When are rape jokes not funny?

April 9, 2012

in Featured Articles, Opinion

My proposed answer to this question’s title is “Always”. But my reasoning is not the same as many people who campaign against rape jokes. Many say “you shouldn’t tell rape jokes because you don’t know if you’re going to trigger an unpleasant experience for people listening who might have been raped in that past”. I understand that point of view, although I disagree with it. I would definitely not try to tell a joke in the presence of someone I knew would be traumatised by it, but I don’t think avoiding all jokes that might upset anyone at all is a good idea. Some people are absolutely terrified of dogs, does that mean I can’t tell “my dog’s got no nose!” just in case? Censorship is a poor form of tolerance.

No, my reasoning is about the underlying assumptions that lead to the creation of different categories of jokes. Dead baby jokes are some of the crassest jokes I’ve ever heard, but that’s because they’re mainly based on the assumption that dead babies aren’t really anything to laugh about. If you don’t like the thought of a dead baby, you won’t like a dead baby joke. If you’re more indifferent, however, the ick of the thought of a dead baby can be a good set-up to a punchline – you can’t create a much more serious set up to a joke than dead babies. That’s why people like telling them, and why people find them funny (when they’re actually funny and not just “uhuhuhuh, dead baby”).

Telegraph cartoon about Dominique Strauss Kahn
However, rape jokes are usually based on the assumption that rape is somehow justified in some cases. The set up is based on the idea that rape is wrong, and the punch line is shattering that expectation… by implying that rape is ok sometimes. So no-one says, “How do you stop a baby crawling round in circles? Nail its other hand to the floor” encourages people to think that nailing babies to the floor is an ok thing to do. But “Some people don’t like rape jokes. In my experience I find it helps break the awkward tension afterwards. ” implies that the teller has committed rape, but that’s kind of ok because it’s funny, thereby devaluing the concept of rape.

Does telling a rape joke encourages rape? Does telling a murder joke cause murder? Actually, I couldn’t find a funny joke about murder while writing this. The funniest jokes that involve murder aren’t actually about murder, they’re simply a part of the set-up which actually revolves around people being stupid, court rooms, the justice system, etc. (if anyone can think of one please post it below). So, take a joke about Saddam Hussein:

“When Saddam Hussein was found guilty he was originally sentenced to be shot.

His last request was to name his own firing squad: He chose Lampard, Gerrard and Carragher from 12 yards.”

Involves the death of Saddam Hussein, actually about the footballing ability of people I’ve never heard of. What I found was that jokes that involve deliberate murder as the punch line were based on the assumption that some people deserve to die, including mothers-in-law, political figures, people from other countries and wives (note the heavy representation of women there…).

“You’re locked in a room with Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, and a lawyer. You have a gun with ONLY two bullets. What do you do?

Shoot the lawyer twice to make sure he’s dead.”

Saddam Lee Harvey Oswald parody
I have no idea whether listening to a joke about lawyers being murdered encourages the murder of lawyers, but there’s a reasonable argument to be made that rape jokes encourage rape. All rapists think that all men are rapists, they’re just better at covering it up. And when your culture bases a significant part of its humour on the assumption that a) people deserve to be raped sometimes and b) that the idea that rape isn’t ok is something to laugh about, who can really blame them for assuming that?

A woman is raped somewhere in the world every six minutes. There’s not a lot you can do about that. However, by laughing at a joke you don’t actually agree with the politics of, you encourage the person who told it to to tell it again. Which increases the comfort factor of all those would-be rapists out there who haven’t learned what consent means. Which makes it more likely they will rape someone. Maybe you don’t believe that, but we do know that people are more than willing to send messages threatening rape to female columnists when they think they won’t face consequences. If we as a culture encourage the idea that rape itself has no consequences, what, really, is there to deter them?

