What’s so funny about rape?

Stand up comics say rape “is the new black.”
I’m a big fan of stand up comedy. (Wanda Sykes and Margaret Cho, swoon!) I like dirty jokes, controversial comics and dark humor. What I don’t think is funny, however, is this:

[Comedy festival] Fringe 2009 also welcomes back Aussie standup Jim Jeffries, whose jokes include: “Women to me are like public toilets. They’re all dirty except for the disabled ones.” Jeffries tells me: “You can’t do a joke these days about black or Asian people – and rightly so – [but] you can do rape jokes on stage and that’s not a problem.” Why does he think rape is now less of a taboo than racism? “I don’t write the rules,” he says. Nor, it seems, does he seek to challenge them. [San Francisco comedian Scott] Capurro told me, with some distaste: “For a lot of comics, it’s OK to talk about raping women now. That’s the new black on the comedy circuit.”

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. From Family Guy to Seth Rogen, folks joking about rape and violence against women seems to be the oh-so-hilarious thing to do. (Though of course, it’s hardly a new trend.)
What I truly don’t understand is how anyone could possibly think that joking about rape is being edgy or somehow fighting against the mainstream – which seems to be what the comics in this Guardian article are arguing. They say they’re taking taboos head-on. But the thing is, rape jokes and mocking violence against women are mainstream. They’re not a taboo at all – they’re the norm, sadly. So all of these comedians giving themselves a pat on the back for being sooo controversial – when all they’re doing is upholding the status quo – really fucking irk me.
Because if their rape jokes were actually challenging the mainstream, they’d be subversive, not holding up what American culture already perpetuates – that rape is a-okay. I think what is particularly telling is that so many of the people arguing that jokes about sexual assault are fine are dudes – the demographic that tends to be ones who, well…rape.

Similarly, some of the comedians arguing that racist jokes are okay are white – and appear to believe that we’re in some sort of Utopian world where racism and sexism don’t exist anymore.

A younger generation see things differently: challenging taboos is less a betrayal of their recent forebears, more a concession to a changing world. “In the 1970s, black and Asian people were getting shit put through their letterboxes,” says [comic Richard] Herring. “But the world has moved on. Now we accept the [anti-racist, anti-sexist] tenets of alternative comedy as true, and don’t need to patronise audiences any more.”

Perhaps the world “has moved on” for Herring – but it sure hasn’t for a lot of other folks. So long as racism, sexism, rape, and violence are accepted norms, telling these kind of faux-controversial jokes will do nothing but prop up a culture that thinks rape is not just not a big deal, but hilarious.
Related: Sense and Humor
Melissa’s “Rape is Hilarious” post series
I’m Going to Rape You Later

Join the Conversation

  • nikki#2

    Watched the video. It was good. Thanks.

  • Nepenthe

    Dude, if it’s not about you, it’s not about you. If you’re not the one making rape jokes, then we’re not talking about you. So quit butting in to feminist space and whining about how uncomfortable you feel about us talking about the asshole things that, by your account, other dudes do, but you don’t. Because it’s not about you.

  • Nepenthe

    Shorter jeff:
    I really like rape jokes and other jokes that use oppressed or disadvantaged people as punchlines. I’d also like to tell you all which types of women I like to fuck; my taste in women makes me a good feminist. I think that it would be too bad if I couldn’t hear fun rape jokes anymore just because they make you, as a survivor, dry heave and run out of the room crying. Besides, misogynistic assholes are already misogynistic, so it doesn’t matter if the rest of our culture encourages the idea that rape is hilarious.
    Okay, maybe that wasn’t shorter. But that’s what I read from that. Perhaps my “clueless-privilege to English” translator is broken though.

  • Logrus

    Clearly you’re not all that familiar with the Tree Stooges. It’s a hyper-aggressive man with a Pete Rose haircut physically abusing one effeminate man and one retarded man. There is a very clear power dynamic to the series and Moe wields it all the time except for the few occasions where he gets the worst of it.
    This is the set-up for the joke. Moe is the bully, he maintains that image by being a bully almost all the time. This is why it is funny when Curly or Larry get the better of him.

