Why rape jokes aren’t funny

June 25, 2012 § 4 Comments

Understand this: I am not saying you can’t tell a joke about rape, because clearly, you can. Many people have, many more people do or will in the future. I’m saying that no matter how amazingly funny you think you are, or may even actually be, the joke won’t be funny. Why is that? Well, it’s because there are living rape victims who may hear it. Not only are there more people who have been raped than you may believe (you probably know someone who has been raped, even if you don’t know that they have been) but furthermore, rape just isn’t a terribly amusing concept.

“But Matt,” you may say, “We tell jokes about trucks full of dead babies being unloaded with pitchforks. Bill Hicks, your favorite comedian, told a joke where he talked about jamming a shotgun in a man’s mouth and blowing his head off. Why can’t we tell rape jokes, then?”

As I said previously, you can tell them all you want. I am not the joke police. I can’t stop you from telling them, nor is that my goal in writing this. This is about why those jokes aren’t funny, not why you can’t tell them. There are many reasons why these jokes aren’t funny.

  1. A great many people have been raped, and those people have a variety of reactions to the subject. For a great many, it’s astonishingly painful to be reminded of the subject, due to the traumatic nature of the event. Just like when you’ve survived a plane crash that killed most of the rest of the passengers and crew and you can’t go to an airport without reliving the experience, or someone who was stabbed repeatedly might not be able to bear seeing a knife, some people who have survived sexual abuse or violence simply can’t help going through the experience again when it’s brought up.
  2. Rape may well be the worst violation one human being can inflict upon another. It’s certainly up there with torture and murder. And because of the way our society treats those who have been raped, they often have to endure a great deal of shame foisted upon them by a society that blames the victim for the crime, for ‘asking for it’ or ‘not doing enough to avoid it’ or what have you.
  3. The vast majority of sexual assaults are inflicted by men. So if you’re a man telling a joke about raping someone, even if you absolutely mean it purely as a joke, you’re doing so in the social context that says that as a man, you’re far more likely to act on your words. This isn’t funny. Even just telling a joke that is about rape that doesn’t directly involve you personally raping anyone is still veiled in that context. As long as rape actually exists, and men commit the crime for the vast majority of its cases, the joke will seem like a threat to some people who have every right to be worried and concerned.
  4. Rape isn’t fucking funny. End stop. It’s not funny when you make a joke about criminals getting raped in prison, it’s not funny talking about doing it yourself, it’s not funny because it lingers in the victim’s mind and heart. Someone who has been raped and survived it, even if they worked for years to overcome it, still has that primal scar that’s never going away. They view crowds differently, they feel things you can’t immediately understand if you haven’t had the experience (and I sincerely hope you have not) and internalized it. Rape steals your ability to control your own body from you, it is an act that says “You are so unimportant to me that I can use you as I choose and discard any concern for you as a fellow human being, you are no more important than a used condom I would throw in the garbage.” Carlin was wrong: imagining cartoon pigs doing the raping doesn’t make it any funnier.
  5. All of that shit I mentioned is damn hard to support in the name of telling a joke about rape. It’s hard for me to conceive of a justification for a joke about all of that. It’s just too much weight for almost any comedian to support. Perhaps Patton Oswalt can, or Margaret Cho. Frankly, I don’t like their odds and if I don’t think they can pull it off, I’m not looking forward to the huge hilarious laughs you’re going to wring out of this kind of violation. To be honest, I don’t think the pitchfork/truck full of dead babies joke is all that funny, but at least I’m fairly secure in the knowledge that no one hearing that joke was pitchforked out of a truck when they were a dead baby.

Consider the following. If you tell a joke that involves rape, and someone busts out laughing, are you comfortable around that person? Do you want to hang and get to know the guy or girl who laughs uproariously at the idea of someone being horribly, painfully, violated and robbed of a piece of their identity that they’ll need to spend years recovering if they even ever can? Does that sound like a party to you? Because if so please refrain from inviting me to any soirees you may be holding. Rape isn’t funny because the act itself combines the worst of misogyny, child abuse, violation of self, violation of trust, and the complete depersonalization of another. You can tell a joke about it, and people may laugh. They also might laugh at your knee slapping Nagasaki joke, but that’s not funny either. They might laugh when you tell a joke about killing small, defenseless animals. Senses of humor are subjective, but the pain you can cause is also subjective, and it’s objectively horrible to make someone who has endured this already relive it for the sake of your stupid punchline.

In a related but different subject, using rape in a narrative to build in a character’s backstory is weird. Rape shouldn’t be some minor detail your heroine or hero overcomes on the way, it should be given the position its narrative weight demands. If you introduce a rape in chapter one, it can’t just be recovered from next chapter. Well, it can, but that’s fundamentally shitty writing even if there’s an excuse like “Well, ten years had passed, she would have had to cope by then.” First off, sometimes people don’t recover from this, and secondly, if it’s important enough to include a rape it’s important enough that you don’t show the recovery process as ‘ten years later’ and gloss over what survivors have to go through. And using rape to simply endanger someone to generate sympathy towards that character is simply shitty as hell.

If rape is important enough to you to use, it had better be for more than just to fill in a background detail or make us feel sympathetic. If you’re not willing to devote significant time to it and its effects then don’t use it.

§ 4 Responses to Why rape jokes aren’t funny

  • K says:

    I actually experienced that last bit with a character I write about. She was raped a long time ago, in her past before you ever meet her. She’s immortal/long lived, but she still is apprehensive around men larger then her and has once been sick over remembering what happened to her.

