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Rape Culture Meets Rape Jokes: The Responsibility Trap

A lively, somewhat confusing, conversation about bad and violent rape jokes has taken center stage for some in the comedy community again. The state of this conversation tells me something: a dangerous vacuum of social responsibility exists on a cultural level around sexual assault. Socialized victim blaming along with a lack of understanding of rape culture may help explain how these rape jokes continue to be defended by some comedians and fans alike.

The current paradigm of the so-called “feminist vs. comedian” rape joke conversation goes something like this:

Comedian: I tell jokes. Censorship is un-American. Obviously I tell jokes about rape and I am not actually encouraging rape. You don’t get it.

Feminist: I get it. I’m not asking for censorship of your jokes but some of thse jokes are akin to outright hate speech. If you understood rape culture you likely wouldn’t tell bad rape jokes and you’d have some humility about the damage caused when you do.

Comedian: Obviously reasonable people in the world know rape isn’t funny and get I’m just joking. Bad rape jokes have no real negative impact on women and survivors of sexual assault.

Feminist: Consider this: “Reasonable” people rape. A naïve use of rape jokes furthers misogynistic behavior all around you by supporting it and laughing with it, not at it.

Furthermore, using violent rape jokes is unwise when about one in three of the female fans (and possibly some of the males too)  in your audience are likely triggered by this type of language due to their own sexual assault or the sexual assault of their close friend or relative.

Trivializing rape by joking about it when women already don’t feel safe reporting rape and often experience an internalized guilt for their sexual assault is NOT helping your audience take this epidemic seriously. Do you take rape seriously?

Enter the trolls stage left, right and center.

This conversation has been going strong for a year in the wake of a rape joke made by comedian Daniel Tosh. A resurgence of the conversation was sparked when feminist writer Sady Doyle e-mailed comedian Sam Morril about his use of rape jokes. In the email Doyle made an attempt at a good-faith conversation about the use of rape jokes as comedy. Doyle, as well as those who came to her defense, were met with violent hate speech including rape threats. Jezebel’s Lindy West read some of those rape threats aloud and filmed the situation. This, ladies and gentlemen, is rape culture.

For those still in the dark, Hello Giggles offers an excellent summation of the term rape culture:

The term “rape culture” refers to a culture in which attitudes about rape are tolerant enough to be an enabling factor in anything ranging from sexual harassment to actual rape. When a girl complains about being catcalled on the street because it made her uncomfortable, and you tell her to just take a compliment, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When a girl has one too many drinks at a party and is taken advantage of, and your reaction is that it’s her fault for not being more careful, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When you say that someone was “asking for it” because their skirt was too short, you’re perpetuating rape culture. When you assume that men are never victims of sexual harassment or assault, yes, you’re still perpetuating rape culture (not only because desexualizing one gender sexualizes the other by proxy, but because classifying one form of harassment or assault as valid over another is contributing to the problem).

When asked about rape jokes last year comedian Sarah Silverman argued making fun of this heinous crime seems like a “comics dream” and incredibly edgy but really it’s just the safest joke. Silverman jokes, “Who is gonna complain about rape jokes? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape!” And I will add, by the same token, why worry about making homophobic jokes either when many gays still aren’t even willing to come out of the closet?

Recently a BBC reporter was forced to apologize after making a comment about his ability to to “cure” a lesbian. You know the joke: if only this one lesbian had sex with this one straight guy she would know she is actually straight. Keep in mind, there are parts of the world where rape of lesbians is used by some men in a homophobic culture with the intention to cure women of their homosexuality (“corrective rape”) for example South Africa. But maybe as a lesbian I’m being too sensitive? Or maybe I have some internalized homophobia to work through before I feel comfortable speaking out against this form of violence? This is rape culture too.

Ultimately the responsibility of not making bad rape jokes rests with the comedian. Tosh, Morril, and plenty of comedians making crude sets of jokes I can’t sit through in the NYC’s West Village every week carelessly toy with misogynistic language because at the end of the day so much of it is still culturally acceptable.

In the aftermath of her e-mail Doyle tweeted she didn’t believe there was a need for censorship of rape jokes and instead pointed to the role of shifting social mores. The flip side of victim blaming is instead a belief in the social responsibility for everyone to take seriously their part in confronting rape culture regardless of whether you are a rape survivor, a sister of a rape survivor or a guy who knows a girl he thinks shouldn’t become a statistic.

