Content note: This post discusses rape jokes and rape culture.
A woman walks down the street and overhears two men making rape jokes about an obviously drunk girl across the street. She whirls around and punches one of them in the face, and writes about it on Tumblr, with a picture of her taped-up hand. The story circulates like wildfire, and everyone feels a need to weigh in; she was out of line, she’s a hero, she committed assault, she challenged rape culture, she responded to a legitimate threat.
There is much discussion, in particular, about how her act of violence was wrong because violence does not solve violence.
A comedian responds to a challenger in the audience with a threatening comment about how it would be hilarious if five men raped a girl ‘right now‘ and a friend writes about it on Tumblr. The story circulates like wildfire, and everyone feels a need to weigh in; she was too sensitive, rape jokes are never funny, she’s lying about what happened, she’s sparked a conversation about misogyny and comedy.
Some people respond to the comedian’s ‘joke’ with a suggestion that it would be funny to see him beaten, making an analogy with his threat of violence.
Rape is about more than violence, though. It can be violent, but at its core, it is about an exertion of power and control.
And it is in these casual comments that this power and control is reinforced, structurally and repeatedly. It is in the attitude that two men walking down the street have, the confidence that they can joke about an intoxicated woman and be secure in their joking, because they are the ones in power and in control. They might claim they don’t really mean it, but they do; they mean to remind the world of the fact that they are in positions of dominance. It is in the comedian’s knowledge that he can make a ‘joke’ which is really a veiled threat and the audience will support him; not only that, but other comedians will rush to his defense, will raise red herrings like free speech to underscore their desire to protect the sacred right to make rape jokes, to threaten members of an audience who live in legitimate fear of experiencing rape during their lifetimes.
Rape victims and people vulnerable to sexual assault like comedy too. We want to be able to laugh for a few hours and be entertained, sometimes even with dark, bitter, complex humour, sometimes with crudeness, sometimes with political satire. Sometimes even with rape jokes, especially those that take a bite out of rape culture. When we are instead punched in the gut with yet another reminder that we are objects which can be controlled and assaulted at whim, it tends to put rather a sour note on what could have been a fun evening.
Whether that comedian spontaneously made a rape joke or asked the audience to provide him with prompts and they shouted ‘rape,’ depending on which version of the story you believe, in both cases, the message to the audience member was the same. And the message sent when the comedian responded to her comment with a rape joke directly aimed at her was the same.
It was a threat. It was the same threat made by those two men made walking down the street that another woman chose to act on, rather than doing nothing.
As a general rule, I do not condone violence. I dislike graphic descriptions of what people hope will happen to objects of their dislike; in no small part because I’ve been the recipient of such descriptions with myself as the victim. But I do think that violence can have a place, and in the defense of your humanity and personhood, violence may be your only option. When you are being threatened with rape and you break your rapist’s nose, I don’t have a problem with that.
When you hear people joking about rape in a way that is clearly a threat and you attack them, the lines become murkier, but that is because we do not live in a crisp, right versus wrong world, but one filled with nuance. I might have chosen to verbally challenge those men, but what would have happened then, especially if I was alone? The kind of men who loudly make rape jokes without caring who’s around to hear them are unlikely to respond graciously to a verbal challenge. Challenging them could, in fact, put me at risk of violence. Is a preemptive punch really so out of line in that circumstance?
It’s certainly unexpected and it turns the tables on who is in power and control. It certainly highlights the fact that the men were committing an act of violence that could have escalated, and it also sparks a discussion about the ultimate goal of rape, to exert ownership, to show who is in charge. She chose not to allow them to remain in charge.
And standing by to do nothing goes against the grain, because the kind of people who make crude, targeted rape jokes are potentially the same kinds of people who rape people. Maybe not that woman, maybe not that night, but some person, some night. Or day. And thus I cannot let such comments pass unremarked, and neither can many other people with consciences who feel a need to say something. Not just for themselves, but for other people in the future. And not just for themselves, but for other people who may be there in the moment; the woman who heard the men joking about her, the other people in the comedian’s audience who were deeply uncomfortable with the turn the routine had taken.
Violence can have its place.
So, for that matter, can rape jokes. Some of us deal with the terrible things that happen, that have happened, to us through dark ingroup humour. It is not that no one can tell jokes about these things, but that ingroup humour is a very special kind of humour, that by its very nature is not for all people and all spaces. Sometimes comedy can become a way of reclaiming our past and asserting our present, of growing stronger and more powerful. Sometimes comedy can be used to challenge dynamics, and can become a tool for healing.
Sometimes mainstream comedians performing for a large audience can come up with some pretty great rape jokes. The Onion has managed to turn out a few in its day. This is not sacred ground on which no one can tread, but ground that must be handled responsibly, because the line between entertainment and threat, between laughter and violence, can be very, very fine.
For those men walking down the street, for that comedian, that was clearly not the case. For them, a rape joke is funny because rape is something that will never happen to them, although they may well perpetrate it someday. For them, a rape joke is a comfortable reminder that they are in charge and will remain that way, unless enough brave challengers are willing to stand in their way.
I am not humourless.
I just think some things, from some people, aren’t funny.