Do You Laugh At Rape Jokes?

I could have titled this "Why Rape Jokes Aren't Funny" but sometimes they are uproariously funny, right? I mean, who hasn't laughed at a rape joke? Rape jokes are a dime a dozen. That's why the problem isn't the jokes or who's telling them. It's that so many, many people think that stories about degrading and violating women, the more violently the better, is laugh-out-loud entertaining. They spend a lot of time and money proving this. There are times when jokes, told by the right person in the right way, are taboo breaking and revolutionary. Consider, for example, George Carlin or Chris Rock or Sarah Silverman (more later). But, those are few and far between. It was certainly not the case two days ago when popular Comedy Central star Daniel Tosh suggested that it would be hilarious if a woman in the audience who objected to a rape joke was gang raped by five men right there and then.
"So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don't know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON'T find them funny and never have. So I didn't appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, "Actually, rape jokes are never funny!"I did it because, even though being "disruptive" is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don't sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape. After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, "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..." and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn't hear the rest of what he said about me."
This was just dumb, not funny. No satire. No brilliant dismantling of culture or power. This was just a straight down the line rape-for-good-old-rape's sake. It's safe to say that most rape jokes are like this and are not being told by incisive comedic geniuses with a keen sense of social justice. Which is why they aren't funny. These jokes, meant to dismissively demean instead of pointedly reveal, normalize and perpetuate a culture in which the degradation of women is not only tolerated, but fun. The way racist blackface humour was fun. Today's rape jokes are no different from yesterday's lynching jokes. It's just that overt racism is not acceptable, while misogyny and sexism are still celebrated. Otherwise, people wouldn't have laughed so hard when Tosh incited a gang rape as a response to a heckler.   Culture is why Tosh is just a symptom. He's simply doing what works to generate a small fortune, capture six million Twitter followers and be a number one rated comedian. That's why this isn't a First Amendment problem but one of market demand. The First Amendment gives people the right to make rape jokes and this right is critical and non-negotiable. But, it doesn't obligate comedians to tell these jokes, nor does it obligate others to pay to hear them because they find them entertaining. That's a matter of our culture and what is considered the current norm for human decency and empathy. Tosh in this way is no different from Facebook - which chose to keep rape joke pages up (in violation of its own guidelines prohibiting hate speech, if they apply to women) but removed a picture of an asexualized woman walking down the street topless in NY for being obscene. I'm not letting him off the hook, though. He has no (meaningless) corporate guidelines to follow, but he has an ethical choice about the jokes he makes and how he makes them.  Rape jokes aren't simply R-rated antics. Many people are having to spend a lot of time explaining, with no ambiguity, why rape jokes shouldn't be and aren't funny, even if they can be therapeutic, transgressive or revelatory. I urge you to consider their arguments if you're in the "lighted up" camp. Jokes are meant, through laughter, to bring people together and, when brilliant, can be provoking and consciousness-raising. But, instead, what most rape jokes do is neither, relying instead, with a staggering lack of cleverness or insight, on dumb domination and violence. This is exactly why despite being a huge Sarah Silverman fan, I wish she'd stop telling rape jokes. Essentially, I wish she should stop for the same reason Chris Rock stopped using his Niggas versus Black People routine. It, like Silverman's rape routines, was side-splittingly funny, but he won't use it anymore because he felt it gave racists license to use the word nigger. Her telling rape jokes gives men like Tosh and his audiences license to do the same with rape. Rape is about power and degradation. People who do have cultural capital, like Tosh, whether they asked for it or not, have a responsibility to think about the impact and influence of their words. Rape jokes:
  • Give legitimacy to rapists, who tend to be men that think all other men are just like them.
  • Are triggers for people who hear them and have been raped - rape is not a warm and fuzzy memory that enhances your entertainment experience.
  • Trivialize and dismiss rape and rape victims.
  • Perpetuate a perversion of healthy sexuality.  A perversion that conflates male sexual pleasure with violence and female submission, humiliation and pain.
Additionally, as I've written before, rape jokes portray rape primarily as forcible and heterosexual, and young boys in particular pay the price for this myth.  One need only look at the news about Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State child abuse scandal to know that rape culture affects everybody.  Trivializing rape, simplifying rape, or otherwise portraying it as not a big deal or only fitting one type of scenario is exceedingly dangerous.  And unfortunately, changing the FBI definition of rape isn't going to change that in a hurry. December's CDC study revealed that boys are twice as likely to be raped as children - 28 percent of male rape victims reported being raped between the ages of 6-10, after which the incidence of assaults drops off, versus 12 percent of girls, for whom the incidence peaks in their teens through twenties (but virtually never ends.)  According to Advocates for Youth: "Male victimization is particularly hard to estimate due to beliefs that only girls can be abused; that sex between older women and boys is desirable; that male victimization of boys indicates lack of masculinity and/or acquiescence by the child."

Sexism, misogyny, gender stereotypes and, yes, rape culture, are to blame for that.

At the most basic level though, I don't laugh at rape jokes, and I wish people would stop telling them because in the two minutes it took me to write that bullet list another woman was raped, as one in five women will be in their lifetimes in this country (3% of men are rape victims). Of the 200,000+ people who will be assaulted this year, almost 50% will be under the age of 18 and 38% will know their rapists, 97% of whom will never be punished for their crime. Only the very rarest social commentary can make this entertaining. If you haven't been the victim of rape, unlike one in five of the women in the country and one in seventy of the men, and you find yourself crying with laughter during a rape routine, try inserting the names of people you know - both male and female - into the script and see how much fun you have then. Not quite so side-splitting. This method however, apparently doesn't work for Tosh, who tells at least one theoretically pee-in-your-pants joke about his sister getting casually raped. He has apologized in a lame, gaslighty way and explaining that there are awful things in the world and you can still make jokes about them. Oddly, for a comedy superstar, his apology and explanation lack an understanding of a distinction commonly applied to race in humour, a "hurt line" in regards to race. Guess he just doesn't get it.