I spent a lot of time thinking about this, because I know more than one person who has been sexually assaulted/raped who still tell rape jokes/laugh at them, and more than one who can’t bear it. That’s my view for now, but I would be very interested in hearing alternative arguments in the comments, if you have any.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Hypnoswan April 9, 2012 at 10:19 am

Thanks for the link: with having read that, and your article, my inclination is to suggest that the act of threatening rape (overtly or by implication) should be subject to the same type of laws that covers racism.

However I have a problem with the law on racism, partly because false accusations ( I once remonstrated with a black security guard who was exceedingly rude to me, and who, when he realised I was winning the arguement started shouting ‘did you just use the ‘N’ word?”), and partly due to overzealous and one sided application of it (where it is taken out of context by do-gooders), etc.

That however is a big and separate subject, ‘ -so I’ll leave it as a casual reference (if i may), but I can forsee similar problems for legistalioon against rape ‘jokes. I just wanted to say really that I abhore rape jokes, and am concerned about a culture (as you rightly point out,) which minimises the seriousness of rape, which doesn’t condemn (outright and across the board) threats of rape used in context of insult, and which tacitly condones it ‘in certain circumstances’

It’s something that angers me and I agree with you

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James Abrahams April 9, 2012 at 10:56 am

I originally wrote something and lost it. The originally was a very rambley set of ideas that could develop into an argument. This new one will be even more rambly! From Facebook:

“James Abrahams
In essense I think another way of looking at the question is instead of . “When are rape jokes not funny?” ask “When is it morally reprehensible to find a rape joke funny?” and that should start with “Why is a particular rape joke funny?”. I think there are some morally reprehensible reasons why I might find a rape joke funny, some neutral and some good reasons.”

In the world of racist humour and satire I think the 2 things that are interesting to look at that may shed light on here are Borat and Charlie Chaplain’s The Great Dictator. Borat is interesting because there were a bunch of different reasons you could find it funny with different takes on its morality. For example. “haha, the right are so ignorant”, “haha, foreign people are really stupid” or “haha, its funny to see politness put into circumstances it really isn’t built for”.

The great dictator I don’t know how relevant it is to this question but it is an example of humour doing a great deal of Good.

One idea to throw into this before going through some reasons is the idea that what is funny is “breaking symmetries”. Alot of jokes are about breaking symmetries, moving your expectations in one direction and then breaking them. So I think there may be some light on the morality of finding some jokes funny depending on the expectations its playing with.

Also when questioning morality there is also the question of who the morality question is aimed at. Is it morally reprehensible to tell the joke? Or is it a problem to laugh at the Joke? Well its probably not morally reprehensible to laugh but the reason you laugh might be because you believe something about the world that is morally reprehensible to believe (eg, “All blacks should be killed”) and by laughing at the Joke you’re revealing that you thought this. Therefore the Joke itself might be a really really important thing to tell because it reveals your innate racism… alternatively it may encourage or reward your innate racism.

Anyways here are a couple of reasons why I think I might find a rape joke funny and whether it would be morally reprehensible for me to do so.

“haha, that is so politically incorrect, liberals would be upset by that” – I think this is the most common reason behind shock humour and I think it is morally reprehensible. Stewart lee talks about this alot, even though he is a contreversial figure in comedy with Jerry Springer the Opera and acts like he is trying to offend people. In reality Political correctness is a good thing as it is good for a society to punish people with ideas that deserve punishment. I think this closely relates to “taboo” subject stuff

“haha, that is funny because rape is a taboo subject and you have broken the taboo and rape should not be a taboo subject or we shouldn’t have them” – Again basically the same as the political correctness thing. Rape ought to be a taboo subject in our culture. When there are conversations about rape it should be treated differently to conversations about other things. But…

“haha, that is an interesting new way to treat a taboo subject” I think is a morally neutral reason to find a joke funny as taboo subjects ought to be talked about, just talked about differently. I think its bad when taboo subject are merely censored. So a couple of ways that the subject remains taboo but the treatment is different..

