Gender / media / Rape / Sex in the news

Oh, Rape, You’re So Hilarious

“It’s hard to weigh in on this because I don’t even know if I’ve ever heard a rape joke.”

A few months ago we had a lively debate on the facebook page about whether men have an obligation to shut down other men when they make jokes about rape.

The catalyst was a blog post by an author who argued that men who commit sexual assault  assume most men commit sexual assault… and that when you don’t put them on blast for making cracks about it, they assume you agree with them and are also a rapist. And this further entrenches their fucked up belief that sexual assault is socially taboo, but ultimately acceptable.

On the FB page, there were a few commentators who argued that their belief in free speech overpowered their desire to critique these guys’ jokes. Others made the case that we can’t take any single topic completely off of the table for humor. Some maintained that all comedy is about crossing lines and being outrageous, others simply posit that feminists don’t have a sense of humor.

And in what is probably the wackiest coincidence in the whole world, all these comments that (in one way or another) condoned joking about rape were… wait for it…. made by guys.  On a page with 50% female readership, not one woman was compelled to stand up for the inalienable free speech rights of stand up comics. Not one female felt that every person’s right to say outrageous things was a higher principle than not mocking victims of sexual assault. At least not one that was involved in this particular conversation.


Yesterday I read about comedian Daniel Tosh (whose stuff  is generally groan-worthy anyway) joking about rape. When an audience member responded negatively, feeling compelled to object, he joked about her getting gang raped. This story has been making the rounds on various sites.

One blog insisted the incident was fictional, a personalized account of something that happened on Louie (season 1, episode 6: “The Heckler/Cop Movie”). But the scene in Louie is strikingly different (plus his jokes on rape are kind of the exact opposite and Louis CK’s argument against heckling is that comedians don’t have anything else going for them). Eventually Tosh responded to the allegations with a statement of tepid apology but this isn’t the first time anyway.


Like most things that are offensive, you come across clusters of behavior, rather than finding all objectionable content evenly distributed. For those of us who regularly attend live amateur comedy, we hear rape jokes aplenty. If there aren’t at least a dozen gay jokes and half a dozen rape jokes, it’s not an open mic night in Philly. But these are, again, not evenly distributed. It’s not that every comic drops his dose of rape joking somewhere in between his recommended amount of cracks about midgets and politics. There are particular shock acts and there are some super amateur comedians who don’t yet have enough original material and resort to formulaic taboo-buggering.

A week or so ago I was at a comedy competition where the audience voted on who would go to the next round and win a thousand dollars. One dude, looking like a tiny Buddy Holly, won me over at first with his  intentional awkwardness. But for no clear reason, halfway through the set, threw out a graphic and truly offensive tale about raping a woman.

In a competition.

Where the audience voted.

That kind of demonstrates how “not a thing” it is.

And in the world of stand up comics, critiquing someone’s content for offensiveness is seemingly verboten. You can give pointers on style and construction. You can coach on stage presence. But if you call someone out, especially publicly, for saying something truly mean and stupid, the comedy community will not stand behind you. They will stand behind the joke teller, no questions asked. Perhaps they feel like an oppressed group, unified by their struggles, that must maintain solidarity.

On or off stage, humor is used to share values, reinforce group beliefs and build intimacy. And what jokes a group tells says an inordinate amount about their shared values.


Recently, a woman heard a stranger joke about raping another nearby woman, and she punched him in the face. She took a picture of her bandaged hand, post-punch and posted it on Tumblr. The post went viral, bringing along a slew of supporters who called her a hero and trolls who insisted she should get raped for her transgression. 

But then, threatening to rape women for doing and saying things men don’t like is old hat: from everything to disobeying your husband, being a lesbian or suggesting the world of video games is sexist.

Sexual violence has so much less to do with sex than it does with power. It’s about seeing vulnerability and exploiting it. It’s about taking advantage and getting away with something. It’s about firmly cementing the hierarchy, where the rapist insists he is above the victim.  That’s precisely why rape is so prevalent in wartime.