When stopping violence against women is taken seriously on a cultural level, bad rape jokes may finally lose their punch and comedians relying on them, their audience.

Help the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict

As a consultant for the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders I work with organizations advocating globally to involve more women in peace building and post-conflict reconstruction. In addition to this work our network seeks to educate women about United Nations resolution 1820 adopted in 2008 recognizing sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war. In all of these efforts we build on the work being done at the grassroots to push local legislation and build capacity. With this type of advocacy in mind, on May 6th the Nobel Women’s Initiative launched the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict to demand urgent and bold political leadership on this issue including a call for justice for all including effective prosecution of those guilty of perpetrating violence.

During the first week of the campaign Jaclyn Friedman blogged at the American Prospect about the campaign including an interview with Liz Bernstein the founding Director of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. In describing how individuals can approach such a daunting task as stopping rape Bernstein spoke of how she approached her work as the former Coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) explaining the power individuals hold to in holding politicians accountable and ultimately making change:

Because at the end of the day they’re all elected officials, they’re accountable to us, and we have to tell them what we want them to do. And how we do that, whether it’s a letter or a tweet or whatever, for some it’s organizing a demonstration in one of their halls of power or introducing motion in the parliament or at negotiations with the UN or whatever it is, it all adds up to the power of so many people telling them that it’s not acceptable and they want them to do take political action to make it stop. Now.

After the first week 2,500 members from over 126 countries have already signed the pledge to stop rape including actress Charlize Theron and the UNSG Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallstrom. To participate in the campaign send your tweets to @StopRapeCmpgn using the hashtag #IPLEDGE and post your #IPLEDGE tweets to the campaign’s Facebook wall.


One Woman’s Story of Sexual Violence and Beyond

I was incredibly moved after hearing the most recent story on The Moth podcast and it seems appropriate to share the story with you all, since it is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Before listening to Barbara Weiner’s story (at the Moth Podcast here, contribution from March 26th) please consider this TRIGGER WARNING as her story vividly recounts her sexual violence.

The Moth is an event where people tell their stories live without notes during themed nights and the podcast features some of these stories. The Moth hosted a story-telling night in Minnesota last year where the theme of the night was “When Worlds Collide: Stories from the Clash” where Barbara Weiner’s story “September Light” was recorded.

The effects of sexual violence are long term and severe and can include post traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders, eating disorders, body memories and suicide as outlined by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Beyond recounting her experience of sexual violence Barbara speaks to the long term repercussions of the event for her, her friends and her family and the ongoing struggle to heal.

Thank you Barbara Weiner for sharing your story.


Reproductive Rights in the Presidential Campaign Crossfire

As the 2012 presidential campaign season drags on, contraception and abortion remain hot topics of debate for conservatives battling out the primaries. While the left remains mostly on the defense (though one can certainly point to the Komen and Planned Parenthood controversy to see how quickly the feminist blogosphere can move into action!), the right continues to aggressively attack women’s rights and control over their own sexual health and freedom.


New Year, New Bloggers: Jamie Hagen

(Jamie has actually been with us for a few months, but she hasn’t had the chance yet to properly introduce herself. So, it’s high time we make up on that. We’re so glad to have Jamie on the team!)

Hello readers!

I’ve been a writer for The Line Campaign since August 2011 when I saw the call for bloggers and jumped at the opportunity to blog with such an awesome team working to empower young leaders to end sexual violence in such a creative and participatory way.


No Excuses for Rape Jokes

In a recent article on her blog Sex Geek, Andrea Zanin reminds readers that rape jokes are never funny. Her post is particularly directed to the BDSM community where she has witnessed the use and defense of rape jokes during her work teaching about queer sexuality, polyamory and BDSM/leather for over a decade.


The Future of Feminism is the The Feminist Blogosphere

Gloria Steinem graces the November 7th cover of New York Magazine
featuring the oral history of the beginnings of the feminist movement
through the founding and publication of Ms. Magazine  not
to be missed. In the same issue Emily Nussbaum provides readers with an overview of the growing feminist blogosphere “bypassing the press” to promote feminist issues in “The Rebirth of the Feminist Manifesto.”

