Rape jokes are never funny.
Or at least, that was what I believed until last week.
Having spent years feeling deeply uncomfortable about rape jokes without being able to say exactly why, some time ago I read this excellent article at Shakesville.com which put into words the vague discomfort I felt:
“Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape.”
Reading it was like switching a light on in my brain. It helped me to realise that the issue of rape jokes is about more than avoiding trauma to victims (although that’s also important). I came to understand that what matters possibly even more is the role rape jokes play in reinforcing rape culture.
I finally felt justified in arguing that rape jokes were never funny.
Then the Daniel Tosh saga exploded online. One day, I’d never heard of the guy, and the next, he was everywhere.If you haven’t heard of him either, you’re not missing out.Tosh is a comedian (to use the word loosely)who not only thinks “rape is hilarious”, butwho apparently considered it an appropriate response to a woman who called him out on that to say,
“Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”
Yeah, comedy gold.
So it’s clearly not Tosh himself who changed my mind about rape jokes. He abused a position of power to harass a woman who spoke out against rape culture. The fact that he offered a half-arsed apology afterwards doesn’t, in my opinion, do all that much to redeem him.
But at the same time, as several commenters pointed out, how can humour be a force for change if a major part of the dominant culture is off-limits as a subject of comedy? Elissa Bassist argues that responding with “rape jokes are never funny!”, a common response not just for me, but for many other feminists, may be missing the point:
“The debate over Tosh shouldn’t be ‘are rape jokes funny?’ That’s misdirection: his statement was a wildly inappropriate putdown, reminder, and threat that this woman could be gang-raped, like right now. There’s a distinction between making a joke to cope or to point out the absurdity of a situation and what Tosh did, consciously or not, which was to use humour to humiliate a woman who stood up for something she believed in.”
Calling Tosh’s knee-jerk threat “humour” is probably giving him more credit than he deserves, but for the sake of argument, let’s treat it as if it were. Like Bassist, Jennifer Pozner highlights the distinction between rape jokes and rape culture jokes. Jokes like Tosh’s are rape jokes, which reinforce and normalize rape culture. Rape culture jokes, on the other hand, ridicule the oppressor rather than the oppressed. And there’s a world of difference between mocking a culture that normalises rape, and poking fun at its victims.
After the Tosh story broke, there were a number of comments along the lines of “Oh, but you wouldn’t go to a Chris Rock show and get offended at white people jokes”. And if we lived in a world where black people systematically oppressed white people, that would be a valid criticism. But as it is, we don’t. Where we do live is in a world where the imbalance of power is heavily in favour of rapists rather than rape victims.
There’s nothing edgy about making fun of the powerless. That’s not satire. That’s just being a jerk.
But what articles like Bassist’s and Pozner’s made me come to accept is that there are acceptable ways to joke about rape (Lindy West offers the following “easy shortcut: DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE.”). So maybe it’s not fair to say that rape jokes are never funny. To argue that rape can never be a suitable subject for comedy ignores the redemptive power of humour. It silences the victims along with the abusers, and deprives victims and activists of an important tool with which to challenge the status quo. It’s not to say that no one will ever be offended, but avoiding offence is not the principal goal. The goal is to challenge a culture which makes it a woman’s fault when she is raped,and makes a threat of gang rape an appropriateresponse to being heckled (and leads to journalists with no apparent sense of irony questioning whether she was “asking for trouble”).
I will always be outraged at jokes which trivialise and normalise rape,which “make rapists feel comfortable and/or rape survivors feel uncomfortable”. But I’ve learned that blurting out “rape jokes are never funny!” may not be the best way to challenge those jokes. It’s possible that jokes about rape can be funny – when they’re at the expense of rape culture, not rape victims.
Humour is a powerful destabilising force, and it may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to make rape a taboo topic for humour. Rape culture needs to be pulled apart, problematised, and ridiculed. It needs to be held up to the light in a way comedy is almost uniquely equipped to do.
It all depends whose side you’re on. And threatening an audience member with gang rape probably doesn’t make you one of the good guys.