In defence of rape jokes

In Comedy, Uncategorized on August 27, 2012 at 5:56 pm

I realise the title alone has already got people furious with me, but please hear me out on this. I will not accuse anyone of lacking a sense of humour, nor will I say all rape jokes are defensible. Like all jokes about painful subjects, they need to be treated with great care and intelligence. With the current fashion in stand-up, that care seems to be sorely lacking. This is the real problem.

They say Comedy = Tragedy + Time, but in the case of rape victims even a million years would not be enough. I am aware of that and, yes, I do know at least a couple of victims of rape. Nobody is genuinely suggesting victims laugh at these jokes. Hopefully, a well-crafted joke should be understandable, though, the same way Holocaust sketches (or even entire films) can be things of beauty.

The problem we are facing in comedy clubs and on television now is the proliferation of mainly male comics using ‘rape’ as a go-to punchline when they can’t think of anything genuinely funny to say (looking at you, Mr Boyle). In the 1960s merely swearing was edgy and breaking boundaries. Once everyone swore in their sets, they had to go beyond that to press buttons and prove their rebellious comedic chops. Now what hacks consider to be short-cuts to edgy chic have become in reality the safest subjects of all. How many comics have we seen in a show start a sentence with: “So, I’m an atheist” and wait for the response? They act all high and mighty as if anyone in a comedy club is really going to complain about that stance. It’s the easiest round of applause/whoop they’ll get all night, yet they think it’s what stands them out for their bravery. Bollocks.

The same goes for rape jokes. What ought to be treated with kid gloves is now thrown into the audience like a stinkbomb. Worse still, as this is ‘fashionable,’ it means going to one of those Best of the Fest type nights will see the young, male comics in their jeans and t-shirts (The Russells, as Stewart Lee puts it) lining up to throw the stinkbombs again and again and again, each without context, or time to build up a persona. It also makes it very difficult for a woman to go to a comedy club and avoid hearing this subject discussed in the most flippant and insulting of manners.

Persona is crucial in comedy and more than ever in rape jokes. I have written before about how Boyle and Gervais personas on stage make their routines seem more like bullying, as they always punch down on to the weaker elements. The best rape jokes are performed by those who are clearly comic monsters, who always end up being ‘the bad guy’ – like Sadowitz, Stanhope or Roy Chubby Brown. Where it becomes a huge problem is when the t-shirt and jeans brigade decide to throw in the odd rape joke along with a generally likeable persona who talks about visiting IKEA and other such ground-breaking comedy subjects. This is where it loses all sense of context and may contribute to what many claim is the ‘normalising’ of rape.

I am told there are studies showing that jokes about rape normalise the subject among men, but I find that rather strange. Nobody would say the same about dead baby or Holocaust jokes, would they? The thing that really irks me about the debate on these jokes is the underlying assumption that all men are potential rapists and have to almost prove themselves different from the rest. It fundamentally changes the way you view jokes. Comedy works on absurdity and incongruity. The audience and comic have to start from the shared knowledge that rape is horrific and nobody in their right mind would actually do that to someone. If we cannot agree on that, then we may as well never leave the house or speak to anyone ever again.

I conclude with the magnificent Louis C.K, who gets to the heart of comedy like nobody else: “I’ve read some blogs during this whole thing that have made me enlightened to things I didn’t know. This woman said how rape is something that polices women’s lives. They have a narrow corridor. They can’t go out late, they can’t go to certain neighborhoods, they can’t get a certain way, because they might get—That’s part of me now that wasn’t before – and I can still enjoy a good rape joke.”

  1. You say “The audience and comic have to start from the shared knowledge that rape is horrific and nobody in their right mind would actually do that to someone.” – but the problem is exactly this: In the case of rape, this shared knowledge is NOT there in our society. This makes it fundamentally different from your holocaust example.

    Rape is common which implies that there must also be quite a few people who have commited rape, and, more importantly, too many men actually find it quite normal and acceptable to force women into sex who said no, and don’t regard it as rape. Any casual glance at newspaper comments about Assange or Todd Akin, will show you many who endorse sex without consent. In many cases, the woman may not be beaten or violently treated, but it’s still a deep and fundamental violation of her personal integrity, and that’s what many people still do not appreciate.

    Indeed, rape victims find again and again that their experience is dismissed, that they are blamed (“you shouldn’t have encouraged him…) etc.

    THIS makes rape fundamentally different from Holocaust, terrorism or other examples. Holocaust victims can be very sure that today’s society finds these crimes horrific and is on the side of the victim. In rape, too many victims (and neutral observers) get the impression that this is not the case, that the victims get blamed, marginalized and further victimized. this is one of the reasons why rape victims find it particularly difficult to report rape or even talk to friends about it, much more than victims of other crimes.

    The pain inflicted by rape jokes is not just the recall of memories, as it is for holocaust. When the audience laughs, rape victims also have a sense of complete abandonment, they know that many in the audience will not feel much sympathy, and that (just statistically speaking) there will likely also be audience members who have harrassed or pressured women (if not raped) and find nothing wrong with that. Of course this is why rape jokes actually “work” for comedians. If all people really found rape horrific, then few would laugh and comedians wouldn’t have a reason to make the jokes. That’s why dead baby jokes don’t really take off.

