Thursday, July 12, 2012

3 Points About Rape Jokes that People Seem to Be Ignoring

Recently, comedian Daniel Tosh dealt with a heckler by saying “wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?” This touched off a firestorm of both criticism and defensiveness and knee-jerk reactions. And this is nothing new. Comedians (good ones and bad ones) have been making rape jokes for a long time, and Tosh is just the current lightning rod. But I think this is a good opportunity for dialogue, especially among artists—comics, poets, rappers, writers of every kind. Here are three points I think are important:

1. We’re not picking sides between “pro-censorship” and “anti-censorship.” We’re picking sides between “pro-rape jokes” and “anti-rape jokes.”

This is not a free speech issue. As a comic (or poet, or rapper, or singer or whatever), you have the right to say whatever the hell you want to say on stage. But your audience has that same right. If you say something hurtful or offensive, they can heckle you, call you out, start internet campaigns to ban you from clubs, whatever. And you have to deal with that.

No one is trying to make it illegal for a comic to say offensive shit; we’re just trying to hold you accountable. That’s a huge difference, and people hiding behind the “free speech” argument are really missing the point. I want you to take chances on stage, to challenge people, even to deal with hecklers harshly—but there are a million ways to do that without joking about something that is extremely hurtful to so many people. Less offensive ways, sure, but funnier ways too.

2. “Edgy” comedy or art shouldn’t just be about saying naughty words and pissing people off; it should be about pissing people off in order to make a larger point.

I’m not against any kind of joke on principle. A good comic can make anything funny. But if you’re going to make jokes about rape, your excuse has to be something more than “it’s okay to hurt people because the bit landed, it was funny.” If you’re going to make jokes about potentially offensive topics, there’s an easy way and a hard way. The easy way is to just shout out offensive things in the name of free speech and “pushing people out of their comfort zones.” The hard way is to provide an unflinching, in-depth analysis of the way that people deal with these painful topics, to really explore them, in order to make some kind of profound point about them (and be funny).

Most people who make rape jokes (or gay jokes, or racist jokes, or whatever) aren’t smart enough to have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation. They’re hacks. It’s like a little kid shouting “poop!” in the grocery store and then grinning. Truly edgy writing pushes people out of their comfort zones, sure. But it pushes them toward something, some deeper truth or observation about humanity.

3. Rape jokes don’t magically turn people into rapists, but they do contribute to a larger culture of normalizing rape, blaming the victim, shaming, silence, etc.

If you’ve never heard the term “rape culture,” that’s really what we’re talking about here. No one is arguing that you’re worse than Hitler because you made an off-color joke; they’re saying that rape jokes are yet another “little” thing that contributes to a society in which women (and men) are raped. A lot.

These “little” things add up—maybe it’s a rape joke at the comedy club, plus a newspaper op-ed blaming the victim, plus a music video turning women into objects, plus a fellow student saying “that test raped me,” plus movies or TV shows that glamorize the “tough anti-hero taking what he wants without apology,” plus a family culture of silence and shame around sex, plus a police force who just goes through the motions when it comes to investigating or working to prevent sexual assault, plus a million other things—it’s a tsunami of shit. And you can add to it, or you can fight against it.

With Tosh, sure, his whole shtick is that he’s an offensive jackass; his joking about rape shouldn’t be surprising. But that doesn’t mean we should all just ignore him. If you’re against rape, you have to be actively against rape culture. There is no neutral. And just like rape culture is a tidal wave of “little things” as well as big things, fighting back against rape culture can take that same form. Call people out. Start conversations. Hold yourself accountable. Maybe something positive can still come from all this.

RELATED POSTS:
~Responding to Common Arguments About What Is or Isn't Offensive
~Eight Invalid Pop-Culture Arguments

29 comments:

the Tsaritsa said...

This post is brilliant. Thank you so much for this.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely brilliant. Thank you.

Alice said...

Thanks for the contribution to the discussion, Kyle. Your on point words mean a lot to me.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but if you're going to a Tosh show then you should expect it to be really edgy, really edgy! Or you went to cause trouble in the first place because you don't like comics like him. And no one has a right to heckle a comedian ever! You're ruining the show for everyone, shut up, sit down and keep quiet, or you're going to get what you deserve from the guy/gal on stage.

Ezra Stead said...