“haha, yeah that is really really really horrible” – I think is actually a morally positive reason for finding rape jokes funny but a very dangerous one. I think humour is a really good way of expressing your feelings towards a subject that is very different to handle. For example when the mum of one of my close friends died our social group sat around and laughed alot. It was a very specific kind of laugh, it definitely was not “we’re treating this subject flippantly” laugh it was a “shit just got real” kind of laugh (even that way of framing the laugh fits in with what the laugh is trying to do!). If someone close to me got raped and I simply stated “Rape is not a good thing, this is sad” it would not capture many of my feelings but would be factually accurate. Humour and other artforms allow me to express how I’m feeling more accurately and that involuntary laugh allows me to demonstrate that this is something I truly feel, as I don’t have control over that involuntary laugh.

“haha, rape and consensual sex have a lot in common…”. I think this can go 2 ways “…and therefore people who go on about rape should chill out” or “… and that is really terrifying”. The first, I don’t know if I know anyone who thinks like that so could be a strawman. The second I think is a potentially positive reason to find rape jokes are funny as it opens up the complexity of what rape actually is and why its bad. There are jokes about “Suprise Sex” that fit into this I think.

The final reason I think is the most contreversial. I think there are many anti-rape campaigners who would not like the point behind that reason. But actually I think its one of the reasons why it is good to use humour to bring this out. Humour brings out your innate starting point in the discussion and then you can talk about whether that is actually a good reason to laugh or not.

But I think its not helpful to respond with censorship or merely saying “Thats not funny” and instead say “Why do you find it funny? and discuss whether that is ok or not.

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James Abrahams April 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

Regarding threatening Rape.

There are alot of people who think “It was only a Joke” is a get out of jail free card. Thats imo, both stupid and potentially evil (As it works!). In the opensource community there was a conversation about female engagement in programming and one thing that was talked about was how men tend to get very aggresive in these online collaborate projects. When then do most men rise to the challenge and fight back which encourages innovation (good) but women tend to think, “well if you treat me like that clear off” Which is not good and so maybe we should calm down the aggresiveness if we want to encourage women… anyway when talking about that she mentioned how she spoke to women who had been threatened with rape in disputes about code.

I think if someone says “I was only joking” they should be asked “Why was this supposed to be funny”. I think that the person in the above example would find it difficult to bring up a morally agreeable reason. But for example I think there are situations where it works because you could be saying “haha, look at how much I am overreacting to quite a small issue”. Which is what I think people are laughing at where “threatening with rape jokes” are used

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Andi April 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm

I’m not sure comparing rape survivors being triggered and to someone being afraid of dogs is very tasteful. People who get triggered can suffer flashbacks and severe anxiety with rape is even mentioned. Rape jokes have a *lot* more power than jokes about dogs so I don’t think your comparison is useful or particularly valid.

“Censorship is a poor form of tolerance.”

I don’t understand how not telling rape jokes cos you think they might harm someone is a form of censorship. Surely it falls into the category of “not being a dick”? I don’t get how that links in with tolerance either. Who’s tolerating whom?

“Which increases the comfort factor of all those would-be rapists out there who haven’t learned what consent means”

Rapists live and grow in the same culture as we do and get the same messages about consent so I think it’s not an issue of education, it’s an issue of caring.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about this, because I know more than one person who has been sexually assaulted/raped who still tell rape jokes/laugh at them, and more than one who can’t bear it.”

An interesting article on this is here: http://www.shakesville.com/2008/11/rape-isnt-hilarious.html. I think the most important point is that “public rape jokes have fuck-all to do with sexual assault survivors using humor to deal with their own sexual assaults. […] Public jokes and private jokes are not equivalent. Jokes for laughs and jokes for catharsis are very different animals. […] Jokes that minimize the severity and ubiquity of rape (e.g. prison rape jokes) perpetuate the rape culture; jokes that underline the severity and ubiquity of rape (e.g. Wanda Sykes’ detachable vagina bit) challenge the rape culture.”

