Daniel Tosh and Rape Culture

There has recently been a heated debate on the internet about Daniel Tosh’s comments at a comedy show the other night.  The most common account of the incident is that during a set Tosh began making comments about rape being “hilarious.”  A woman in the audience then shouted out that rape is not funny.  She claims that Tosh then asked the audience, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now?”  The woman then left the comedy club with her friend in response to the harassment.  Later, the event was blogged about; you can read the original blog post here.  There have been numerous responses to this.  At least one group has started a petition asking for Tosh’s show, “Tosh.0,” to be taken off the air.  However, in discussing this with others and on my personal Facebook page, I’ve also noticed that many people are defending Tosh.  Tosh, for his part, has sort of apologized.  Furthermore, the club owner claims that the incident is being cast differently than it actually happened.  But, ultimately, I don’t want this to be only about Tosh, or even whether or not this incident happened in exactly the way described.  Instead, I believe that the ways in which the defenses of Tosh have played out, as well as the very idea of rape as a “joke,” are a manifestation of rape culture, and I want to explain why.

So what happened?  First, a woman is making a claim that a man did something inappropriate to her that relates to sexuality: he used his power as a celebrity on stage to “jokingly” encourage others to rape her because she told him that a joke he said was inappropriate.  As I siad, I’ve found that many people’s first response was to defend Tosh, and I think many of the defenses are a manifestation of rape culture.  While none of these are direct quotes, I have seen many people on the internet saying things like the following: “She shouldn’t go to a comedy show if she can’t take a joke” (compare to, “She shouldn’t wear a skirt like that/go to a party if she doesn’t want it”); “Everyone knows Tosh makes jokes like that, what was she doing there?” (compare to, “Everyone knows if you invite a guy upstairs you’re going to have sex with him.  If she didn’t want to have sex, why would she have the guy in her house/room?”); “He probably did not really say what she’s claiming he said” (compare to, “She probably wasn’t really raped”); “It probably wasn’t as bad as she’s claiming” (compare to, “It wasn’t rape-rape“); “There’s no video, so we can’t know what happened, and shouldn’t judge” (compare to, “No one else was there, so how can we be sure she was really raped?”); “She’s probably just trying to justify being a bitch in the club” (compare to, “Sheh probably had sex with him, and regrets it/pissed of her boyfriend, and is trying to get out of trouble”); “She was a heckler, so she deserved it” (compare to, “She’s a slut anyway”); “She could have left the show if she was offended” (compare to, “She could have gotten away if she really wanted to”); “She was a heckler” (compare to, “She’s a slut”); and so on.

In short, people are working to discredit the claimant, or to justify why what happened, or they are simply not believing her claims.  This is precisely what happens to victims of sexual assault and rape; they are regularly not believed, discredited, and so on.  When a woman claims that she was raped, it is extraordinarily common that she is not believed by friends, family, the police, lawyers, the media if it’s someone famous, her co-workers or boss if it takes place in a work-related context, and so on.  This is a part of rape culture, as well described here, and in the Tosh incident we are seeing how much it permeates our entire culture.  A woman is making a claim about something inappropriate a man did to her, and too many people’s first response is to defend the man against the woman’s claims.  That this is about a rape “joke” rather than an incident of “rape” does not change its root in the hegemony of rape culture.

However, as I said above, I want to distance this from being about Daniel Tosh as an individual.  By all accounts, while he is, in some opinions, not a very talented comedian, Daniel Tosh is a nice enough guy.  But that’s important to this too.  Most rapists are “nice enough guys” to their friends and family.  They’re not all creepy guys in trenchcoats lurking in alleys.  They’re boyfriends, husbands, uncles, co-workers, and so on.  That the person is a “nice guy” is another way that people make claims that the woman must be lying: “He’s a nice guy, he wouldn’t do that.”  Let’s be clear, “nice guys” can commit horrible acts.  And so I do not want this to be strictly about Tosh or his defenders.  I want to make it bigger than that.  If Tosh said what the woman claims he said, then Tosh’s comments are a manifestation of rape culture, as are the comments made by those defending him.  But even if Tosh did not say that, these kind of things happen every day, and my point remains the same.  This does not necessarily make Tosh or those defending him bad people.  Again, I don’t want this to be about individuals.  This is simply the manifestation of rape culture.  What to most people just appears “normal” or “just the way it is” is always a manifestation of what is articulated in a culture as the norm.  In other words, this is not about whether or not Daniel Tosh did something stupid, it’s about a culture in which doing stupid things like that is acceptable, and in which people do not defend victims of this sort of thing, and do not believe victims after it’s taken place.  That’s what this is really about.  Daniel Tosh is just some comedian who happens to be famous enough for his stupid comments to become public.  But this stuff, and rape itself, happens everyday, and that’s what is important.  This is just one good example and how it works.

[A brief note: I recognize that in this I use pronouns in such as a way that might treat rape as if it is only something that happens to women .  It is, of course, the case that men and those who do not identify with a gender binary are also victims of rape.  I've simplified here because, one, the person in the Tosh incident is a woman, and, two, women are much more likely to be victims of rape and other forms of sexual assault than men are, and so for the purposes of this post, it was just easier.  However, men are also regularly not believed, though for different reasons: a manifestation of our patriarchal culture and its assumptions about men are that men are supposed to "always want it."  As such, people often do not believe men.  This is but one problematic element of our cultures approach to male sexuality as well.]

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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