Insightful as always. I've always held that humor has great power to change minds, as you speak on in point #2. If we can laugh at something like racism or homophobia (i.e. with jokes ABOUT racism or homophobia, as opposed to just racist or homophobic jokes), we can take away some of the power of those institutions. Unfortunately, the same is true of rape jokes; if we're laughing at rape, we're taking away some of the power that concept holds, and making it seem like it's not that bad. I think the only way it can really work is if the joke is expressly at the expense of the rapist, not the victim.

Unknown said...

Outstanding post.

Unknown said...

Outstanding post. Thank you.

felicemifa said...

Fantastic. I have long been weary of "edgy art". If you are being edgy in a way that doesn't serve a greater purpose, then it's vulgarity, not art.

mara cohen said...

Thank you beaucoups for the well written discussion, but for those who think rape (using sex as a method for imposing dominance, cruelty, and your own personal worthlessness on another human..) a quick shave off of the weaponry, along with carving rapist on your face, so all know what you are is definitely in line.

lizzb.com said...

I will not flatter you and be all "OMG MF OUTSTANDING POST GUANTE!!" Cuz you know what, it wasn't. You didn't do your research, and here's why:

The woman in that crowd who oh, just "heckled" Tosh was not "heckling" at all. When she said "Actually, rape is never funny," she was standing up for our basic human right to dignity and respect, which the act of rape steals from us as victims.

She and her friend found themselves in the comedy club that night on a whim, they had not heard of Tosh before and were appalled at his NOT-funny tirade on rape.

I agree with your point on hiding behind the first amendment but I disagree that rape should ever be considered funny. There are some things that just aren't to be made fun of, not matter what the light, rape, racism, and any kind of "handicap" to name a few.

MissTeaTree said...

These are three great points (and there are so many more). Thanks for contributing something worthwhile to the discussion.

Anonymous said...

A well stated and critically important point. Humble gratitude from a woman that has witnessed the pain, confusion and shame that our culture can cause for women who have experienced rape.

ScarceIceCubes said...

Maybe not heckle during their time on stage. Just bc someone else is disrespectful in the spotlight doesn't mean u should stoop to their level and disrupt the show. Instead do the homework and speak out on the busiest (internet) street corner. Engage in conversation about the topic when brought up. There is a right place and time for everything, and I don't think criticizing someone while they do their job for one thing u may find offensive is worth ruining everyone else's good time and potentially getting thrown out. No I don't agree with light tread on the topic, but I believe there are better forms of a counter attack.

Julie said...

From what I've read, the person who spoke up was not there to see Tosh, but someone else. She stood up to leave and was verbally assaulted from the stage. This behavior is not okay. Ever.

Anonymous said...

i doubt that the heckler was forced to go watch tosh's show, and if she found it offensive, then she should have gotten up and left. was she expecting flowers back from tosh for heckling him?

Anonymous said...

Did you read the post? Rape jokes aren't "edgy" just because they're offensive. And yes, people do have a right to heckle (if so-called "edgy" comics are going to use the free speech card, then it applies to everyone). To say that a woman being gang-raped would be hilarious is disgusting. It is a real, traumatic thing that ACTUALLY HAPPENS to people that can change their life forever. Chances are likely that you know someone who it has happened to (whether they have spoken up about it or not). Making "jokes" like this just normalize it. People who are potential rapists see it as more and more acceptable because of douchebags like this guy making a joke about it.

Ruining the show for everyone? I'm sorry, but childish jokes like this said just to be offensive for the same of being offensive (and not for the sake of being eye-opening or progressive in any way) ruin the show for a lot of people. And why should those people have to sit and be uncomfortable to preserve everyone else's comfort? Bullshit. I give kudos to the woman who stood up to this piece of trash.

Anonymous said...

People go to see Tosh for rape jokes. Heck in his last special on Comedy Central he talked about having sex with a Pit/Beckham baby, so... Do me and the audience a favor and never go to a comedy show.

Anonymous said...

This post really looks poorly upon people's ability to mentally separate a throwaway 'rape joke' from an actual rape...

People who go to a comedy show and heckle should expect to be singled out and cussed at by the comedian. This has been a known for a long time because heckling during an act is about the most offensive thing you can do in a comedy show. You don't like the show you leave, that's it.

