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.
- 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.
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.