  • jeff

    Wow, how do you know me so well?

  • jeff

    But seriously.
    The degree to which a person sometimes simply can’t be heard on in these threads can be telling. So much as having an opinion about women I’m attracted to is apparently off-limits. Trying to make the point that I reject the double-standard espoused by the fictional teller of the joke gets me mocked; my post used no sarcasm, no name-calling, and didn’t make any assumptions about anyone’s privilege. I can’t say the same for this reply.
    You know nothing about me other than I’m male. And I suppose there’s some privilege that goes along with that. There’s a million other forms of privilege and you have no clue as to what degree I possess them. If I’m wrong, explain why, but I think things would be better if the juvenile, sarcastic and mean-spirited little diatribes were left out of it.

  • Emeraldcityserendipity

    I was on a rendezvous last spring and the person I was with made a joke about gang rape (what’s the one thing nine out of ten people enjoy?) and I simply told her that my sister was raped and how that changed my perspective. (It actually didn’t change it at all – I wouldn’t have laughed even if she hadn’t). She apologized and felt bad afterwards and we never did anything together again. I think we have the right to not find certain jokes funny (and I do not see how anyone could find gang rape funny) and not be told we ‘lack a sense of humour’ or that we are being anally PC. That having written, I LOVE insult comedian Lisa Lampanelli whose jokes and routines are far more offensive and over-the-top than that joke or probably anything Jim Jeffries tells. Perhaps this is an inconsistent and hypocritical stance, but I think it is fine to hold friends, dates, family members et al. to a higher standard than comedians whose routines will inevitably step on someone’s toes.

  • rustyspoons

    Just curious, a couple of posters made mention of the idea of a rape victim telling jokes about rape as gallows humor or such—does anyone have any examples of comedians (male or female) who have actually done this?

  • Pharaoh Katt

    I think one reason why rape jokes exist is the notion that it makes rape seem less real, less horrifying. I’ve seen humour used like this before, and I sometimes use it in the same way. For example, I often joke about self-harm because it takes the edge off it, and makes it easier for me to talk about. If self harm isn’t serious, then I don’t have a serious problem, you know?
    But by the same token, if we treat issues such as rape and self-harm as something to laugh at, it might actually make it harder for some people to talk about. It ends up being just a joke, and not a thing to take seriously. This can make it a lot harder for survivors.
    Sorry, this is rambly, just trying to get some thoughts moving.

  • Kristen

    So in a post about humor at the expense of oppressed groups, we refer to Cho, who uses humor at the expense of an oppressed group, as the example of appropriate humor?
    Or is it okay when we’re not the oppressed group?

  • jgar6

    Just because you did’nt agree with his point of view dose’nt give the right to be a bitch about it.

  • Eurekamoment

    Defining humor is, well, extremely difficult. Check it out for yourself:
    One of the most witty & brilliant comedians I’ve heard is Chelsea Handler. Some of her quotes are:
    I went out with a guy who once told me I didn’t need to drink to make myself more fun to be around. I told him, I’m drinking so that you’re more fun to be around.
    Men don’t realize that if we’re sleeping with them on the first date, we’re probably not interested in seeing them again either.
    I’m not the kind of girl who would report a rape unless it turned out badly.
    This year Heidi Fleiss will be opening the Stud Farm, her all-male brothel outside of Las Vegas. This is for women to find men. If you’re a guy looking for a guy, you still have to find it at the airport bathroom.
    Angelina Jolie’s older brother James Haven, the one she made out with, has a license plate on his SUV that reads Shiloh. Maybe it’s not that weird. After all, he could be the father.
    Thanksgiving is coming. I wonder what the holiday will be like at Dog the Bounty Hunter’s house—obviously, they’ll have a turkey with all-white meat.
    This is a miniscule sampling of her quotes but I bet there’s something here to make someone laugh hysterically and something to piss someone off. Oh, and if you LOVE humor that doesn’t spare anyone or any topic, check out theonion.com!