    Furthermore, holocaust jokes target the perpetrators, whereas many rape jokes actually don’t target the rapists, but make fun of the victims – which further marginalises them and makes the rapists’s behavours socially acceptable.

    It may be well be true that there are a few rape victims who don’t mind jokes, but from all the stories I heard, that’s not the case for most. And indeed many non-victims and also many men simply find rape jokes not funny and not acceptable.

    I would also argue that it is extremely important to stand up and tell comedians: “Rape jokes are NOT funny”. Sure, most comedians won’t care. BUT it makes a huge difference for victims to see that they are not alone, that others support them. At least it may ease the feeling of intense loneliness and abandonment that rape victims have to cope with.

    So, I’m sorry, but your arguments don’t work because your underlying assumption isn’t convincing. I would encourage you to do a little bit of background research on rape and sexual harassment in our society. Also, it’s worth having a look at the study that you “find rather strange” (it’s not clear if you actually read it…). It doesn’t apply to holocaust or dead babies exactly because there isn’t a widespread acceptance of these crimes in society, as there is for rape. The summary is here:

  2. I refuse to believe the vast majority of men are potential rapists and the rest have to prove themselves. As a woman, I cannot and will not assume that of all men, or I’d never leave the house again!

    As for standing up and saying “Rape jokes are NOT funny” in a comedy club – no, precisely because that is the kind of blanket statement I am refuting here. SOME rape jokes are funny and well crafted. Moral absolutism has no place in a discussion on comedy.

    And clearly you don’t know the number of dead baby jokes that I do, many of them decades old…

  3. Stephan,

    you keep repeating fallacies as if they were obvious truths. I would argue that Todd Akin showed, rather than an out and out endorsement, a complete failure in understanding what constitutes rape. What Todd Akin is doing is trying to justify his pro-life stance which is completely different to endorsing sexual violence. It’s a disingenuous tactic to misrepresent the opposition and a dangerous one because it leaves you open to being misrepresented yourself and fundamentally weakens your argument.

    • I’m sorry, but you are both misrepresenting what I have written. There is a whole range of research on rape myth acceptance (and I have pointed to one paper), and it seems to me a bit weak to reply with “I refuse to believe” or label it as “fallacies” without any discussion why you think this research is flawed.

      I should, however, referenced some of my sources. Here is a quote from a review paper: “Research using various scales to measure rape myths document that between 25% and 35% of respondents (both male and female) agree with the majority of these rape myths (Lonsway and Fitzgerald 1994), and that men are more likely than women to endorse rape myths (Suarez and Gadalla 2010). When utilizing open-ended questions asking participants to list their personal beliefs about rape victims, Buddie and Miller (2001) found that 66% of their college sample (comprised of women and men) endorsed some combination of rape myths.” (quoted from Edwards, K. M., Turchik, J. A., Dardis, C. M., Reynolds, N., & Gidycz, C. A. (2011). Rape myths: History, individual and Institutional-Level presence, and implications for change. Sex Roles, 65 (11), 761-773.

      I can list much more, but this review is a good starter.

  4. That doesn’t change what we said – jokes of the kind I listed should not in any way add to rape myth acceptance. Badly written jokes or ones that make no account of context or on-stage persona might do, which I acknowledged in the blog.

    As for your point about Galloway and the Assange case – that is a perfect example of why people must discuss rape. Clearly these people do not consider it to be rape and just not talking about it will only exacerbate those beliefs. You seem to want a blanket ban on the subject in comedy and I won’t accept that.

    • I appreciate your distinction between bad joke “stinkbombs” and good comedy – should have made that clearer, sorry. But to clarify, I’m not interested in any kind of bans. I know that there have been heated debates around comedy in general with some very clear fractions, so I can see that you wonder if I want a “blanket ban”. I’m just not coming from that angle at all. My primary interest isn’t even comedy or rape as such; I’m interested in general myths and misconceptions, how they are formed, reinforced or weakened.

      My point was mainly about your remark that comic and audience have the shared knowledge that rape is horrific: It seems to me, based both on individual anecdotes and on the research on rape myths, that this just can’t be assumed.

      In any case, we seem to agree that there are too many bad rape jokes out there. So I still feel everybody has the right to say “this isn’t funny”.

      The other point I’m making is: If somebody gets victimised, then it is important that they see clearly that they have sympathy and support. So, yes, I am convinced that members of the audience have to tell comics “this isn’t funny” when they are going too far.

      • But you said people should say “Rape jokes are NOT funny” – surely that’s a blanket ban? You don’t differentiate, you just say they are ALL bad and unacceptable.

        btw, from what I can see the problem with ‘rape myth acceptance’ is not that they think rape is not horrific, but rather they are unclear on what exactly constitutes rape. This is why discussion is important.

  5. Well, as I said, I’m absolutely not interested in debating bans. My interest is in myths and misconceptions and how they are shaped.

    I agree with you that discussions are important what constitutes rape. Surely I wouldn’t have written my first comment if I thought one can’t discuss that 🙂 We also seem to agree that bad jokes don’t help in this discussion. I’m just not so sure if there are “good” jokes that don’t carry the danger of reinforcing dangerous attitudes in parts of the audience. I think we just have to leave it at that.

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