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  • guest

    I’ve never actually laughed at a rape joke.  But I don’t think I’ve ever heard one (and I go to comedy clubs).  What disturbs me is that this is even a conversation — there’ s nothing funny about violence against anyone.  And it disturbs me further that the culture has become so degraded that rape jokes are common.

    • Ginmar Rienne

      Rape jokes typically turn on the ‘humor’ that the victim secretly enjoyed it while she protested, or are angry the rapist didn’t come back for seconds or something like that. When Clayton Williams was running for Governor of Texas, he said, “Bad weather is like rape; if it’s inevitable, lay back and enjoy it.”  The rapist is totally absent from that ‘joke’ and worse than that, he’s likened to bad weather—–a natural phenomenon you can’t control.   Women just gotta carry umbrellas and accept wet feet now and then.  

      • Sasha Ayad

        oh my god. sometimes i just want to go hide in a cave.  that comment from clayton williams is almost as unbelievable as what tosh said. I just dont know how this type of thinking is even possible.  women’s rights are so dead last in the race towards equality, its not even funny.  we are way way far behind any other group

  • Pingback: Dear, Daniel Tosh: You Know What’s Even Less Funny than Rape Jokes? Rape Threats | The Opinioness of the World

  • facebook-1072705073

    okay, I finally laughed at a rape joke.  The Onion’s article on “Tosh Chuckles Softly During Own Violent Rape”.  It was funny for all the reasons Soraya cites.  But it was also VISCERALLY funny for the wrong reasons — the guys deserves some punishment.

  • Julian Cheslow

    I’m just going to let this article speak for me, as i think it is written far better than anything i could say here

    But on the subject on rape jokes changing peoples sexuality…i am of the opinion it is hard t change what turns a dude(or woman) on. There is a whole BDSM community that enjoys being either dominant or submissive, and they manage to explore that without actually hurting anyone. And if a guy doesn’t get off on being dominant, i doubt jokes will suddenly change that

  • pwhit

    he didn’t incite anything.  i suggest people research the meaning of incite, especially in regards to legal, as well as common usage.  since no rape occurred, inchoate or otherwise, he did not incite.  you could argue, wrongly imo, that he ATTEMPTED to incite a gang rape, but he clearly did NOT incite a gang rape since… no rape happened.  QED.  it’s really that simple.  i have seen a few people actually argue that he should be criminally charged.  his comment doesn’t come remotely close to the legal standard under brandenburg.  most people make some kind of silly reference to schenck and the “falsely yelling fire in a crowded theatre” meme, not realizing the schenck , as case law, was superseded by brandenburg.  furthermore, the crowded theatre analogy in schenck was used as justification to censor and prosecute a WAR protester, which most people miss.  tosh did attack this woman, and it was boorish.  i don’t think it’s a morally justifiable response to her heckling him, and YES she heckled him.  interrupting a comedian to say you disagree with him is heckling him.   it’s not your show, it’s his.  but again, my primary point is that people who are claiming he “incited” rape do not understand what incited means, either from a legal or a layman’s perspective.  what he did was make a boorish verbal attack on this woman.  he didn’t incite anything.  well, except a thousand blog posts and enough controversy to incite HIM to give a half-assed apology

    • Ginmar Rienne

        Oh, Christ, enough with the victim blaming.  All the dewds defending this douchtastic frathole have whined that SHE’s the bad guy for heckling him.  Please. If he can’t handle it, he needs to get his fratertastic ass back to mowing lawns professionally, where he belongs. 

        God, the dewds sure are offended that women are calling this manhole for what he is and what he did.  

      • pwhit

        steve martin said it best.  comedy is not pretty.  did she do NO DUE diligence before attending his show? because if she did, she’d know rape jokes are part of his schtick.  nobody here is offended at what this woman did, myself included. i just know if you heckle a comedian, you are likely not going to get a pleasant reply.   again, i am not defending his comment, but i think she was a moron for making her comment.  just because you disagree with a comedian’s choice of joke(s), it’s a bad idea to heckle him.  because HE has the power, he’s up on stage, and he is likely going to skewer you.  i’ve seen it happen over and over at comedy shows.  it’s like poking a lion.  it rarely turns out well.  however, i think we agree that his response went over the line.   that being said, it’s absurd to say he was INCITING anything.  tosh acted like a jerk.  wow, i’m so surprised.  that’s what he does.  as for rape jokes not being funny.  i think making a blanket statement that “x jokes” are not funny is almost always wrong.  i have heard a few funny rape jokes (sarah silverman and the jewish doctor joke for instance).   as soon as you try to say “x is taboo” for a subject matter for a comedian, you invite that subject to be explored further.  that’s what lenny bruce taught us.

        • Cara Mia Profaci

          You couldn’t be more of an asshole. I wish you and your whole pathetic gender could walk in our shoes for just one day. I hope you experience your own rape someday.

  • GirlWithTheCane

    Excellent article. Great job.

  • Cara Mia Profaci

    My guess is with this idiot Tosh, he has rape fantasies because he’s not man enough to get a real woman. If I were her, I would have sued him for what he said because it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that someone in that audience was sick enough in the head to follow her out of the club and do just what he suggested.

  • Cameron Purdie

    Please try to enforce more censorship. It’s really getting your point across, and you sound like a totally reasonable human being.