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”).

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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