On Rape Jokes

1 in every 6 women in America has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape.  This means that if your joke has an audience of more than a dozen people, there’s a good chance that one of them has been the victim of a sexual assault. You need to keep this mind when crafting your joke.

Rape jokes have been a hot subject, especially since the Internet eruption that occurred after Daniel Tosh’s ill-conceived attempt to make a rape joke at the expense of a female audience member.  Much of the resistance that was given in defense of Tosh seemed to be based on false assumptions.  It’s not a First Amendment issue: the First Amendment protects criticism of a joke every bit as much as it defends the joke itself.  Feminists do not have some secret list of subjects that they want to see banned from all comedy, nor do they want to ruin everybody’s good time. They’re not against a comedian firing back against a heckler.  I really hate it when people talk in the movie theater, and I wouldn’t blame the audience in a comedy club for feeling the same way.  If you’re in the audience, you aren’t the person that everyone else paid money to hear speak.  If someone is being seriously disruptive (and I wouldn’t refer to a single call of, “rape jokes are never funny,” seriously disruptive) then a comedian is well within rights to respond to that person.

The issue is that rape is a real and present threat.  It’s something that shapes the lives of women.  We are constantly told where not to go, when not to walk alone, what not to wear, and what not to do if we want to avoid being raped.  Nobody disputes that a dead baby is a horrible thing, or that a cancer diagnosis is bad news.  When women are raped, they face serious difficulty in getting people to take their attacks seriously. The first question asked when a woman reports a rape should be, “Are you okay?” or “How can I help?” but often it is, “What were you wearing?” or “Were you drinking?”  Rape victims are frequently blamed for their own victimization in ways that other victims of crime never have to face.  If you want women to be able to laugh at a rape joke, you can’t rest on shock value because there’s nothing shocking about a woman being raped.  It’s an everyday occurrence.  You have to be much cleverer and much more thoughtful than that. There are a couple of writing adages that I think would help Tosh, or any comedian, who wants to tackle a dark subject like rape.

Write What You Know:   My first thought when I heard about the Tosh brouhaha was, “A rape joke told by Tosh has about the same chance of being funny as an unemployment joke told by Paris Hilton,”  which is to say that it’s hard to write well about an experience you’ve never had to live.  This doesn’t mean that every piece of writing needs to be a thinly veiled autobiography.  If we insisted on only writing permutations of experiences we’ve actually lived through, we’d eliminate entire genres of fiction.  At heart, what this adage means is that if you want to try to write about another person’s experience, you should first attempt to really empathize with that person.  Has Paris Hilton ever struggled to pay a bill?  Has Tosh ever been told that if he walks alone at night, he’ll be to blame for anything bad that happens to him?  If not, then they’re probably going to suck at writing jokes about those experiences.  Anyone who wants to joke about rape is going to fail unless that person really thinks about what it would be like to rape victim.  Here are some facts to help with that, courtesy of RAINN.

1.       Every two minutes, someone in the US is sexually assaulted.  There are around 207,754 sexual assaults each year.

2.       54% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.  97% of rapists never spend a day in jail.

3.       1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

4.       9 out of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003.

5.       Victims of sexual assault are 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 6 times more likely to suffer from PTSD, and 4 times more likely to consider suicide.

This is a dark cloud to have to live under.  In theory, jokes about rape could help a person cope with the stress (one theory of humor is that it’s a psychological mechanism to release tension), but all too often rape jokes only serve to reinforce the rape culture that makes the above statistics a reality.  Wouldn’t it be funny if Tosh’s heckler had been raped right then and there?  Well, no.  And not only that, but she’s not being unreasonable to feel genuinely threatened by that remark.  There’s a good chance that a woman raped after a comedy show would be told that she’d asked for it because people drink at comedy clubs and the shows happen at night: both circumstances that are used to dismiss women when they report their rapes.

To write about other people’s experiences, you not only need to really try to see things from their perspective, you need to listen without defensiveness when they tell you that you got it wrong.  You need to accept that even a joke intended to condemn rape and rape culture can still be a trauma trigger, and then really listen to your critics.  Intent is not magic.  If your joke hurts someone, be brave enough to admit that you made a mistake.

Know Your Audience:  In the above statistics, I mentioned that 1 in every 6 women in America has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape.  This means that if your joke has an audience of more than a dozen people, there’s a good chance that one of them has been the victim of a sexual assault. You need to keep this mind when crafting your joke.

Maybe you have a friend who is a rape survivor, and she thinks your joke is hilarious.  That’s great, but you need to remember that the audiences of the world are not going to be clones of your friend.  Every rape has its own set of circumstances.  There’s no one right way to deal with rape, and different people heal at different paces.  You can’t extrapolate the approval of one person onto the experiences of everyone else.  That one victim can find your joke funny is a good sign, but it’s not an unmitigated green light.

Imagine you just wrote a joke about cancer that you think is hilarious.  There are many places you could try that joke out, but hopefully you wouldn’t list “hospital waiting room” as one of them.  Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of rape culture means that society at large is like that waiting room.  Any time you are in front of a large group of people, it’s a safe assumption that you have at least one rape survivor in the audience, and you should act accordingly. 

If this limitation makes you mad, it should.  Just make sure you get mad at the right people.  If you want to blame someone for making it difficult to joke about rape, don’t blame the rape victims who don’t think your joke is funny.  Don’t blame the feminists who criticized your joke. Blaming feminists and rape victims is just shooting the messenger.  They didn’t create rape culture; they’re just the ones to tell you about it. If you want to get mad at somebody, get mad at the rapists and rape apologists.  They are the ones ruining everyone’s good time.  They are the ones making it so difficult to joke about rape, and they are the reason you have to tread so carefully.  Part of the issue with rape culture is that victims get the blame, and the same thing happens when rape jokes are criticized.  Don’t be part of that problem.

Laura Brady, Outreach Committee Member