“I find it so odd that you, of all people, would be on this side, since you get so mad at censorship.” This was a comment lobbed at me last night, while discussing this topic.

“But there’s a world of difference between trying to censor content so no one can ever see it and speaking back. It’s the opposite, in fact. ”

But there is no “speaking back” in comedy. Comics will tell you to vote with your lack of applause.  But never, ever, under any circumstances, can the person who put himself on stage be directly questioned. It’s supposedly free market capitalism in action: offensive, unfunny fucktards won’t get booked again.

But who can argue that, without this incendiary blog post going viral, Daniel Tosh would be hurt in the least by this act? And comics will be the first to tell you that talent does not equal fame or money in their industry, that often some of the shittiest acts become famous while true genius can spend years never breaking through. If the free market of comedy means that the best talent rises to the top, how do you explain Jeff Dunham or Larry the Cable Guy? Their success demonstrates majority rule. There are enough people with shared values and beliefs to support them. They have a niche. And all sorts of humor have niches. Including misogyny and racism. And because it’s 2012, that misogyny and racism has to masquerade as irony.

And it will get sandwiched in between other things, jokes about farts and masturbation. And it will go on and on, because it’s not getting directly countered.

Until it does, like it just did.  Because, once again, men who believe rape is sometimes acceptable assume other men do too and if you don’t tell them otherwise, they may actually legitimately not know that. And until we make it painfully apparent that shit is not tolerated, we’re tolerating it.


Comedy is not fascism, despite the arguments of some rape joke apologists. Nothing is more annoying or intellectually dishonest than “it’s a joke- get over it.” You don’t get to both create the content and control the reaction.

And there is a stark difference between satire and cruel mockery. Satire is when the powerful are mocked and cut down to size. Mockery is when the already disenfranchised are further ridiculed. Any lazy moron can reiterate what already is known by everyone. It takes genuine talent to change the paradigm.

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13 thoughts on “Oh, Rape, You’re So Hilarious

  1. I was a part of that original conversation in the FB group! I was blown away by the insensitivity of (some of) the males in that group. Especially the ones who claimed to be very religious. Sigh. I think I was also one of the people who expressed that they had “never heard a rape joke.” But then, I thought about it, and I started to hear them around me more and more. I had been tuning them out, I think. In fact just days before the conversation on FB took place I heard a joke about gang rape, and I had REPEATED it, and then had the audacity to claim “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a rape joke.” I was being sincere! When I recalled the joke later, it really resonated with me and I realized that we need to be more aware of this in our culture. Probably the most common times people make rape jokes– or more accurately, they simply “flippantly” refer to rape– is when playing video games or referring to people who are incarcerated. With that in mind, I think almost anyone can recall a time they’ve heard rape taken a little too light-heartedly. I support free speech all the way. But like you said, Timaree, that means supporting those who want to speak up AGAINST it as well!

  2. “You don’t get to create the content and control the reaction”. That is really wonderful. I constantly encounter the ol’ “It’s just a joke, lighten up, get a sense of humor” response, and I think that’s a great counter to it. Thank you.

  3. I apologize in advance because I’m wordy and I do dorky things like write comments longer than the original post.

  4. I appreciate your distinction between censorship and what this girl was doing, and distinguishing censorship from a call to deal with the general problem of rape jokes. No one is calling for a legal ban on what comics can say. No one is threatening to throw them in jail or take away their money. On the contrary, people are exercising their own right to free speech to say I am offended and (as if someone would have the audacity to do so), educate someone on why this is a problem. People are exercising their right to call you a stupid idiotic moron. What gets to me is that that the entire debate’s focus, from this specific incident with Daniel Tosh, to the separate issue of free speech and censorship, to bringing in comments about feminists’ sense of humor, to talking about gay jokes and racist jokes, is that the actual crux of the issue is lost. This article starts with it, this article ends with it. And in the middle, there’s all this noise addressing issues created surrounding the heart of the matter.

