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So a rape joke walks into a bar…

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.


  1. BMICHAEL wrote:

    So there was a meta issue about comedians defending Tosh and Louis CK defending him; I ‘weighed in’, for sure. Then I saw Louie S3E2, which ended with Louis getting raped, which I thought was a weird and weirdly-ignored thing. I think there was a joke in the scene where after he was raped they made a date to go out again. I don’t have much to add to your post, but I thought I’d just sort of throw out that experience. It was a discomfiting thing to watch on TV.

    Monday, July 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Patrick M wrote:

    I also felt weird about that episode of Louie. Because, it’s not like him to do something so shallow, and I can only hope it’s the setup for something more emotionally interesting. But then maybe he’s under the common delusion that rape is inherently funny, like farts. Something that came up in this same news cycle in my neck of the woods was this incident where an attourney threatened a colleage with rape and then defended himself by saying it was “a joke”
    Godamnit, there is a differnce between a normal sentence and a joke. That differnce is not the word “rape.”

    Monday, July 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  3. Hayley B wrote:

    S.E.: Beautifully articulated. You always manage to get to the crux of the issue while simultaneously acknowledging every single thing other people would have brought up. Your writing is just what this world needs. Thanks. Just thanks.

    Monday, July 16, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  4. Gemma wrote:

    I have no respect for the rape culture because, like you, I don’t find it funny. It’s not fair on women who were raped and having someone joke about it. I mean, seriously, these people need to be ED-U-CATION!

    Monday, July 16, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Permalink
  5. samanthab wrote:

    I agree with the larger part of what you’ve said here, but I have to disagree with regards to violence. Violence is the mechanism of power and control. You can’t have power and control without at least the implicit threat of violence. And 99.99% of the time violence is going to be used against woman and not for them. Once its use is validated, the can of worms opens up in favor of male control and power, with rare exceptions.

    I would tend to guess, however, that most people chastising this woman are really chastising unladylike behavior, and not violence at all. And that’s worth calling bullshit on.

    However, I think that the minute violence gets sanctioned, women lose. Instances of self-defense are one thing; violence as control- and that’s what it is when you smack someone for saying the wrong thing, however heinous- are another. I can’t ever get behind that.

    If that makes me a mushy almost-pacifist, fine. Because I’m also speaking as someone whose been raped and physically abused; I’ve had enough experience with violence to last me a lifetime. On the other side, as an American, I’ve also had enough violence done in my name to last me a lifetime. As such, I’m not willing to sanction it except in cases of urgent self-defense.

    I am mushy pacifist, hear me roar!

    Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  6. Sarah wrote:

    Thank you first two posters for bringing up Louie. I have no idea why no one is talking about that episode.
    Somehow heterosexual sexual violence inflicted on men always comes off as a joke.
    It’s like the episode of Futurama where they land on the island of the Amazons. The Amazons haul the men screaming into their caves. And then afterwards the men are boasting and excited about sleeping with them?
    Unfortunately it seems like because het men are “always supposed to want sex”, when sex is forced on them, they are supposed to be happy campers.
    Hence Louie agreeing to a second date.
    It’s messed up, man.

    Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink
  7. I’m betting that if a man heard harassers “joking” about raping a woman who was present and punched the harasser, he would generally be regarded as chivalrous or righteous. The problem is women standing up for ourselves, women using violence. And I’m wondering if Tosh or after-the-fact commenters would have reacted differently if a man had spoken on behalf of the woman in the audience, such as a husband or dad.

    Of course that’s about the public reaction, not the ethics of violence itself. If violence is always wrong, though, the harasser-puncher seems like the least of our problems. I refuse to single her out for a higher standard because she’s a woman.

    Monday, July 23, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  8. Fede wrote:

    Violence, while it would not exist in a perfect world, is something entirely different when it is committed by a member of an oppressed group against a member of a privileged group who has been threatening them or another lesser privileged person. And everybody knows this; some are just being willfully obtuse about it, because for once it is in their interest to hold men and women to the “same standards”.

    Monday, July 23, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  9. Nanasha wrote:

    Two guys making rape jokes about a woman who is in a situation where she is both intoxicated and alone *are* demonstrating that they are in higher power/status than the woman they’re making said “joke” about. But hitting people doesn’t solve anything.

    Honestly, I’d like to see more of these assholes being videoed in public when they think no one is looking, and then having said videos published online so that people can see them and shame them. Most rape culture behavior thrives between the lines and in secret, where a couple people feel it’s “ok” among friends to promote these things while vocally going on about how Rape is a Bad Thing when they are in public. Rape culture thrives on ambiguous situations where outsiders can be easily convinced that it was a “misunderstanding” or otherwise the victim overreacting, on people being able to justify and make excuses for their behavior- to normalize it.

    Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  10. Casey wrote:

    Honestly, I’m kind of sick of people saying “violence is never okay” when the discussion is about asshole men making rape “jokes” (read: threats) about women. I read a pretty good post on Tumblr about how a woman, let alone a rape survivor NOT punching out some asshole for making rapacious comments deserves to be sainted. It’s hyperbole but also pretty damn true. And MAYBE if more assholes got punched for making rape “jokes”, they’d do better to just NOT FUCKING MAKE THEM in the future.

    Friday, August 10, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink