

Ross: Working on the show has made me constantly confront the assumptions I have about my own sexual assault, and about sexual assault in general. I used to be a journalist and after reporting my assault to police I started calling it "my alleged assault." Which makes no sense because I was there and I know that it happened.

One of the biggest things here is reiterating that you didn't deserve it. For me it took a therapist and a police officer saying, "That shouldn't have happened to you." If I get to go on stage and say, "Yup. Still didn't deserve that," it's comforting.

When you get to tell the story, you get to own the story. When you don't get to tell the story, the only narrative is your rapist's narrative, which is that nothing happened.

What is the formula for a good rape joke, then?

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Ross: The formula is thinking your joke through. If your joke makes a rapist laugh and makes survivors sick to their stomach, what kind of jokes are you telling?

Cooper: Does your joke punch up at the issues? Or does your joke punch down at the person who's been hurt?

Should anyone but survivors ever tell them?

Ross: I know survivors who have made some bad rape jokes and I know non-survivors who have made some good rape jokes.

Cooper: As comedians, we're firm that anyone can tell any kind of a joke. But you've got to take responsibility and think about your audience. People don't remember that there are survivors in probably every audience that they've ever told jokes to.

Why are young, male comedians so drawn to the awful rape joke?

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Ross: It's the same reason the punchline to the next joke has to be about cancer and the next one has to be about taking a dump. They're all things your mom told you not to talk about when you were 8, and now's your chance. They want to be edgy. I'm not even offended any more; it's just boring.

These guys also think it doesn't really happen – that you're just as likely to be a victim of sexual assault as you are to be struck by a toilet that came from outer space.

Cooper: Some people have never had to think about the experience of sexual assault. They operate in this bubble where they're not impacted. If you've never had someone disclose sexual assault to you – I mean, you're really missing out. [Laughter]

The Jian Ghomeshi trial drove home that being irreverent will ding your credibility as a sexual-assault accuser. Lucy DeCoutere didn't win any points with the judge for joking with a reporter that she was to sexual-assault awareness what David Beckham is to Armani underwear. Kathryn Borel was recently eviscerated for a years-old Canadaland interview that suggested she'd occasionally been "inappropriate" and "foul-mouthed" while working at the CBC. In a draft of his courtroom apology to Borel, Ghomeshi reportedly blamed her for her "jocular manner" at work, Borel told Maclean's. Profane victims do not sit well with observers, who expect victims to be absolutely serious people. Why can't a victim be funny?

Cooper: With sexual assault we have the narrative that someone comes out of the alley and attacks you. And we've also prescribed the response. As a victim, you should feel shame, tell two close friends and immediately report to the police. Those who diverge in their responses – including using humour to process it – you're probably not a victim and you might be lying. Our system is built on the wrong assumptions about how rape plays out.

Ross: I reported my assault to police and did a show that night. I said, "Well, here's what happened, everybody." It wasn't funny, for the record, and the audience was not having it. But people are going to grieve the way they grieve. Not everyone processes this with a single tear falling through the centre of their eye while quietly whispering to a police officer.

People want a pure, blue-eyed Bambi victim. If you have a personality, you probably had something to do with it.

Are you getting pushback from other survivors over this project?

Ross: It's just started. We've gained a nemesis of sorts in one city who e-mailed and said she'd do anything in her power to stop this. I do respect that not everybody wants to joke about it. Most survivors have said they don't want to laugh about it but they're glad we're processing this. Some people have said "rape's never funny," but I don't think they're reading the second part here: rape jokes, by survivors. We're survivors, surviving.

You also include male victims of sexual assault on your tour.

Ross: We've got a male survivor for every show except for one where we had no submissions, in Calgary. Male survivors go through a double whammy: They're raped and then they're told that they can't be raped.

Cooper: You can be mindful of the statistics [85 per cent of victims reporting sexual offences to police are women, according to Statistics Canada], but this show gets back to people telling their own stories. You're coming back to humans, first.

One might assume that survivors' rape jokes would be preachy and PC. Not quite.

Ross: It's a comedy show. That's something we've been really firm on. This is not a Ted Talk.

Cooper: The show walks the line between social justice and free speech. We're not going to coddle you but we will be respectful of you. We can't promise that you won't be offended. If it's so PC that no one will be offended by it, you're not really creating a lot of change.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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