Why Rape Jokes Are Never Funny (To Women)

Trigger warning: Discussion and descriptions of rape.

Imagine you’re at work and someone starts loudly criticising you in front of everyone. They’ve never met you before, never done your job, and they have no idea what they’re talking about. Jesus Christ they are out of line and annoying.

That’s what hecklers are to comedians. It’s stupid, it’s selfish, it often totally misses the point of the comedian’s humour and it’s just really annoying for everyone involved. Don’t do it.

A lady heckled a comedian onstage recently because he said that rape jokes are always funny. She called out that no, not to her they weren’t.

I have a very strong suspicion that she was missing his point entirely – it has been widely speculated since this incident went viral that thank you Ted, that was the joke: The humour in his statement was supposed to be derived from mocking the idea that rape jokes are always funny. At least, that’s what people who are fans of his have been saying. I’d never heard of him before yesterday.

When heckled, comedians have to think on their feet. They are human, so their first instinct is probably, “Oh, screw you, criticising missing-the-point annoying stranger.” They aren’t allowed to react angrily (see Richards comma Michael) like a normal person would when being interrupted by an asshole at work. They have to be FUNNY, and WITTY, and QUICK. They have to come up with some kind of sassy retort in under half a second with dozens if not hundreds of people watching eagerly.

So I am going to cut Daniel Tosh a tiny bit of slack for the fact that his response to this woman was: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?”

I don’t blame him for blurting out something stupid. I don’t think he actually endorses rape or rapes people. I don’t think that a throwaway comment he reacted with when confronted with a heckler is an indication of his values as a person off the stage.

I don’t, however, think that it was comedy, and I definitely don’t think it was an appropriate thing to say.

Yes, it’s stand up. Yes, a lot of humour comes from subverting the dominant paradigm and turning social attitudes on their heads and saying lewd, inappropriate things that aren’t expected, which makes them funny because YOU CAN’T SAY THAT, Louis CK! Oh you naughty man! (I love you, Louis. If you are reading this, call me and I will eat nachos with you and we will become friends.)

What makes this comment different from other uses of the subject of rape in humour is that, to me, it wasn’t humour at all. It was a vulgar, violent, shocking statement that derived its humour from the idea that raping women is sometimes funny. It was no more a “joke” than punching a stranger on the tram: “Ha ha, it’s funny because it hurt you and you didn’t expect it!” There was nothing clever about it in the least and yes, I do hold Tosh to some standard because apparently he does make his living as a professional comedian.

There is a reason why this has caused so much outcry and a reason that so many people have been appalled by Tosh’s statement. If you don’t understand or at least empathise with the reasoning behind that reaction, this article probably won’t change your mind. I’m going to attempt to explain it anyway.

Women live with the threat of rape in a way that men cannot understand. If you are thinking, “That’s not true – I’m a man and I don’t walk down alleys at night either because I might get mugged!” then you have just proved my point.

In general, men have never felt the collective fear that most women have felt at some time or another, even in the back of their heads: The fear that if they don’t keep up their guard, their body could be atrociously violated.

Do not tell me that you once thought your house was being broken into so you understand. Do not tell me that drunk footyheads hassled you when you were walking alone and you can relate. You know what it’s like to feel threatened and physically unsafe, but be honest: Until part of that threat included having your clothes ripped off and a stranger’s penis shoved inside you, you do NOT fully understand. Women have the intimidation, the beating, the robbery AND rape to fear. It’s not the same; it’s an extra layer of horror on top of the mugging flan. (Note: Check if flans have layers. Sponge? Mugging sponge cake.)

Not all men are rapists and not all women walk around 24/7 day paranoid and terrified. There are situations that spark fear though, and it is a threat that women learn to incorporate into their lives. Is this outfit “safe” to wear at night alone? Do I have friends to wait for the taxi with me? Have I watched the bartender make my drink? My date is driving – do I know where we’re going?

This is just in Australia/the western world as well. I’m not going to touch the horrors that women in other countries have to face because that wasn’t what Tosh was referring to.