Touching on some of the same issues, Courtney E. Martin reported in the Nation in the story “You are the NOW of Now! The Future of (Online) Feminism” about the growing need to acknowledge where much of the important work is being done these days for feminism. In regards to online feminism Martin writes, “It can be—and it already is—the conduit between those fully devoting themselves to professional feminism and those who care deeply and want to be engaged citizens, but don’t have the luxury of working within the movement.” Nussbaum explains how the feminist blogosphere has changed the platform for the feminist cause by including the acceptance of porn, transgendered-rights and lobbying for gay marriage. (That said, I was definitely disappointed by the poor representation of queer feminist bloggers in both articles.)

As a feminist blogger I’m thrilled to see the feminist blogosphere given the credit it’s due, and to hear Martin articulate the necessary shift in paradigm from the current funding models which don’t support most online work. Martin notes, “Online organizing has infused new energy—not to mention drawn thousands of newly minted feminists—into the feminist movement, and yet the movement’s financial backers haven’t caught up to the new reality.” Shelby Knox, director of Women’s Rights Organization compares the rise of online communities and commentary on feminist issues to the consciousness raising groups of the sixties and added that the common “martyr complex” of many activists has got to the tossed should feminists continue to thrive in this new direction.

Both articles mention many of the same feminist websites to watch including Feministing, Radalicious, Jezebel, Hollaback, Tiger Beatdown and the F-Bomb. Certainly the movement behind screenings of The Line is part of this feminist blogosphere community. Additionally, The Line Campaign’s Circle of 6 Ap which recently won the White House #AppsAgainstAbuse Challenge and Hollaback!’s App may change the face of how individuals and communities respond to sexual harassment and assault.

Along with Martin I too wonder how long will it be before the political feminist funding model catches up to support the work of the feminist blogosphere? Though this remains to be seen, I’m excited to be a part of a feminist movement made more accessible and look forward to seeing how blogs, apps and other social media continue to shift the make-up and reach of the movement.

Addressing Sexual Violence as an International Issue

Over the past few years Nicholas Kristof has used his column in the New York Times to speak out against sexual violence as a weapon of war and he was one of the loudest voices in the mainstream American media to highlight the ongoing conflict in Sudan. Recently one of his columns focused on the continued plague of sexual violence in Freetown, Sierra Leon.

Some terrifying statistics are outlined in his piece “In This Rape Center, the Patient was 3” published earlier this month. Reporting from a rape center in Freetown he tells us that 26 percent of rape victims the rape center treats are 11 years old or younger. Learning of sexual violence is always shocking, but particularly where victims are so young and so many.

Kristof continues:

Sexual violence is a public health crisis in much of the world, and women and girls ages 15 to 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by men than by malaria, cancer, war or traffic accidents combined, according to a 2005 study. Such violence remains a significant problem in the United States, but it’s particularly prevalent in countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia or Congo that have endured civil war. The pattern is that after peace arrives, men stop shooting each other but continue to rape women and girls at staggering rates — and often at staggeringly young ages.

The United Nations has recognized the use of mass rape of both men and women as a tool of terror used in war and there are reports of this horrendous human rights abuse in the conflicts in Congo, Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda and Liberia. In 2008 United Nations Security Council resolution 1820 was unanimously adopted to address sexual violence in conflict. The resolution as explained by UN Women

identifies sexual violence as a matter of international peace and security that necessitates a security response, by recognizing that such acts can exacerbate situations of armed conflict and can impede the restoration of peace and security.

Kristof notes that passing H.R. 4594: International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA)  is a modest action the United States could make legislatively to bring the issue of sexual violence to the forefront of the political landscape.  In the current political climate Republicans continue to hinder the sexual rights of women both domestically and abroad by attacking organizations such as Planned Parenthood providing women with sexual and reproductive health care. Eliminating funding to the  international development agency the United Nations Population Fund, an organization which aims to, “reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect” is another troubling way House Republicans aim to hinder women’s control of their own sexual health and freedom.

Empowering women through improved access to education and economic programs such as Kiva’s microfinance lending are two examples of ways to improve conditions for women in Sierra Leone and ultimately shift the climate away from the ever-present threat and domination of sexual violence in women’s lives. Kristof suggests readers donate directly to the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) fund to help women  by providing such services as the Kalilahun Women’s Center.  Readers are also encouraged to leave feedback and comments at his On The Ground blog. Eva Mendes and Nicholas Kristof are currently filming Half the Sky, a documentary to air in 2012 based on the book of the same title addressing ways to educate empower women including a segment about sexual violence and the work of the IRC.

New TV Programming Featuring Women: Progressive Shift?