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sarah April 9, 2012 at 4:12 pm

You and I both know someone who is absolutely petrified of dogs. I suggest you rethink your disabilist attitudes to people with extreme phobias:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2elF1mixqf0

http://animal.discovery.com/tv/my-extreme-animal-phobia/top-10-weirdest-phobias.html

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Stephanie April 9, 2012 at 3:11 pm

In response to Andi – I don’t think the trauma rape can cause should ever be underestimated but I’m sure that there are people who could have similar flashbacks and extreme anxiety when triggered as a result of a traumatic experience with a dog. PTSD can be caused by any terrible or frightening experience and I have no doubt that there are people in the world who suffer from it because of dog attacks or because of a number of other things I never would have considered.

I also believe (I think I’m right in saying this) that someone who has PTSD as a result of rape might have no reaction at all to the word ‘rape’ but could have a very serious reaction to something far less predictable like a conversation about completely consensual oral or anal sex or (to use a massive cliche) a piece of music or a sound or smell that they remember from the time.

I also think that if rape wasn’t a taboo subject in serious or even just general conversation it would probably be a far less effective thing to use in a joke.

In response to the original Blog though, I think that jokes do play a big part in our cultural identity. I think rape jokes can be damaging not just because they create an environment in which theoretical rape is acceptable but also they continue to underline those misconceptions about where, when and why rape is committed that just won’t die.

The language used around rape in general tends to create a sense of acceptability. It’s been said before but things like using the passive tense instead of the active (‘7 rapes occured’ not ‘someone committed 7 rapes’) so regularly that people don’t even notice anymore make a massive difference to how we all think about things.

It’s interesting that dead baby jokes are almost always told in the third person, distancing the teller from the subject matter, while rape jokes are often in the first.

I wonder if there are many jokes around told from the other perspective?

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Stephanie April 9, 2012 at 3:27 pm

I’ll leave it up to you to judge how relevant this song is. I really like it though. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6pucEHFhEI

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Andi April 9, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Stephanie – I hear a lot more people talking about flashbacks and trauma with rape than I do about dogs so I assume(d) that it was more common but it doesn’t really make sense to go down that route, you’re right. And you’re right about PTSD and triggers – I almost drowned once and the weirdest things trigger flashbacks to that.

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Sarah Martin April 10, 2012 at 9:01 am

I agree with this. I know victims of rape and see the damage far too often.

“A woman is raped somewhere in the world every six minutes. There’s not a lot you can do about that. However, by laughing at a joke you don’t actually agree with the politics of, you encourage the person who told it to to tell it again. Which increases the comfort factor of all those would-be rapists out there who haven’t learned what consent means. Which makes it more likely they will rape someone. Maybe you don’t believe that…”

And anyway, why nail a kids hand to the floor? Kids used to get tied to chairs so that mum could get on with the chores. Some things can be made light of with a joke like the fact I have MS. This can often lead to misunderstandings though, depending on the intelligence of the listener. We take risks for humour but is it worth it? Somebody will always get hurt, whatever your views are. A calculated risk I fear.

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Logan April 9, 2014 at 9:07 pm

I’m a little late to the party on this one, but to place that level of responsibility on the joke-teller is just absurd in my opinion. I think the question we should be asking is, “Why does that joke have that power?”

It’s a matter of relativity. How a joke, or any form of artistic media, affects someone is related to the person’s education, experiences, and personality. The problem isn’t necessarily the fact that a joke is being told, it’s the interpretation that’s problematic, an interpretation that’s fostered by a gross level of ignorance regarding sexual violence.

I feel like saying that what we laugh at indicates a certain level of acceptability is a bit simplistic. It doesn’t take into account the context, the types of lens through which people see artistic media. And who’s to say a person laughing at a rape joke is automatically laughing at rape? They could be laughing for a multitude of reasons, not one of them necessarily being because they agree with the ideas expressed in the joke.

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