Laughing till you cry: why rape jokes are never ok


“That awkward moment when you randomly target a girl for rape and it turns out to be your sister….Christmas is going to be uncomfortable this year”

It’s that time of year again, so I felt inspired to share that lovely festive joke a male friend of mine told me recently. I may be bias due to my feminist sensitivities, but hearing such vile words, and from a friend I’ve known for nearly 10 years was both shocking and disappointing.

I challenged him about the inappropriate nature of the joke, but he proceeded to defend his statement vehemently – claiming that is was black humour, a little harmless satire that doesn’t hurt anyone. We debated furiously about the issue over the next week.

While his joke mocks a violent and unspeakable act experienced by 1 in 6 women during their lifetime, it was also his inability to understand the degree of damage rape jokes can cause that upset me.

The debate about whether or not rape jokes are ok is highly controversial. Understandably, no one wants to live an uptight, PC culture. Some say it’s freedom of speech, satire or simply “just a joke” and feminists should all have a collective un-bunching of our panties.

But researchers at Western Carolina University have found scientific evidence linking rapes jokes to the promotion of violence and prejudice.

“Humor, as a medium of communication, changes the manner in which we interpret a given message. The levity of humor invites us to treat a sentiment, whether decent or reprehensible, as a matter of play. Sexist humor—the denigration of women through humor—for instance, trivializes sex discrimination under the veil of benign amusement, thus precluding challenges or opposition that nonhumorous sexist communication would likely incur” (Boxer, Edel, Ford, 2007)

In other words, if rape jokes and misogynistic humour are accepted, this creates a trickle-down effect. Some psychologists believe that the human brain operates in either ‘serious mode’ or ‘humorous mode’. Whilst in serious mode we interpret things logically and reasonably, but in humorous mode we suspend rationality in the name of fun and take on information with a relaxed attitude. Thus, comedy and jokes play a key role in shaping people’s perceptions. Violence against women should shock people, but when the issue is treated as casual or humorous, society becomes complacent. This in turn changes how we view, treat and respond to sexual assault.

While it may seem like a cheap shot or quick joke, little by little these “laughs” chip away at what remains of society’s morality. Thomas Ford from the study at Western Carolina University concluded that “people should be aware of the prevalence of disparaging humor in popular culture, and that the guise of benign amusement or “it’s just a joke” gives it the potential to be a powerful and widespread force that can legitimize prejudice in our society”.

So I don’t think the demand for some basic respect and exercising caution when kidding around is that unreasonable.

Others argue that it’s important to be able to have a sense of humour about these things. A few years ago US comedian Daniel Tosh came under fire for telling rape jokes during one of his stand up shows. A female audience member stood up and told him “rape jokes are never funny”. Without missing a beat, Tosh replied “well wouldn’t it be funny if 5 guys raped you right here right now”. At the time Feminaust weighed in on the issue, reiterating once again the social and moral implications of his actions and rape jokes in general. Tosh later apologised via Twitter, saying that he was only trying to make fun of serious situations in life.

Ok, fair enough. Humour can be a way to deal with past trauma, and if that’s the way a victim of sexual assault chooses to process what happened, then that’s their right. However I don’t believe that public, let alone comedians should make that choice for them. Sexual assault survivors and women in general shouldn’t be forced to laugh at their own trauma. By mocking or even bringing up rape in the public space forces survivors to be reminded of their experience. If a victim chooses to cope with their situation by using humour – that should be their choice and their choice alone.

If you’re wondering if rape jokes are ever ok, take a look at comedians Adrienne Truscott  or Tig Notaro – the true bastions of sexual assault satire. Instead of laughing at the expensive of victims or at the violent nature of the act, these comedians poke fun at the existence of rape culture. People laugh at the absurdity of the situation and because they can relate. The audience understands the truth – that in Adrienne Truscott’s show, she isn’t asking for it – the implication that she is, is what’s funny.

At the end of the day, whatever your politics about freedom of speech, women or satire, why do people laugh at or defend something that they know can hurt people and cause them pain.

I suppose that’s the most baffling thing of all.