This fall has given us a lot to talk about with new leading ladies in shows such as “The Playboy Club”, “Pan Am”, “Whitney”, “2 Broke Girls” and “The New Girl”. With these shows comes much opportunity for empowered, humorous, intelligent roles for women.  In the New York Times  article “Retrofitting the Feminine Mystique” Alessandra Stanley argues television is now mostly shows for women by women and these shows reflect this power shift in TV programming.

But what women relate to these characters, and why? Revisiting history with today’s feminist lens, and for entertainment no less, is tricky business.

Take for example the response to NBC’s “The Playboy Club” which takes place in Chicago’s Playboy Club and follows the lives of the employees or “Bunnies” in the 1960s. The series has received criticism from Gloria Steinem asking, “Are they aggrandizing the past in a nostalgic way, or are they really showing the problems of the past in order to show we have come forward?” Steinem has called for a boycott of the show, and at least one former playboy bunny wrote in the Huffington Post of the many inaccuracies in the portrayal of life as a bunny. Begging the same questions is the show “Pan Am” which is another period drama set in the 1960’s focusing on the flight attendants and pilots.

Writing about “The New Girl” for Autostraddle I learned that many readers agreed with my thoughts that the show’s premise of portraying a girl in need of help from male roommates to find a man and learn to dress was a bit tired.  On the other hand, the show definitely highlights gender performance between both the male and female characters in a way that may allow for comical and interesting critique.

I do think it’s meaningful that there are so many sitcoms with leading ladies.  And I do think we’ve come a long way since the days portrayed in “Pan Am” and “The Playboy  Club”. However, as Gloria Steinem notes, these show’s story lines must actually dig into issues such as women in the workforce, rape, access to abortion and the struggles of those from the LGBTQ community living in the closet to be called empowering or progressive.


New Mandate requires Sex Education for NYC Students

This month marks the passing of a new sex-ed mandate in NYC public schools strengthening the existing health education requirements for middle and high-school students. Much advocacy work from groups like the HIV Law Project and The Sex Education Alliance of New York City has gone into the push for improved sex and HIV education for students leading to the new legislation.

As might be expected, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York has already reacted to the passed legislation arguing sex education is a matter to be handled by parents rather than schools. Under the new legislation parents who object to the mandated sex education are given the option to opt out.

A New York Times article outlining the new legislation further explains the mandate as well as the current state of sex education in America:

Nationwide, one in four teenagers between 2006 and 2008 learned about abstinence without receiving any instruction in schools about contraceptive methods, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health. As of January, 20 states and the District of Columbia mandated sex and H.I.V. education in schools. An additional 12 states, New York included, required H.I.V. education only, according to a policy paper published by the institute.

New York City’s new mandate goes beyond the state’s requirement that middle and high school students take one semester of health education classes. The city’s mandate calls for schools to teach a semester of sex education in 6th or 7th grade, and again in 9th or 10th grade, suggesting they use HealthSmart and Reducing the Risk, out-of-the-box sets of lessons that have been recommended since 2007. A city survey of principals last year found that 64 percent of middle schools were using the HealthSmart curriculum.

A shout-out is definitely due to those who have committed significant time and energy in working towards the passing of this legislation for NYC students. As explained by Alison Yager of the HIV Law Project in a recent post, since 2006 a dedicated group of HIV positive women have been working to make a difference for a young students.

Resolved to make a difference, they formed the Steering Committee of HIV Law Project’s Center for Women and HIV Advocacy, and together decided to commit themselves in a more deliberate way to the fight for comprehensive sex education. For one year this dedicated band of women met weekly at our offices with an organizer from CHAMP, the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, who guided them through the process of building an advocacy campaign, and taught them essential advocacy skills.

After this first year, the group continued meeting weekly, and later bi-weekly for a total of four and a half years. Over the years they stood on street corners and talked to their neighbors; they gathered signatures and sent postcards and letters to City, State and federal leaders; they made phone calls, and visited elected officials and local PTAs sharing their message. Their resolve to make a difference was truly inspiring.

Indeed this work is inspiring, and the newly passed legislation in NYC is a very necessary and welcome achievement. In a country where some school districts still teach abstinence only education, the passing of improved mandated sex-education which will at the very least educate students in the use of condoms and discussion of appropriate age for sexual activity is no small measure.

Much work remains to assure the legislation is enforced in a meaningful way  that will truly impact students of New York City to both empower and educate them in making healthy decisions in their personal sex lives.

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