  • BitterBitch

    The most disturbing thing of all is hearing young boys (aged 12-14) using the word rape as a common descriptive word. My son is obsessed with Xbox live, which allows you to play games online with others, I have to say I was absolutely shocked to hear kids around the age of 13 saying, “You’re gonna get raped!” while playing the game. My son didn’t have any reaction to the comments which tells me hearing this is normal which scared me even worse.

  • Eurekamoment

    Jeff, I think you are spot-on! It’s the wit and the way the logic is transposed that makes something funny to me. The thought of gang rape is horrific but that joke made me LOL! It’s not that I find gang rape funny; it’s that someone was clever enough to use something as dry and “un-humorous” as statistics to describe the event coupled with the immediate recognition of who the 10th person (the one out of 10 who doesn’t like gang rape) was.

  • Eurekamoment

    Bitter Bitch-there is more than one definition of rape and they all don’t have to do with forced intercourse.

  • Jake N.

    Absolutely true, but it isn’t just young boys. I hear many students at my liberal arts college say things like “I got raped by that test” or similar comments to the one you posted with reference to video games and other competitive things.

  • MLF

    How about rape jokes that pick on the pathetic rapist? I mean in THAT context – it could be funny but you never hear a comic talk about what losers rapists are and how freaking insecure they are… One could do a really funny character assassination of the rapist…

  • orestes

    Elmer Fudd raping Porky Pig.

  • MLF

    Here’s a way to look at it – how many male comics turn the rapist into the butt of the joke? And how does that affect attitudes about rape?

  • MLF

    He has also told some jokes that were really stupid. One of which he was valueing women by the size of their breasts – saying he’d buy the woman with double D’s the most expensive wine and give the flat chested girl the budweiser.
    Totally misogynistic.

  • reverie

    Actually, if you’d go back and read her comment, she said she was proud of her friend for standing up against a really disgusting remark about wanting to rape women, not that she’s a big fan of violent jokes.
    But even if she did say it could be funny to joke about punching someone in the face, there are WORLDS of difference between an eighth grader punching a friend in the face and RAPE. Most obviously, the level of harm done to the victim is not even comparable. Secondly, a fist-fight between peers is a way different power dynamic than what’s going on when someone is raped. A kid punching someone because he didn’t know how else to respond to a totally reprehensible statement is understandable – deciding that it is okay to force sex with someone is not.
    Also, violence and fighting are things which can be done in contexts which are acceptable – we can at least agree that self-defense is okay, and there are possibly valid uses of violent force beyond self-defense. Rape is never okay. A lot of people have been saying that it’s okay to make jokes about rape if they are used to fight and subvert rape culture. So, the joke is okay as long as the underlying message isn’t acceptance or promotion of abuse. Likewise, RioM’s point was that saying you want to rape women for the fun of it is unacceptable, not that we should all go around punching people.

  • MLF

    True, however – can’t we discuss how it isn’t funny without being accused of censorship? People always do that to silence others opinion on the subject. For example – I hate porn and people accuse me of being in favor of censorship just because I hate porn. It’s like, actually NO, I’m just explaining why I think porn sucks or why I think rape jokes aren’t funny… It’s not the same as telling people what to do or say… Am I right?!?!
    It’s so annoying when people use ad hominem arguments. We are not debating whether or not people have the right to use offensive humor, we are debating whether or not the jokes are funny to begin with. HUGE difference.

  • MLF

    I agree so much – the censorship argument is just an ad hominem argument – meaning – people realize that they are losing the argument, so they change the argument to something related but not the same. When people are saying they don’t think rape jokes are funny and that people should re-think WHY they think it is funny, they aren’t saying that they want to censor comedians. It’s the same thing that happens whenever the debate on porn comes up… If you start giving reasons why you don’t like porn and the industry – people will change the subject to censorship when that wasn’t even what was being discussed. I freaking HATE that. Logical fallacies are a freakin thorn in my ass and they just block really good debates, rather than reach any valued conclusion.

  • MLF

    Or what about Carlos Mencia… ALL of his jokes have to do with racial stereotypes.