    One of my readers told me that she should be over it. That it happened a long long time ago and enough time should have passed. I didn’t argue with him.. but I don’t agree with that reader.

    What happened to her was a Big Fucking Deal. Time can’t erase everything.

  • Hamlet says:

    I’m not singling this this post out for a response, among the many similar ones in our Twitter neighborhood, for any important reason. But it popped up in my feed and I thought it had potential, and then it wound up prompting a lot of the same thoughts I usually have.

    When you opened with “you _can_ make rape jokes,” I was hoping I was getting into a discussion that’s a lot more focused than what we usually see. Specifically, a discussion about how, even though attempts at humor can provoke pretty painful responses, not every joke that relates to rape or uses the word “rape” necessarily has this problem. That what we care about is not a certain magic word which somehow makes the surrounding content evil, but whether the idea expressed is a harmful one. To wit: that you _can_ joke about rape, because you can joke about anything, but that no matter what your chosen subject matter, the ideas you cultivate (because all jokes are a communication) should be worthwhile ones and not invidious ones.

    Sadly, when I read on I found another piece about a magic word. It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy: a string of four letters, without regard to context, dredges up a bitter argument that inevitably rubs on any psychological wounds more painfully than the original usage would have. We saw it with the now-infamous Penny Arcade strip that (if anyone still remembers) wasn’t even a joke about rape; it was a joke about WoW. Just a few weeks ago we saw the big fight over a geeky cosmetics company making a wordplay on the phrase “tentacle grape”–once again, none of the complaints had to do with content (because there wasn’t any; it was a naked pun), but were about a four-letter substring match with something read on the internet.

    This absolutist view embodied by these incidents and expressed by posts like yours, among other problems, directly contravenes the experience of people who have seen expert comedians use jokes to comment on the worst elements of our society in a way that both entertains and enlightens. This rallying cry that a joke which touches on the concept of rape can’t ever be funny has a problem even more fundamental than politics: many readers will know it to be inaccurate from personal experience. You can’t make a person find something funny or not funny by yelling at them. Unfortunately for your argument, you can’t even do it by putting the words “not funny” in italics. This is the worst kind of argument, because it refuses to take the reader seriously.

    To meaningfully fight against hateful behavior, it doesn’t work to overreach and use arguments that prove far too much and rest on bald assertion. This is why I argue far more, on the internet and otherwise, with people whose basic sensibilities I agree with: I expect better of them.

    • Ben says:

      Hamlet, I don’t know if you are actually a well educated person or if you have looked up a lot of these word and stretched your post out to make yourself sound intelligent. I’m one of those people, I admit it. Usually, I would make my post as long as possible, using needless amounts of filler and big words. I’m not going to do that now, because the point that needs to be made is simple:

      Rape jokes are not funny. At all. You, your family, your friends, whoever, might be using it as a way to cope, but it’s a frightening way to cope with something like this and I would expect better of anybody who didn’t try to find a better way to deal with the horrible way humans can behave than by treating it as if it’s something funny.

      Rossi is, as always, spot on.

    • Enjy says:

      First time commenter here. Just had to respond to this.
      I’m a WoW player. I was running a heroic Stonecore dungeon with a group that liked one another well enough to go from random dungeon to dungeon. Over time, we got to talking.

      Someone brought up how if a certain character race was real, he would rape them.

      The next response was a lol.

      And suddenly, there were others cracking jokes about rape. Feeling highly uncomfortable, and just wanting to make them stop, I said, “That’s not funny. My sister was raped.”

      Said another, “I don’t care.”

      What followed were the same statements from your post. How comedy is subjective. How great comedians are fine with saying rape jokes. How much they hated “buzzkills” like me who dared to bring up reality.

      I ended up dropping group because if there’s one thing I didn’t expect to deal with in WoW that day was a bunch of rape-apologists. Those who dismiss the act entirely, those who tell someone close to a victim that it doesn’t matter, that how dare I bring something up when I was feeling uncomfortable that impeded upon their ‘joking’.

      I feel that by saying because great comedians joke about rape then that allows you to do so, is doing a great disservice to those comedians. They’re actually funny. They honed their skills, practiced for who knows how many hours, actually managed to get themselves a widespread audience, and have to push themselves to be amusing. You, Joe Schmo by a watercooler, are not a comedian. You are just someone trying to be funny, trying to be “edgy” by telling a joke that can potentially affect someone terribly. You’re not saying anything new. You’re just making people uncomfortable. You don’t offer any insight. You’re certainly not trying to make a rape victim feel better. You’re not a great comedian, so it’s rather pointless to make the argument of “They do it, so why can’t I?”

      Then there’s your argument for how words shouldn’t be so sacrosanct. This isn’t a call for censorship. This is a call for human decency and common sense. I hate how people are so willing to jump on the bandwagon of “How dare you try to take away my rape jokes! I should be allowed to make as many off-color statements as I like!”

      In which case, you’ve pretty much ignored that the original post seems to be about. Rape jokes aren’t funny because they dismiss another’s pain and trauma. And there’s a big potential there that, hey, a victim could be in your midst considering how rampant rape happens to be. So how about being a good human being and actually caring about others around you by not flinging a rape joke into another person’s face? How about being decent and not go out of your way to potentially mock someone’s trauma?

      Or is your rape joke just so uproariously funny that you simply MUST tell it to the world? Is your humor just so amazing that you’d be able to dazzle a rape victim with your regurgitated humor? Somehow, I doubt that’s the case.

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