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.

Subscribe to SarahMcCulloch.com via Email! (or via RSS!)

Related Posts:


Original protagonist: [Something mildly controversial/potentially offensive]

Antagonist: That is [sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic, cissexist, heteronormative, homonormative, encouraging of stereotypes, exclusive of religious/black/disabled/woman-identified/queer people]! You can’t say that!

Original protagonist: Why not? I have freedom of speech!

2nd Antagonist: Safespace!

Original protagonist: Stop being so sensitive! You just need to get over your feeling of being persecuted all the time!

2nd protagonist: It’s political correctness gone mad, mate, can’t even say anything without a degree in gender studies here.

Friend of the Antagonist: This isn’t political correctness, it’s about creating an inclusive environment!

[Massive argument ensues]

Interested gay: [Insightful comment about striking a balance between freedom of speech and protecting minority groups that is largely ignored]

Uninterested gay: Wtf are you all arguing about? Stop it, you’re acting like children.

Disinterested gay: Lol, this is funny.

[Unplanned kneejerk response by committee member that deletes/bans/destroys the forum in which the OP committed the original action]

Original Protagonist: I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU JUST DID THAT.

Antagonist: It was totally appropriate!

3rd protagonist: That was not on, no-one has the right to censorship! We live in a free country! {Optional: comparison to Hitler}

2nd Antagonist: Free speech doesn’t include the right to offend!

Libertarian gay: I don’t give a toss about this argument, but no-one has the right to censor another person!

Random gay who has just read through the entire argument and come out sympathetic to the Antagonist: I think its acceptable for the committee to act on issues that are offensive to other members though.

{Optional: Argument about whether rightwing/leftwing viewpoints have equal status and whether the society should be political or not}

Original Protagonist: Who makes that decision? The committee, who the hell are the committee?

Committee member: Hey, we’re all volunteers, we’re all doing the best we can, people make mistakes…

Disgruntled former (sort of) member: [Snarky comment about committee]

[Argument about the committee, its actions that year, the people on it, elections and the sort of events being run]

Member hoping to derail the controversy: Hey, check out this [inspiring video/article about a new step forward for gay rights/suggestion for a new event]

2nd member hoping to derail the controversy: Wow, yeah, that’s really cool. Why don’t we [upbeat and constructive suggestion that no-one replies to]

Original protagonist/Antagonist: Look, I’m not trying to make a big deal about this, I just feel that my identity as a [minority/majority gay man/gay woman/bisexual/trans person/queer person/black person/middle class/working class person/right wing/left wing/religious/atheist] is being compromised and I feel hurt. Something Must Be Done.

Antagonist/Original Protagonist: What do you mean, your identity?! What about MY identity as a [majority/minority gay man/gay woman/bisexual/trans person/queer person/black person/middle class/working class person/right wing/left wing/religious believer/atheist]? We’re oppressed too!

Academic gay: Well, actually, [comment about structural inequality/queer theory/”racism cuts both ways”]

Non-academic gay who shouldn’t be at university: Look, none of this matters, alright? It’s just academic theories, can’t we all just get along?

Original Protagonist/Antagonist: This isn’t about getting along, it’s about a serious point that strikes at the very fabric of what it means to be [LGBT/non-heterosexual/a member of this society/a student/democratic/free/part of a union]!

[Argument continues but now involving reference to liberation theory and class analysis]

Former committee member: Nothing changes.

2nd former committee member: Yeah, do you remember when…

[Short conversation between old LGBT hacks ensues about former controversies]

Ordinary member no-one has ever heard of before: Look, I signed up to this society for updates about events and to meet people, not to read this kind of petty infighting. We need to be united, get a grip!

Original protagonist: I wasn’t trying to be divisive, I only [original action] and it seems some people just can’t cope with that…

Ordinary member no-one has ever heard of or will again: Just stop it! Just stop it, alright! I am sick of this happening all the time!

Antagonist: My point was totally valid and you needed to be challenged! You said…

[Argument continues until everyone gets physically tired and/or has to leave the keyboard]

[A committee meeting is held where the same arguments are rehashed for two hours but no conclusions are reached]

Related Posts: