A few weeks ago, comedian Daniel Tosh improvised a rape joke to shut down a female heckler at a Los Angeles comedy club. The Internet responded with a flurry of blog pieces, posts, and tweets, some in support of Tosh, some not. I got a few emails and phone calls from other female comics asking me to publicly state my position on the matter. In a combination of cowardice and inarticulateness, I refrained from doing so.
Then a few days ago, Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate and now sitting member of Congress, said that women are unlikely to get pregnant from legitimate rape because their bodies are able to shut down the whole conception process.
In the circles I travel in, Akin is considered a doofus. Dangerous yes, but a doofus all the same. My Republican friends are embarrassed by him and my Democrat friends are motivated.
My pals all agree that Mr. Akin shows a profound ignorance of not only our reproductive systems but also what it means to be raped. What does "legitimate rape" mean? When he attempted to fix the mess his words had created, he clarified that legitimate rape was a synonym for forcible rape. The subtext I get, and I think many women get, is that "forcible" rape is really just another way of saying "real" rape.
I have been terrified of rape all my life. As soon as I learned what it was, I started to carry around a visceral fear that trumped that of any other violent crime. Sure I was scared of being dragged into an alley by a stranger. But I was also terrified of being violated by a guy I didn't know that well on an early date. My female friends and I all had stories where we had to get out of someone's dorm room or studio apartment before things went too far. For a number of women I knew, they did go too far, and the results were horrifying. These date rapes were no less horrifying than a brutal attack from a stranger. Just different.
To be sure, when Mr. Akin when to college -- and I'm surprised he managed to get in -- there was little criminal redress for date and acquaintance rapes; so, in Mr. Akin's mind, the recent changes in the law do not necessarily reflect his innermost beliefs about it. What is more disturbing is this: I am certain he isn't alone in these beliefs.
We are in a culture where older men really don't quite understand our fear. Akin speaks on this topic along with his buddies as if he knows something about it. In the Congressman's salad days, making out with a "girl" was a dance of the male constantly trying to go farther than the female was ready for. Very often, making out was a small series of attempted rapes -- often, I should say, accepted by both parties. For young women, it gave them permission to go to "second base" or "third base," and not feel so guilty about it. But for men of the baby boomer era, while it was in many cases sincere passion, it must also have seemed like a competitive sport. Women were always assumed to secretly "want it," so a male's unceasing aggression was both a kind of favor to his date and another way to measure their ability to "win."
I don't think young male comics share this old-fashioned view of women and sex. But they do often joke about it. I've been performing in clubs several nights each week for about fifteen years, and these jokes pop up virtually every night, Don't get me wrong; Tosh's joking about rape in a comedy club in the face of what might have an annoying heckler doesn't reach the ignorance of the elected government official, but even Tosh shines a light on the tone deafness on the part of some men on the subject of rape.
Comedy audiences tend to be young. And Tosh's audiences are young and male. When he makes a joke about rape, these audiences often don't have a clear idea of what is at stake. And why should they? Their lawmakers throw around terms like "legitimate rape," which suggests that there is rampant fake rape going on. Their lawmakers don't even try to understand the consequences of rape. Thanks to Mr. Akin, we're hearing about the mythological self-imposed birth control; we can only begin to guess what they might think about the terror. Perhaps women who have been legitimately raped aren't legitimately terrified? When lawmakers have to remind us of legitimate rape, they undermine the terror of any rape. It no longer carries the feeling of sickness and revulsion. People throw the term around loosely. "I feel raped" has become synonymous with a general feeling of violation.
When a comic says it would be funny if you got raped, which is apparently what Daniel Tosh threw out in response to his female heckler, it might mean nothing to him. But to a woman sitting in a testosterone-dominant club, it is scary. I don't think Tosh wanted to rape the woman. I doubt he actually thought it would be funny. He just wanted to take control of the room, which, to borrow a word from Representative Akin, is legitimate. But I would suggest to Tosh and to other male comics that they refrain from making jokes about attacking women. You're not only terrifying the women you're supposed to be entertaining, but you're actually shaping the minds of the young men in the audience. They see their comic heroes joking about rape. They hear their politicians joking about it. And they come away with the notion that it isn't so serious.