    Rape jokes are bad because studies show that there are men out there who think that it is secretly condoned, and rape jokes help continue that culture.

    Why not rape jokes? Because of the sentence above. Defend that. Nothing to do with free speech, nothing to do with humor. Rape jokes create a problem. Therefore, if you are a comedian and like to think of yourself as a pretty decent human being, I would think you would not want to encourage rape and therefore you would stay away from rape jokes. And I will encourage everyone I know to join me in not laughing at rape jokes. And I would encourage everyone I know to share that problem. Because that’s the problem.

    It is true that all offensive jokes lack creativity, but, in my opinion, what makes rape different from racist jokes or sexist jokes or gay jokes is that there is an active dialogue (though, probably not large enough, and certainly not enough corresponding action to correct the issues), which takes away from the effect of the joke. Up until recently, I would not have included gay jokes on that list, and it’s not that the slow progress displayed by the nation in accepting homosexual rights makes it ok to do gay jokes, but, I think, it makes the gay jokes slightly less powerful (though, in certain circles, they remain just as virulent as ever). Rape, on the other hand, is, as mentioned above, socially taboo. Therefore, a rape joke does more harm than anyone can really know because nobody talks about it. Nobody is saying that it is wrong, and those who do are demonized for violating free speech or being feminists or… everything that misses the point. The same was true for gay jokes a few years ago. The same was true for sexist jokes a hundred years ago. And the same was true for racist jokes 150 years ago. And, if you really think about it, all offensive jokes now still harm the groups they are directed at; it’s just that it may be less harmful because there is less ignorance. Arguably, any harm is unacceptable.

    The thing is, it’s likely that each and every male who made the comments on the facebook discussion (tried looking for it at work but couldn’t find it), are perhaps less likely to commit rape. This is just a theory, I have nothing to back it up, but I think most people who are likely to commit rape aren’t taking the time to read a post against rape jokes, nor are they talking about it, nor are they actively trying to defend rape jokes. Maybe they are. Then I hope we are getting through to them. But I think the ignorance of those men who would not rape a woman (or women who do not consider these issues, for that matter) and those men who do rape are both exceedingly high, thereby creating the problem. Males who won’t rape do not understand those who do, and therefore see no reason to condemn a rape joke, and males who will rape obviously do not understand why a rape joke is bad. It is the ignorance which makes this a problem. I’m not saying that you should try to think like a rapist – I hope I never understand what goes through their minds – but I try to understand how my actions, or others actions, or others jokes, might affect they way they think.

    As for the point “You don’t get to both create the content and control the reaction,” I think that’s only half the problem. I don’t believe that Daniel Tosh, or the commenter above who inadvertently discussed a rape joke, means for others to feel that rape is condoned. But just as they should not be able to control the reaction of one who is outraged, they cannot control the reaction of the potential rapist. That is exactly the problem with those who take rape jokes as an implicit green-light for sexual assault. The interpret the world in their own way. And unless those who are concerned about rape speak out against rape jokes, they will continue to do so.
    If Jerry Sandusky teaches this nation anything, it should be that rapists and child molesters create their own world where their actions are justified and ok (just as all bigots, homophobics, racists, and sexists do). Rape jokes are a problem. Rape jokes actually cause ill effects in society. It’s not censorship to say they should not be used. It’s common sense. Sense, not censor. It allows people to continue to live in their own fantasy worlds where what they do and believe is justified. We can’t suffer those worlds to continue. Rape jokes do.

    Prison rape is probably just as bad to laugh at, even though it seems more socially acceptable. It’s easy to make fun of those in prison because we generalize the prison population – those people are monsters who deserve it. But what about those who are innocent, because we know there are some. What about those in there for possessing small amounts of pot? Do they deserve to be in prison, let alone violated? What are we really laughing at when we talk about prison rape?

