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



Our Bodies Politic

On a recent podcast, I was asked if I identified first as an atheist, secularist or as a woman. My response was that I identify in this order: human, woman, secularist and then atheist. Essentially, I put my biology before my beliefs, which are a function of the era in which I live. Still, since being asked that question, I have been thinking about how intensely intertwined being female and being a secularist are for me.

The United States of America is moving ever closer to becoming a dominionist theocracy and leaving the ideals of democracy in the stardust. Our government has been infiltrated with religious-based thinking and ideals. A few foundational areas that require immediate attention for the re-secularization of the U.S. are the military and reproductive health care. Clearing out these areas of religious ideology is a prerequisite to secularizing womens’ bodies. We must return a woman's sovereignty over her own physical being to her. There is no other way to move forward; each of us must be able to make decisions (based on full and accurate information) about our own bodies. 


At present, sexual assaults against female soldiers are continuing at an all-time high; all the while these women are unable to obtain legal abortions. The 2012 Army report “Discipline of the Force: The High-Risk Populations” has some exceedingly disturbing statistics about how women fare in our government's Army: “Although females compose only 14% of the Force, they compose 95% of all victims of violent sex crimes." Of the 1,313 (a 97% increase from 2006) reported violent sex crimes, 1,247 of the sex crimes were against female soldiers. And of these violent sex crimes 515, or more than one per day, were rape. Mind you, this is just the Army and just reported rapes; I am confident the actual number is much higher. Nearly 3200 sexual assaults were reported military-wide and they estimate that the actual number was closer to 20,000. Based on this ratio, the number of rapes of female soldiers (just Army) per day can be estimated at 8.8.

Imagine being in the military and being denied access to a legal medical procedure that you need only as a result of being raped. Is this restriction based on a religious principle? Here is a quote from Rick Santorum: “And so to embrace her and to love her and to support her and get her through this very difficult time, I’ve always, you know, I believe and I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life and accept what God has given to you.”

When religious zealots are elected to State and Federal legislature, women's health, including access to contraception and abortion, somehow become the purview of the government; not the woman and her doctor. The restrictions being passed now are the result of theocracy infiltrating our secular government.

Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.
~Robert Heinlein

Reproductive Health

For U.S. woman, 2012 has been a dismal year politically with government representatives attempting to legislate women's health concerns at every opportunity. How? By silencing women, referring to women as livestock, comparing women to caterpillars, introducing over 900 bills to restrict access to legal reproductive healthcare, and, most recently, by finding female anatomical terms obscene!

Infamously on February 16, 2012, the Congressional Oversight Committee held a hearing regarding birth control — without ONE women being called to testify.

On March 29, 2012 the Georgia legislature passed the “Women As Livestock" bill (HB 954); it was signed into law by Governor Deal on May 1, 2012 and took effect that same day. This bill criminalizes abortions after 20 weeks, with no allowances made for rape or incest. During a floor discussions while in session, Terry England (R-Auburn) compared women to cows, pigs, and chickens. Skeptical that someone would say this on the record? Here is the video.

While trying explain that the “War on Woman” is fiction, the Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus made an analogy about the “War on Caterpillars” being equally real. He must not watch the news, be on the Internet, or have any type of connection to the daily happenings surrounding him. The Guttmacher Institute has this to say about Laws Affecting Reproductive Health and Rights: Trends in the First Quarter of 2012: 

  1. 76 abortion restrictions have been approved by at last one legislative chamber; 9 have been enacted.           
  2. Legislators have introduced 944 provisions related to reproductive health and  rights; 472 would restrict abortion.          
  3. This legislation includes ultrasound requirements (state sponsored rape), medication abortion limitations, gestational limits, and refusal to provide contraception coverage.

Can you say vagina? Not in the Michigan legislature — not even when you are discussing women's health! Lisa Brown was banned from the House floor by Republican leaders merely for uttering this word in their presence. The GOP-led house worked feverishly to explain away their banishment of two female representatives. According to them, the word “vagina” is vulgar, even when talking about women's health care.

If this is not war, what is? Do we have to wait until abortions are illegal to wake up and see that there is a war over the control of female bodies?

Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They all want to control women. They want to control how we dress. They want to control how we act. They even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and our own bodies. Yes, it is hard to believe but even here at home we have to stand up for women’s rights and we have to reject efforts to marginalize any one of us, because America has to set an example for the entire world.
~Hillary Clinton

Smell the Theocracy

In each example we've presented, the root assumption is nonscientific, religious-based judgment. In each example, women's choices about their own bodies are being limited by the government. In each example, a religious viewpoint is using OUR government to attempt to control, subjugate and diminish women in society.

Much if not all of the legislation fueling this War on Women is based on religious belief. In what should be a secular nation, laws based on religious doctrine and ecumenical chauvinism drive the USA ever closer to theocracy. The right of every woman to be sovereign over her own body is essential for the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness to which every woman has a right.

Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?
~Sandra Day O'Connor

Kim Rippere, President
Secular Woman