LiveSmart: “It Was Only a Joke” – Abusive Language and Domestic Violence

[This story was written by Michael Fonda, senior educator/community liaison with St. Peter’s Crime Victim Services.]

Have you ever heard somebody tell an inappropriate joke about domestic violence or sexual assault? When those present don’t laugh, or they look uncomfortable, the joke teller will often defend their actions by saying, “Hey, it was only a joke!”

We may wrestle with the questions that response raises: Do jokes contribute to abuse or mistreatment? Do they create an environment where abuse, although not condoned, is tolerated? What if this person has always made edgy comments but we feel, deep down inside, they are a good person?

The reality is, when we allow jokes or comments about domestic violence and sexual assault to go unchecked or unchallenged, we are helping to create a foundation for all forms of abuse to occur. In the workshops that St. Peter’s Crime Victim Services (CVS) holds on the topic of interpersonal violence, we use an activity called the “Pyramid of Abuse” to highlight just how dangerous these types of jokes can be.

At the base of the pyramid is Jokes, the next level up is Language, then Objectification, then Verbal Abuse, Physical Abuse, then Sexual Assault. The purpose of the activity is to illustrate that any number of seemingly harmless behaviors can progress into more blatant forms of violence and abuse. We challenge participants to understand the role of language and jokes in supporting a hostile and sexist culture, and empower them to confront misogynistic language in their everyday lives.

Here is an example to ponder. Is it true and accurate to say, “Women get sexually assaulted”? Or, is it truer and more accurate to say, “Men sexually assault women”? In the first example, the way it’s phrased can make it sound like it’s a women’s issue alone. However, in the second sentence, it draws men into the conversation. Sexual assault and domestic violence is everyone’s issue.

CVS employs the pyramid analogy because, like the ancient pyramids that have stood for thousands of years, systems of power or oppression need a strong foundation to survive. A person doesn’t wake up one day and physically assault their partner. Each level of the “Pyramid of Abuse” contributes to that assault. If we have a problem with the behaviors at the top of the pyramid, we must first address the behaviors at the bottom of the pyramid.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. At St. Peter’s Crime Victim Services, we offer free and confidential services to innocent survivors of crime, including those who are victims of domestic violence. Available services include medical and legal advocacy, short-term counseling, therapy, and compensation assistance. For more information, please call 518-271-3410 or visit us at

If you or someone you know has been the victim/survivor of a crime and needs to speak with someone outside of business hours, please contact our 24-hour hotline at 518-271-3257.

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