    I was recently at a comedy show by a famous comedian. And he was making some jokes which referred to child sexual abuse. I had just spent the last week reading about the effects of child sexual abuse for a case I was working on. I was reading about how childhood sexual abuse affected my client. And I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t laugh because I knew what I was laughing at.

    If people knew what they were laughing at, I don’t think anyone would laugh at a child sexual abuse joke. Or a rape joke. Or a gay joke. Or a racist joke. Or a sexist joke.

    The problem, however, is one of ignorance, and unless people are brave enough to speak up, then everyone will continue to laugh and know not what they do.

  5. People should be, and are, able to say whatever they want. That’s why we have people like Neo-Nazis who have the right to march, congregate, free speech etc etc. As such you have the right to voice your opinion about their opinion, lack of taste, class, or what have you. But a performance of any sort is an exception. You are permitted access to a venue where an artist is performing under the assumption that you will not purposefully disrupt the performance. If you have a problem, speak out about it before or after. Other than that, even though you don’t think such people deserve even the slightest amount of respect, have the courtesy to keep your opinions to yourself during the act, or just leave. I don’t laugh at rape jokes, as I personally know victims of rape. But people can say whatever they want, and suffer the consequences for their own actions.

  6. So jokes arent okay but actual assault is? How can you condone someone getting punched in the face for speaking, no matter what they said. Also there is a big difference between what was said and an actual threat of rape. I think its odd that you bring up studies without actually citing any. People are not responsible for the thoughts of others, any man who thinks rape is okay doesn’t think that because of a joke. It sounds as if you are blaming comedians for the ills of society when the truth is rather that they inspire converaation and provoke thought about tough topics that people won’t talk about. Comedians joke about rape because its insanely unfunny, the joke works becauae you would have to be a total moron to believe tosh actually wanted the women to get raped. The argument against his words would only be valid if she actually got raped. Also why is it acceptable to interrupt a comedy show? Not everything is for everyone, all you have to do is leave. No one expects to ‘control the outcome’ but why should everyone else in the club have to deal with one person who is so self centered they can’t just let others be. If you don’t like a joke thats fine but why do people feel that they are so important that they get to tell others what to do, nobody made her listen so she shouldnt make him apologize.

  7. Some people, especially some men, do not understand how many of us live in fear and actual danger of being raped. It even sounds odd to me to be typing this. How about not walking in dangerous neighborhoods at night? check. However, it can happen in ANY neighborhood. My husband is never afraid to walk the dog, But I have been stopped by men in trucks “asking for directions”…. and I live on a dead end street. I am not saying I live in constant fear, but it is there, lurking. It is awful to have to question the motives of every stranger you meet under specific circumstances. I do not feel I am a paranoid person, I am fairly confident in my ability to protect myself most of the time.

    Jokes about rape? I think Tosh is funny. and if it gets the dialog going…. then perhaps it is a positive. Freedom of speech and all that.
    Fathers, mothers, teachers, brothers… teach our sons to NOT rape!

