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How we react to people who say rape jokes aren’t funny

July 12th, 2012     by Julia Caron     Comments

Trigger warning: this post contains mentions of rape. Trigger warning on comments in the link at Buzzfeed.

It all started with a post called “So a Girl Walks into a Comedy Club….” shared on Tumblr July 10th. A person who normally uses her tumblr to share baking recipes instead decided to use that platform as a way to call attention to a more serious issue. An unnamed friend of hers was at a comedy club, and wrote her account of events. Read the entire post for yourself, but this is the key part of what she described happening:

Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

She then asked to speak to a manager and asked for her money back, which she did not receive. Her main point, though, was not about getting one person punished for one statement. Her point seemed to be the desire to get the message across that joking about rape to a room full of strangers can often mean reminding people of their own past violent experiences, and remind all people that we live in a world that all too often allows jokes about sexual assault to go unchallenged. And that it is not only acceptable, but funny, to mock the people who speak out.

People responded to her friend’s call to reblog and tell more people about this incident, and the result has been a bit of an online frenzy. Facebook users are battling it out in comment-form essays on why they think this was acceptable or not. The comedian in question, Daniel Tosh, is now trending on Twitter shortly after issuing the saddest excuse of an apology. In less than 24 hours, an online petition demanding his show on Comedy Central be taken off the air amassed over 18,000 signatures. Popular viral content website Buzzfeed has published an article about the incident. Others have been taking to social media claiming the account of events where this specific rape threat was made that is circulating online is not entirely truthful or “greatly exaggerated.”

It seems that the heart of this incident is the question of whether or not it is appropriate for comedians to joke about rape. It could be argued that in this case, people defending Tosh are arguing it is appropriate to threaten someone with rape in a comedy club (since, if we use their logic, supposedly in the context of a comedy club, this is not meant to be taken seriously since it is just “a joke” that you might not “get”).

But the real heart of this, and the reason it has struck a chord with so many people, is that it is a simple sad illustration of rape culture at work.

In my books, rape jokes are never funny. Especially ones that are performed on stage with hundreds of people in the audience. People, feminist or not, have debated whether or not rape can be joked about in a subversive or productive way, but we’re taking about a very public context here, and that is key. We’re also talking about the reaction of the comedian to being told “rape jokes are never funny” followed by thousands of people online challenging or defending her claim.

Personally, I am just so bored with the defenses of these kinds of incidents. Here’s a sampling of what’s been said in defense of, lest we forget, Daniel Tosh saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…:”

he’s been making rape jokes for years! it’s his act. it’s not like he’s not the only one who makes rape jokes… nothing is off-limits in comedy! she’s the only one who thought it was inappropriate! no one else cared. you’re telling people what they can or can’t say - that’s censorship! you’re attacking free speech!

These are just a tiny sampling of the many variations of these common defenses or excuses that are often regurgitated when any one public figure is being challenged for using rape jokes in their stand-up routine. Sharing these links and mapping out this story for readers isn’t intended to simply upset or incite you. On the contrary: this is yet another occasion to look at how pervasive rape culture is, how people speak out against it and celebrate the people who are helping to dismantle it. What happened at the Laugh Factory a few nights ago, and the accounts of the events shared online is just one example of the many times rape jokes - and the people who think it’s appropriate to make them - go unchallenged.

Here are just a sampling of the best responses I’ve seen to this messy situation:

Using rape as a way to intimidate and shut a woman up PROVES HER POINT THAT YOUR RAPE JOKES AREN’T LIGHT AND HILARIOUS. - Alyssa Rosenberg You don’t have to be a woman to find what Daniel Tosh said reprehensible. You do, however, have to be a decent human being. - Kelly Emeren Daniel Tosh didn’t actually apologize for his threat (it wasn’t a joke), & people are still making excuses for him #rapeculture - Mikki Kendall Daniel Tosh has made rape jokes before, and that does not make this situation acceptable. Daniel has made jokes about black men, Latino men, and other non-white men raping women because they’re all animals who can’t control their dicks. When his rape jokes were rooted in racism, no one gave a fuck. - Blackridinnhood

Many people have pointed out that the tone of the defenses of Tosh’s rape jokes are eerily similar to what we say about women who come forth saying they have been raped.

“So offended she stayed through the whole show I see, what a twat. I’m sure she just wants attention and any money she thought she could get from this story.” - Sarah Schafer (in comments on Buzzfeed website) “If you don’t want to be gang raped then don’t go to the (comedy) show” - Jared (RolinSteaknEggz) “Tosh would never have said that offensive thing to her if she hadn’t heckled 1st. That’s right. I’m saying she asked for it.” - Steve Schneider

Replacing a few words in these 140 character tweets easily draws parallels with the way we dismiss rape accusation cases before they are even before the courts. “If you don’t want to be raped, don’t dress that way. If you don’t want to be raped, just don’t leave the house. You weren’t really raped, you were asking for it.” You get the picture. All of this reiterates the key aspects of rape culture, which pits the blame on the person who was raped rather than the rapist (also commonly referred to as “victim blaming”).

Holly Norris

Comedy claims to be entertaining, challenging, and yes, sometimes discomforting. But you shouldn’t have to threaten people with sexual violence and assault to defend your point or your sense of humour.

My only hope is that yet another a situation like this one calls attention to the power of sharing stories, and of using the internet to call attention to some of the fucked up things people say. This could have just been a story a friend told a friend in a private space, and left it at that. But instead, she chose to (anonymously) speak out - and the reactions have left most of us understanding why she wouldn’t want her name publicly circulating attached to it. Automatically siding with a person who thought it would be funny to see a woman who said “rape is not funny” by saying he would like to see her raped by five men simply because he is a comedian, is rape culture at work. Automatically doubting her testimony because she is an emotional woman who should know what she is getting into by going to a comedy club is rape culture at work.

Another testament to this story is analyzing why it struck a nerve. A nameless faceless testimony that speaks out about rape is. Some people online have been wondering why this was the final straw, when it has been clearly established that this is hardly the first time Daniel Tosh has joked about rape. “When he was attacking the queers, no one cared. When he was attacking black people, Latin@s, Asians, Arabs, etc, no one cared,” says tumblr user Blackridinnhood.

This is not only an occasion for us to think critically about how to respond to these kinds of situations, but to look at why we do it, when we do it.

At the end of the day, this is not just about one person making one rape joke that one person “didn’t get.” It’s about how often these conversations are derailed and how often rape culture is reinforced. Jessica Skolnik summarizes it best:

You wonder why rape survivors don’t come forward? Maybe one of the big reasons is that we’re constantly bombarded with institutional & cultural messages about how little what we have to say about what happened to us matters (but people making jokes about and otherwise profiting off of our trauma while simultaneously belittling it get national media platforms).

I invite you to take this opportunity to look into rape culture, if it’s your first time hearing the term. Examine your attitudes towards this kind of humour. Help dismantle rape culture by speaking out in whatever way you can, whether it’s venting to friends about this or having online discussions and debates with strangers. It’s high time to rethink how we react to people who publicly state that rape jokes aren’t funny. Recommended Reading:

Rape Culture 101 by Melissa McEwan at Shakesville (October 2009)

Understanding Sexual Violence: A Study of Convicted Rapists (Perspectives on Gender) by Diana Scully

Daniel Tosh Jokes About Seeing a Heckler Get Gang Raped by Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress

It’s not about the “Right To Make Rape Jokes” by Jessica Skolnik Rape is caused by… .pdf by Holly Norris

Tags: news flash, rape culture

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