*trigger warning* rape/sexual assault/rape jokes/victim blaming *trigger warning*
There has been a series of idiotic blunders and missteps this summer by comedians of varying tolerability (See: Daniel Tosh* to Louis CK). We’ve talked about them and written about them and everyone is just wondering if we’re all in a hissy fit over nothing. I will absolutely admit it: I have laughed at a rape joke before. Certainly not recently, but I have. Ones I didn’t even think were funny. I probably sound awful.
But do you know what actually is awful? When your socialized desire to be likeable, makes you laugh at a joke before you even process how horrible it was. I don’t mean a regular horribly bad joke — I mean offensive and awful and I can’t believe it was said by a human being. The kind of joke that makes you instantly sick for even acknowledging its attempt at humor. Rape jokes almost unfailingly fall into this category, but sometimes we laugh. Or people who we consider allies laugh. So we learn to think it’s okay to joke about rape. Or we feel pressured to not be a spoil sport.
But it’s really not okay, and here’s why:
Reason 1: Words have power.
Despite what the generations raised on texting and IMs or general ignorance enthusiasts will tell you, words matter. Not just grammar, punctuation and spelling, but diction. Each individual word you use has associations and connotations beyond its intended meaning whether you like it or not. So don’t tell me that “gay” just means stupid or “f*g” just means dork or “rape” just means to defeat handily at a video game. It doesn’t. The word — the actual word — means “forcing another person to have sexual intercourse, particularly. by the threat or use of violence.” No matter how many times you say it and no matter what meaning you try to give it the word inextricably means rape – especially to rape victims.
Reason 2: Hearing a rape joke as a survivor can mean reliving the worst experience of your life.
Depending on where you are and how safe you feel, it’s quite possible you’ll have to deal with this all alone for fear of “making a scene” or outing yourself as an assault survivor in front of people you hardly know. Sometimes the people you care about are there with you, but they’re laughing right along. Remember that time in elementary school when you peed your pants or you called your teacher mom or you got stage fright during the school play and couldn’t say your line? Did you feel like the whole world was judging you and thinking what a screw up you were? Did it feel like the worst day of your life? If so, you’re probably lucky. For many of us, the worst day of our lives was the day when we were sexually assaulted or raped. It’s happened to some of us more than once, but even if it’s “only” once, it’s not something one easily forgets. Imagine if every day of your life someone reminded you how that one time you peed your pants, or about the day your beloved pet died, or even when your gramma, who raised you as her own child, succumbed to cancer. Now multiply that by the biggest number you can think of and you might have some idea of what it might feel like to be reminded, constantly, by people who “don’t even mean to” and are “trying to be funny” of the worst thing that ever happened to you. Which brings me to…
Reason 3: Rape happens a lot more than you think.
1 out of 6 American women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. Just let that sink in for a second. Think of the number of women you know, and do the math. Given, rape doesn’t just happen to women. For example, rape happens thousands of incarcerated men who live in an environment where it’s so commonplace it’s condoned. Are any of the people you care about victims of sexual assault or rape? If you said no, there is a very high chance that you’re wrong. Most rapes will never be reported. Some victims never even acknowledge it happened. So if you’re telling yourself you don’t give a shit about the feelings of some stranger on the internet or some guy at the next table at a restaurant or your friend’s friend, think about what an ass you’d feel like if you made that joke in front of someone you love who had been raped or assaulted and hadn’t told you (because you think it’s a joke?).
Dudes: If you “don’t know any women who’ve been raped,” it means you don’t know a single woman who trusts you with the truth of her life. — Jim Henley (@UOJim) August 21, 2012
Reason 4: It’s not the same as a joke about death.
A lot of rape joke apologists compare this to making light of murder and death, asking ‘if those are acceptable topics, why not rape?’ Well it’s questionable about whether one should joke about murder, but it’s true that these are definitely considered less offensive subjects of humor. But what you need to remember is that rape is a horrifically violent and terrifying crime that has living victims. Unlike muggings, robberies or car theft, society often turns a critical eye on rape victims, asking how they were dressed, what they did to “provoke” the rape, how much sex they typically have… All desperately hoping for a way to pin the blame on the victim. With society’s blame on the victim herself, a victim’s experience can feel entirely invalidated. Society is already engaged in this victim-blaming agenda; why would you want to trivialize their survival and trauma with a shitty attempt at humor?
Reason 5: Rapists define rape differently.
Yes Means Yes! relayed it best: 6% of respondents of a survey they conducted admitted to rape as long as the word “rape” wasn’t used in the phrasing of the question. For example: “[h]ave you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?” Sounds like rape, right? but if you were to ask the men surveyed if they were rapists, they’d give an enthusiastic – if not outright offended – no. These men think that what they’ve done is not only not illegal or rape, but normal, common, and acceptable. So when you’re making a joke about rape and you think “no one would ever think I’m really a rapist” or “no one I know would rape anybody,” maybe you should remind yourself that 6% of your audience could very well be using your joke as a subtle confirmation that they’re not alone. I won’t go so far as to say that making rape jokes encourages rape, but I will say that I don’t know a single person who would want to make a rapist feel comfortable with his actions. Is that what you want?
Bonus Reason 6: You’re not actually being funny.
If you think making people squirm is part of comedy, you’re not being funny, you’re just creating a “funny” situation. I’ll admit, to some this is a tricky one because sometimes we laugh when don’t know how to react to the spotlight. But we’re not laughing because you’re funny, we’re laughing because it’s the body’s natural reaction to an uncomfortable situation when we can’t quite own our disapproval. Making people laugh doesn’t make you clever. When your idea of comedy is just to offend someone rather than saying something humorous, it isn’t comedy, it’s bullying.