If something so obviously said without any true intent at a comedy show offends you so heartily you should not be at a comedy show. Someone who goes to a show without researching the act should expect to be shocked, would you goto a movie without any forethought? A concert without hearing the band? C'mon now.

Come to think of it, without his joke, you wouldn't be driving web traffic? You're tertiaryily benefiting from a rape joke, does this make you evil as well? You're providing free publicity for the comedian, does this make you complicit?

If a 'rape joke' is what it takes to drum up conversation on the matter, maybe it's worth it? Rape is a terrible thing, and rarely discussed.

Finally, as someone else here already said, if you can't take tell a joke about something, how can you ever take away its power?

Guante said...

Simply ignoring (racism, homophobia, rape culture, whatever) doesn't "take their power away." Actually taking their power away takes their power away.

The destructive institutions in our society aren't like a naughty little kid acting out for attention; they're actively harmful and deeply embedded in the power structure and the only way to do anything about them is to challenge them-- through organizing, through dialogue, through education, whatever.

So when people say "racism would go away if liberals would just stop talking about it!" or "if you don't like rape jokes, don't go to comedy clubs," or "hip hop is always going to be homophobic; just deal with it," they're not only NOT solving any problems, they're helping to keep those problems going. Like it said in the original piece, there is no neutral.

Anonymous said...

By saying that she should just shut up and take something that feels abusive and violating of her dignity and self, how are you not imitating the pain that is rape? By saying she should "expect it", you are blaming her for her reaction and silencing people about speaking up for themselves!

Sorry, Anonymous, but I think you're missing the point. Him being an a**hole doesn't mean everyone has to sit quietly and listen. That's the power of the consumer- we get to have an opinion.

It also doesn't mean that you lack a sense of humor ("never go to a comedy show"). Hearing someone endorse trauma you've experienced (myself and countless clients of mine have been raped) would never be funny.

Keep thinking on it. If it still doesn't make sense, I encourage you to do some more research, cause there's some holes in your argument, and it's a dangerous position of ambivalence and acceptance.

Anonymous said...

I love your point here. Even then, though, we are shaming, rather than educating. Many people who commit rape do not have malicious intent, but are rather operating under the messages of Top 40 music, comedies such as SuperBad, billboards, magazine and tv ads, etc. I recently heard a local radio commercial saying, "women in stilettos or a skirt get $2 drinks". Why? So that they get hammered drunk for cheap and are (literally) more easily raped. THE BEHAVIOR is unacceptable, but most (not all) of the people simply need education! We must hold people accountable, and also remember that they are people. I was raped by a friend in high school and it was utterly confusing, emotional and disruptive to our friendship (and my life in general). Like most rapes, it was a drunken lack of consent- I did not say no, but I was not given the chance to say yes (or no). Years later, we have worked it out. This isn't everyone's story, but I guarantee he was more receptive because I went at it from a direction of education, not shaming.

Anonymous said...

You don't take away it's power by reinforcing it. You take away it's power by pointing out the serious problems with it. Someone's sense of safety should not be on them to enforce. Should she have walked in and said, "Hey everyone! just to let you know, here is my list of topics that could be very emotionally and psychologically upsetting". No, because to assume such a thing would be victim blaming, outrageous and IT'S NOT HER RESPONSIBILITY- IT'S HIS. Wanna prevent rape? Understand what it is and DON'T DO IT. Wanna prevent emotional trauma or triggering people? Understand what's not appropriate and don't let it come out of your dumb*ss mouth.

Trying to suggest that Guante gains anything from rape is ridiculous. He is gaining traffic for the thoughtful contribution he has to a much larger discussion. Why is rape joke in quotes? It's as if it's not a real thing to you. For the record, I have been raped, as have countless clients and friends. It's very real, it's very powerful and it's something not to be taken lightly.

Anonymous said...

She stood up and spoke out "during" a show. She interrupted the show. She in a sense raped every person trying to enjoy the "show" because her sensitivity made it impossible for her to function in public without screaming out. Good thing the color red doesn't get her all worked up, everyone with a red shirt would have to stand and hear it from her.

Where is your opinion when you see on the big screen, a human head being ripped off and shown rolling down a street? I bet we can agree that people who have had family members with their heads ripped off sure would be sensitive to such a scene. No, no one stands up and yells at the screen then. If they did they would be put out on the street. You know why? Because it's not real, it's fake. Just like the jokes from Tosh, they're fake.

