5 Reasons Not to Tell Rape Jokes, Even If You Think They’re Funny

*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?).

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.

*Fuck this fucking article title, CNN

7 thoughts on “5 Reasons Not to Tell Rape Jokes, Even If You Think They’re Funny

  1. 5 Reasons to tell a rape joke:

    1) Because you can joke about what you damn well please

    One of the benefits of living in a society with free expression is that we are able to make comic comment on absolutely any topic, to make any one of a number of points, without fear or prejudice. People who say “don’t joke about X” are fundamentally a bunch of wowserish busybodies who are sticking their noses into things that are none of their business. In principle, the proposition that “X is never funny” is prima facie always wrong.

    2) Because it may well be funny

    For instance, Frankie Boyle: “People who say it’s offensive to joke about rape are wrong. I’d have been less offended by Michael McIntyre’s last album if I’d been raped with it.” Conjuring up, as it does, the image of Frankie being buggered with a McIntyre CD, and being less offended than had he just listened to it, is a funny and scathing attack on a comedian mainly notable for his “inoffensiveness”.

    3) Because you may have been raped yourself

    Making light of the darkness is a way of getting over it, and making yourself bigger than the experience that you’ve been subjected to. Soliders joke about the horrors of war. Rape victims joke about rape.

    “I was raped by a doctor … which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” – Sarah Silverman

    4) Because you want to make a point about rape

    The Daniel Tosh incident was good comedy. No, not his attack on an audience member. I mean this reaction from the Onion: http://www.theonion.com/articles/daniel-tosh-chuckles-through-own-violent-rape,28769/

    5) see 1)

  2. @Charles D. Milligan: So, no, mostly.

    1 & 5 aren’t actually reasons to do something. I can spoon my own eyes out of my head in front of my kids using random plasticware. That is not a reason to do that thing.

    3. This is your best argument. It harmonizes with girl_aggro’s reference to the instinct that “jokes about death” are in a different category than “jokes about rape.” Specifically, we’re all going to die. So a joke about death implicates the speaker.

    Right this minute I’m waiting for results on radiology after a biopsy determined I had a cancerous lesion on my tongue. The results could be very good or very bad. I’ll know tomorrow! My emotions are extremely labile, and if it weren’t for the fact that this damn thing isn’t over, I’d liken it to PTSD. But you could probably get away with telling a cancer joke around me, a) because we both know this could happen to you (may it not, however!) b) and if your standpoint of sympathy were clear – as for instance were my friends when we all got together Friday night.

    These two principles too often don’t apply when it comes to rape jokes. This can be due to the teller, or to the structure of the joke itself. Silverman’s joke is clearly alive to the froth of emotions that attend being the victim of sexual violence. The famous Louis CK joke is alive to the idiocy and entitlement undergirding the act of rape itself. Most rape jokes simply participate in that idiocy and entitlement.

    Even in this case, you need to be alive to your audience. I have already made gallows-humor cancer jokes. To my dear friends. In moderation. It’s my thing. I remained very alert to their reactions as I did so. Will I make a lot of cancer jokes to my kids, once we tell them whatever’s going on? Only to the extent that I think doing so will make them feel better, not me. If I end up in a support group with people who are not wired for gallows humor, should I make cancer jokes in front of them, even if it makes me and some other members feel better? Almost certainly not. That’s just an asshole move.

    My telling a cancer joke to my co-workers could be an aggressive power-play designed to make them feel uncomfortable – to put them in “their place.” That would be obnoxious.

    Sara Silverman is actually not off the hook, even though she has been raped, because a joke by its definition involves people outside its teller. It’s inescapably social. Since I haven’t been raped, even though I do get what Silverman is going after, I’m inclined to leave the matter between Silverman and actual rape survivors in her audience.

    4. Sure, it may. I think Louis CK’s joke makes a better example for your argument than the Onion article, which got a lot of pushback from feminists and opponents of sexual violence the minute it came out. Because the Onion article participates – depends on – the principle that rape can be condign punishment for transgressions. You can indeed “be asking for it.” Which is the entire fucking problem. That said:

    Most rape jokes don’t do this, except maybe inadvertently.

