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.