  8. You know what even the heckler is not even real anymore. You are silently being taught to be more silent you do understand that right? The internet was one the most awful and convienent inventions ever made. Don’t you understand that people know what causes a reaction ? Dont understand that they are trying to make your right to be offended by what little cause you have somewhat signifinicant because it is not. Things happen to people and then so many people want to dmselves at that moment in either defending the victim or emotionally playing the victim for the rest of their lives. Jokes are made to make victims such as yourself keep up this banter forever. Comedy is one of the easiest hardest but easiest things to do. Honestly , where are you in your life with your victimization? Out there being a hero for other victim? And where is this person who is making money off of you and this mere mentioning of tosh.o is making him and his style more and more submissive. The comedian is known and respected for making your life so fucking important while he or dare I say she is living well doing absolutely nothing while you conform. Writing this article is further continuing your right omg why am I even typing this right now oh that’s I’m just another tired bored opinion. Comedy is subjective just another sales technique for another idiotic conformist. robot who for some reason in her life assuming youre a woman was sold at some point on an idea which has obviously happened to her or him or It. And the news talks about it and in a way that we either ignore it or don’t look. But does the news promote real change? Did a blog writing out your feelings on what is funny and not funny aren’t you even comprehending what comedy is doing to you. Also if you knew anything about a comic that they are bringing it up because more than likely they took that victimization which actually reduces you to the real character. I obviously like offending people than defending them because defending makes stupid shit that’s so small and so unimportant a Big effing deal. Its about reading who define themselves as this one cause it reduces them to nothing. You do understand what you’re doing right. You’re just a.cified version of the drunk heckler. Quit fighting an unreal fight or don’t. I bet you probably assume I’m a man. No not physically but I have learned to think like one. Which brains beats people like you who are so offended by everything. And yes I have been raped before and no its not your fault its nothing you did and physically that’s probably the worst thing that can emotionally damage a woman for life but it happens unfortunately and the less time we stop bringing it up because its an unfortunate I’d what called I think oh yeah life its also an incident you can’t prevent or think that sileakinyone ia just reduced to their cause. So thank you small reactionary cause is this to you for keeping informed like me. Look comedy thrives on misery but who stop livi.g and who is reduced defined or even feeling like your cause that you’re fighting for. So again am as a woman or gay man. Believe me once your emotional pain goes away and you battle a real disease or whatever such as arthritis in your hips in an area and you have to get something as tiny as a ody replaced and you’re only thirty years old then you tell me again that real physical pain that you’ve just ignored and dealt with it for years thinking omg this pain is normal until one day it just gets so bad that you cannot move anymore?? Believe me pain gets worse as you age and will either motivate you to keep moving or you just stop. You stopped a long time ago to fight for this insignficant and unfortunate thing. And I got older and started realize oh shit I am wasting my life being a fucking victim. But if that’s what you want to be defined as is this. Look I have also been the role thief addict alcoholic etc trying to escape or relive whatever I made other people reduce me to. I have been reduced to feeling like nothing to finally giving into my emotional pain when my physical pain was much much much worse than any other pain that I thought was traumatizing. Yes I am saying have objectively feeling both and actually experiencing both I am not going to tell you which one worse an emotional disease or real disease? Hmmm I’m not sure. So anyway anyway my arthritic hips.are still killing me people are probably dying of cancer or being raped right this minute. But again it took something like so tiny so always talked about as fucking arthritis to motivate me? Again if it wasn’t for my actual hips to never feel the way that again my doctor said would feel 30 years from now. What does say about your stupid little again victimized cause about an incident that you quite frankly let define your life ??? Don’t give in just let it happen its okay. Don’t fight it. I guess It just makes me laugh that I thought that something being like being raped could be so uninspiring to me and god damn something so easily talked about than being or feeling offended by what someone oh one day you will get over it. See I can write this shit all day long. So again thanks to real life experience. Can’t wait til I’m laughing about demetia either. Believe me. You will stop that.

    • Oh btw I am sure you aren’t offended by the show the office ?. Because I think that it was the funniest show on television reducing people such as yourself into minor.characters that we somehow all relate to by bringing incidents or topics in a way that !?3 offends everyone and nobody at the same time?they use a very clever yet subversive model of filming which somehow alienates you even further from that has to be in tv which is being filmed to make it all right that other people arebeing o that.makes you feel comfortable about again your issue has been reduced right now to a fake documentary about the facts. Of life which include people like you or American cinema not offend people hmmm sounds what like some people are making living off your own and then making you laugh it off. Now that is offensive 🙂

      • Sorry; phone typo I meant to say using your own fears as jokes. Just thought I would be super clear who obviously understands what comedy is for ? I mean seriously thanks for keeping ne entertained with your thoughts worries and issues .and funny to’d meet me and never know me to probably be the nicest person you thought you met.

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