    In and of itself, that doesn’t settle the issue of whether you should tell that joke right now right here.

    Consider an entry in Ambrose Bierce’s frequently hilarious, The Devil’s Dictionary. “African. (n) – A n*gg*r who votes our way.” [Note: Not masked in the original.]

    This can be read for its keen insight into the nature of late-19th-century racism (and racism since then for that matter).

    * It’s ubiquitous, trans-partisan
    * We pretty it up when referring to our “allies”
    * Mind you, that show of esteem is entirely conditional

    These are great points, and therefore, by point 4, I should be cool with telling this joke to anyone. Except, no! I would be ashamed to repeat this to a black person, and very leery of telling it to a white person, because:

    * The rest of the Devil’s Dictionary makes it clear that Bierce was, in fact, an enthusiastic anti-black racist.
    * In the case of an African-American auditor, the “joke” wouldn’t be giving her any information she has not already figured out for herself. At best I’d be “whitesplaining” and annoying. At worst, I’m letting her infer that she needs to keep “voting my way” (meeting my approval) for me to keep treating her differently.
    * In the case of a white auditor, I run the risk that he’ll infer that I find this racism meet and proper, as he perhaps already does. I reinforce the country’s preexisting racism. (It occurs to me that Louis CK’s joke is also at risk here, if shorn of its context.)

    Finally point 2 isn’t an argument in itself, it’s the promise of an argument that never comes. The supporting joke actually isn’t funny, which seems significant. When we say something “is funny,” we mean it is funny to someone, for some reason. We can’t always easily unpack either in the moment of the telling and the laughter, otherwise humor wouldn’t have a point. But ultimately a joke is funny to the right people or the wrong people, for good reasons or bad, and ultimately, we have to be ready to sort ourselves into either bucket across either dimension. Because that’s our responsibility as people: to be certain we are sometimes in the wrong, to recognize those times, and to atone and improve.

  3. Couple follow ups.

    1. Because my comment above was a first draft and I added to it as I go, there’s at least one case of vague pronoun reference I need to clarify. Originally “That said, most rape jokes don’t do this” immediately followed the sentence beginning “I think Louis CK’s joke makes a better example…” and “this” more clearly referred to “making a point about rape.” Then I added the stuff unpacking the Onion article. While important in itself, it confuses the sentence right afterward. You could read it as saying “That said, most rape jokes don’t [depend on the principle that rape victims can be asking for it].” That would be a pretty stupid thing to say, and it is emphatically not what I mean.

    2. @Charles D. Milligan. Here’s what you did. You came onto a young woman’s blog to set her straight. You acknowledged zero merit to any of her arguments. You acknowledged zero limitations of any of your own. You showed zero respect for anyone or anything but yourself and your own points.

    Near as I can tell, girl_aggro is not famous, even in feminist circles. If I’m wrong, girl_aggro, I apologize for my failure to recognize your celebrity! :) Me, I ended up here via a random Twitter link. Seems like a nice blog. But it ain’t exactly Feministing in terms of prominence.

    So you appear to be hunting down random feminist opponents of sexual violence so you can cut and paste the same old arguments to – well, not to learn. Not event to exchange ideas. Just to mark “your” territory, is all I can figure.

    I think you should interrogate the impulse that makes you do that.

  4. Jim Henley, you have a magnificent mind and a kind and intelligent heart.
    I wish you the very best with your health, and thank you for the excellence of your replies.
    Mel – Canberra, Australia. (Survivor of rape, & near lethal assault.)

  5. Great, great conversation. Love Jim’s initial point, which I’m sure we’ve all heard from our mothers, that just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Clearly this is something that Charles has not come to terms with (e.g. Enthusiastically taking apart a thoughtful, empathetic blog post whose main point is to be nice to people who’ve experienced a horrific trauma. Um, hello?

    Thanks for the article and the food for thought.

  6. Rachel & Mel: Thanks very much for the kind words and good wishes. I’m sure I didn’t make any points you all couldn’t have made yourselves, but I didn’t want to leave my implied consent to Charles’s post hanging out there by my silence.

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