My Unverified co-host and a man I consider a friend and proud non-rapist, Ben Vernel, yesterday posted a tweet comparing Tosh’s “rape joke” to a well-circulated blog post that flipped the notion of women having to “be safe” and put the onus on the rapist to prevent rape. I’d reblogged the article myself. Ben’s point was that you shouldn’t be able to arbitrarily ban topics from comedy, which I completely agree with. I disagreed strongly, however, with his comparison.

To me, the fact that both Tosh’s response to the heckler and that blog post had “rape” in them is not enough to put them in the same category. The article was not what I would consider a “joke”. It was a clever reversal of the accepted attitude that it’s the victim’s responsibility to prevent rape and not the rapist’s. It used a touch of humour make a very salient point. I thought it was clever but actually quite depressing in how telling it was about society’s attitudes. That it would even be called a “rape joke” underscores how disconnected from the issue people can be. “Haha, the RAPIST is given the responsibility to not rape? Can you imagine such a topsy-turvy world? Ha ha what a lark!”

As Ben, I don’t think that topics should be banned from comedy. If you find something offensive, in the words of Russell Brand, just turn your head slightly to the left and look at the cat instead. Just because something doesn’t float my comedy boat doesn’t mean it doesn’t have – or shouldn’t have – a valid audience. Saying that the statement, “Wouldn’t it be funny if this woman was raped,” has no place in a comedy show isn’t being overly precious. His “humour” derived from using that woman’s – and every woman’s – fear of rape as something to mock and ridicule. Easy for him: 90% of rape victims are female (source). To Tosh, rape is something that happens to other people.

If nothing else, a joke about rape implies that Tosh doesn’t give a toss (sorry – had to) about his female audience. 91% of rape victims in Tosh’s homeland of America are female (source), but hey, who cares if they find it funny or not? There’s nothing wrong with having a target audience but whether he intended to or not, his comment targeted women in another, much uglier way. It said that our physical safety is something to be mocked and our worth even just as an audience member is negligible.

Again, no, I don’t think all of this ran through Tosh’s head in the 1.3 seconds he had to find a comeback. Unfortunately for him, the incident went viral and a lot of people have had much longer than he did to dissect and debate his comment.

Topics shouldn’t be banned from comedy, but I don’t think it’s reactionary to find some punchlines out of line and offensive. If you weren’t shocked by what Daniel Tosh said, fine, but try to understand why some people were.

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About bridgetneval

Ex-actor who quit the biz, Batman and A-team fan, animal lover, on-and-off sufferer of depression and eating disorders, Canadian and Australian citizen (silly accent), hobbyist writer and occasional thinker of things. View all posts by bridgetneval

13 responses to “Why Rape Jokes Are Never Funny (To Women)

  • David Miller

    Everytime, just when I’m once again sure you’re one of the most ‘stone cold wacked’ people in the world, your deeply buried sanity slaps us all in the face.

  • Mandy

    Sometimes I try and explain that built-in concern that women have when they are out in public to male friends. I term it this way: when you are walking down a deserted road at night to your car, where are your keys? Are they in your pocket right up until you get to the car door, and then you fish them out and unlock the car door? Because most women have their keys in their hand the minute they realise they are alone. If they are feeling particularly spooked, they have them clenched in their fist, with one key or several keys poking out between their fingers as a weapon. If a woman sees a lone man or a group of men walking to her on that deserted street, she may check to see which houses have lights on in them, and if those men appear drunk she may get out her mobile phone, dial triple zero and keep walking with her finger hovering over the ‘call’ button, or simply turn around, go back and try and find a friend to walk her to her car. Or some women, if they don’t feel safe in that area, will save themselves the worry and find a man or group of friends to walk her to her car. Because while not all men are rapists, most rapists are men, and they don’t happen to wear signs that tell you if they plan to rape you or not.

    Women think this way, and it is scary and sad. A fantastic article as usual Bridget.

    • bridgetneval

      Exactly. Men don’t even realise how we have to think, and why their actions might seem threatening. Either we’re over-paranoid or the worst happens and we didn’t protect ourselves well enough.