If you can't control your emotions at a "show" then you shouldn't go to a "show". Plain and simple.

I'm accepting it's not real, I'm accepting that I can leave myself for awhile and be entertained with a ridiculous scenario, and then laugh at it. I know what it's like to be raped. When I was 9 years old my friends father decided to teach me a few things about it. But that tragedy doesn't rule my life, and it certainly doesn't rule those lives around me either.

Anonymous said...

IS funny to me how some people keeps saying joking about rape is taking away from the issue, like rape is something new or that talking about it or joking about is going to take away from the horrible trauma that it can be.. AIDS and Cancer are pretty mainstream and they are also still very terrible diseases..

The issues the makes us uncomfortable should be talked about, and talked about a lot, joke about it, take seriously, whatever you want.. make it mainstream that wont take away from what it is it we only lead people to talk more about the issue like is happening here after he tosh made the joke.. if is wrong is wrong joking about it don't change that.

The more people are aware of it and discus about it for whatever reason the best.

Anonymous said...

I always thought that the most effective way to not get called/labeled a rapist was to not rape people.
People laugh at jokes they don't actually find funny for many reasons, so I'm glad the author doesn't think that laughing at a rape joke "magically" turns one into a rapist. People laugh at cancer jokes, death jokes, 9/11 jokes, etc, because they are - on the surface and in the moment - funny. The fact that people who laughed at a rape joke from an established comedian who so obviously isn't condoning rape but simply being ornery is really not a big deal. If Tosh had made a cancer joke and an audience member balked and screamed "my Mom died of cancer!" and Tosh said "and so will you" this wouldn't even be news. But death, I hope most will agree, is worse than rape because it is the terminus of existence. Yes, rape is traumatic, but death is worse because it negates all potential happiness, whereas victims of violent sexual assault at least have the opportunity to experience positive emotions (and hopefully revenge) in the future. Finally, the docile law-abiding citizen should not feel obliged to "fight against rape" any more than he or she should feel obliged to donate ten dollars to flood relief in Bangladesh. They may not be in a position to financially assist the less fortunate, but they can make a difference rape-wise by only participating in mutually consensual sex. I am not a bad person if I don't sign some online petition or yell at the frat boy who makes a rape joke (and who would kick my ass if I vocalized my disapproval). I am doing my part by not raping people. And I argue that that's enough.

wulliam said...

Please tell me you feminists are this idiotic i mean rape jokes normalizing rape? no its what we do to try and make light of the horror of our world i mean people who make Holocaust jokes don't want to normalize the Holocaust i mean its better to laugh at some things then to cry at everything. and if your reading this well then im surprised that the author would be a good enough person to allow opinions to be expressed

koalanights said...

When it comes to tackling sensitive subject matter in comedy I always use this simple binary. Is the joke laughing at and reaffirming the position of marginalized groups? Or is it calling attention to the mechanisms that produce this marginalization? I'm not a comedian at all but have frequently listened to comedy radio stations and I tried to be discerning as possible. Pinpointing exactly what is sexist or racist about a large portion of the jokes I heard was enlightening and can make racism very apparent and as vapid as ever.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. I hate how much people laugh about things that are just reminding me of things, instead of making a point.
So many 'friends' KNOW what happened and just come up to me, and say; 'Buttrape' or 'Haha small tits' and apologize 'because they were drunk' and 'it was funny' afterwards.
And the more I tell them, (when they're sober) that these breasts were threatened to cut off, in a dark corner, and someone that told me he'd rape me with a knife, or use a lighter on my ladyparts to see how it'd melt. The more they use that information the next time they're drunk. I've been trough so much horrible stuff and they think it's SO hilarious. I just wanna cry when they laugh.

Amy said...

"Please tell me you feminists are this idiotic i mean rape jokes normalizing rape? no its what we do to try and make light of the horror of our world"

No. Tosh didn't make that joke in order to make light of the horror of our world. He did it for the express purpose of humiliating that woman in the most egregious way he thought he could. Claiming that he did it just to make light of horror is about as disingenuous as you can get.

It also goes to show that he EITHER doesn't have any appreciation for just how horrific being gang-raped is, or that he can imagine EXACTLY how horrific it is, and that's why he used it against her. Neither speaks well of him at all.