  • gement.livejournal.com

    I have not been raped, and I have a reaction question for those who have. (I’m fully aware that no one person speaks for an entire group, but I’d appreciate getting at least one or two opinions on this.)
    I watched Young Frankenstein the day after reading this. I’d forgotten how, um, straightforwardly that movie addresses “romantic rape” in movies. I read the rape scene in YF (better known as “Oh, sweet mystery of life!”) as a deliberate parody criticizing this literary trope.
    I was wondering if those of you who have personal visceral reactions read it the same way, and if so, if that lets you find it funny.

  • jellyleelips

    Yeah, unfortunately it’s hard to find a white dude comedian who doesn’t have some dreadful jokes like that. Which is why I’m so glad we have Cho, Sykes, DeGeneres, Griffin, Rivers, all the great ladies.

  • rustyspoons

    Bitter Bitch-there is more than one definition of rape and they all don’t have to do with forced intercourse.
    If you’re talking about archaic uses involving leftover chaff in fields or it simply meaning “to steal away with” (i.e. Pope’s “The Rape Of The Lock”), I seriously doubt a bunch of teenage gamers are referring those things anymore than they think “gay” means “happy”.

  • rustyspoons

    Sorry, I’ve only seen the “Puttin’ On The Ritz” part. Is the scene you’re talking about on youtube or anything?

  • davenj

    Comedy is subjective, though, so when you say something is NEVER funny it makes little sense. That’s the issue. Rape IS funny to some people, and some folks laugh at rape jokes. That thoroughly defeats the argument that rape is never funny.
    It’s a difference of ought versus is. Rape ought not be funny, but rape is funny to a lot of people.
    So the important thing is to say, “Rape isn’t funny to me, and it ought not be funny to you.” That’s a fine, but important, difference. It removes the issue of perceived impartiality or arbitership over humor.
    If you say something is NEVER funny you remove the element of subjectivity, which will rightfully alienate observers of an argument.

  • davenj

    No, I read her comment. It said she was proud of a friend who used violence to silence someone who was telling horribly offensive humor.
    “A kid punching someone because he didn’t know how else to respond to a totally reprehensible statement is understandable”
    No. It’s not. It’s actually wrong, and not at all understandable.
    Physical violence is only right in the context of self-defense, which this clearly was not. Therefore taking pride in, and making light of, this violent and unjust action is WRONG. Understanding why the boy may have felt flustered and resorted to an unjust assault on someone else’s bodily personage? That’s one thing. Pride in an unjust assault? Not so good.
    It’s not okay to punch someone in the face for saying something. That’s assault. If you’ve never experienced the power dynamic of fearing for your physical integrity over something you say, though, I expect that instances like this will be more tolerable to you.
    Which of course reinforces the issue of subjective experience here. The poster here was able to make light of, and take pride in, something that was clearly wrong here as a result of subjective experience. Ditto with rape humorists. The parallel stands. The order of magnitude is different, of course, but that alone does not discredit my statement in the slightest.

  • anylaurie16

    I’m a female comic, a feminist and a teller of rape jokes. Here’s one of mine. Laurie Kilmartin

  • Hershele Ostropoler

    I’ve been thinking in recent weeks about the “humorless feminist” stereotype (and its cousin, the “humorless liberal” stereotype). Among other things, I think it comes from the observation that feminists don’t typically find “rape” or “menstruation” to be hilarious punchlines all by themselves, and the people perpetuating the stereotypes do. So they make and hear such “jokes,” and we don’t laugh, and even take offense.
    It seems to me, too, that if the crux of a comic’s or comedy writer’s work is rape jokes, to the extent that if the option is taken off the table he has nothing left, he’s probably not very funny to begin with. I mean, no way you can get an hour set out of that.

  • SilverAeris

    She didn’t “bitch” about it. She expressed her dislike through humor. And it was pretty hilarious.

  • Newbomb Turk

    You assume it’s only male comedians who joke about rape. Lisa Lampanelli [2:15] proves you wrong. Where’s her “privilege”?