  • Ben Vernel (@benvernel)

    Good summation, B-dog. Although it’s interesting to note that the comedy club owner’s recollection was significantly different, and the wording of Tosh’s response was not a threat (though still distasteful, something like “Woah, sounds like someone’s been raped by 5 guys!”).

    For the record, I totally condemn both versions of his response. Not his right to construct humour around delicate topics, though. I’d be a hypocrite if I resiled from that.

  • A funny thing happened to me on my way to the show here tonight: I got raped. | Sophistry's Choice

    […] whether or not rape jokes are ever funny. A really good post by Bridget Neval (read it here – https://bridgetneval.com/2012/07/12/why-rape-jokes-are-never-funny/) is well written and correct as the post though doesn’t explains why it might be true that […]

  • Sem

    Background info, so no-one jumps down my throat before reading: Male, raped thrice, once by a woman and twice by men.

    I wonder about these incidents, the outrage they cause, and the hoard of folk jumping on the Crucify the Public Figure bandwagon. I’ve never seen Daniel Tosh, but skimming his videos on YouTube, he’s fairly crude, and not very clever. It’s hard to imagine sitting in his audience and being surprised by a rape joke. If it was Robin Williams or any other family-friendly comedian, I could understand the furore. Maybe I’m unusual, but despite three rather horrific memories, rape jokes become increasingly more amusing to me, and Tosh’s comment made me giggle. He would have me intrigued if he were a little more clever in his humour. Perhaps being offended at rape jokes is a person-who-hasn’t-been-raped thing, because it isn’t a rape victim thing. My sister is in much the same boat as I, having been raped and finding no issue with rape jokes. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a rapee (I’m involved with an extended sexual assault counselling group) get upset by something so trivial as thoughtless words from a stranger. Perhaps our attitude comes from perspective. After being raped, an off-colour joke is hardly something to care about, is it?

    I guess my point is, don’t get upset at Daniel Tosh on behalf of rape victims in case one of us might be watching and get our feelings hurt. It is really not necessary. If you’re cross because he’s making fun of your fear, I guess that is fair, although it is certainly uncalled for to assume he has no understanding of rape. According to statistics from my counseling group and our partners, men and women are nearly equally represented among rape victims. Interestingly, I notice that your source for the 91% was itself sourced from the Justice Department. Considering how poorly reported to the police sexual assault is amongst women, and how virtually unreported it is amongst men, perhaps you might find a comprehensive source that isn’t a decade old. Or, maybe we just have a lot of pretty men in Australia, and it skews the data. =]

    • bridgetneval

      I agree – don’t get offended on someone else’s behalf. I was offended on my own behalf, I promise. It’s the fact that calling “jokes” like this harmless adds to the social stigma against rape victims and the general attitude that “it’s not a big deal”. I’m not offended on behalf of rape victims, but on my own behalf as someone who doesn’t agree with that mindset. That said, absolutely, don’t go to a comedy show like that with your Offended Goggles on. Take it with a grain of salt in context.
      I didn’t address the issue of male rape because Tosh didn’t make his statement to a man. I would never say that rape doesn’t happen to men but it’s not the point of this particular blog. I got my stats from the Australian government site on sexual abuse, thinking that an official government site would be the most valid.
      I agree that such information is important but again, it’s not the issue I was addressing here. I was trying to make the point that you can be offended by a bad joke (and I think I have a right to find it tasteless even if I haven’t been raped) without implying that the topic itself should be off-limits. But definitely, your point about my assumption that Tosh doesn’t have as comprehensive an understanding of the realities of rape because he is a man could very well be incorrect.

  • Welcome to Monday! ~ 16th July 2012 | feminaust ~ for australian feminism

    […] Vestigial Tales weighs on why rape jokes are never funny. […]

  • nvm

    ur fucking amazing.
    iv been raped once and alot of pplz that dont know that making rape jokes and so and when im trying to explain why its not funny i just cant. so thank u for this amazing writing it sure does helps me alot in life now 🙂

    • bridgetneval

      xo Thank you so much. I’m sorry that you related to this article for such a horrible reason. I hope that you’re doing well and are surrounded by supportive people who, for the most part, don’t need articles like this one to explain to them why rape isn’t freaking funny.

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