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Madeline Wahl Headshot

How Rape Jokes Contribute to Rape Culture

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I have friends and acquaintances and friends of friends who have been raped and sexually assaulted. I patiently listened when they recounted their experiences of what had happened, or what should have happened, and what will never happen.

It's heartbreaking.

The shock that materializes at the realization that someone close to you has been raped or sexually assaulted shatters reality and questions whether there is actually good in the world.

In the United States, an American is sexually assaulted every two minutes, and yet people continue to think that making jokes about rape or sexual assault can be interpreted as being funny.

It's not.

Some people say it's because I "just can't take a joke," or I need to "lighten up" and get "a better sense of humor." My sense of humor is fine, but thanks for checking.

When you're in your home and you receive a phone call from someone close to you that they think they have been taken advantage of and why the hell would someone do that, your world tilts on its axis for a few moments and you try to maintain your balance as you listen to what they have to say.

So hearing a joke about rape shouldn't be funny. Questions like, "Wouldn't it be funny if a woman was gang raped?" Or, "Isn't morning sex great -- except if you're in prison?" Or when discussing the results of a test with classmates, isn't it funny when they express that they were 'raped' by the test because of its difficulty?

Of course it's not funny. It's rude and insulting.

This also stems from our culture. Songs glorifying sexual assault and abuse are Billboard 100s, movies that feature rape and sexual assault are Oscar award-winners and rape appears to be used as "television's go-to plot-twist." Articles have gone viral where victim-blaming is the norm. High school and college students share videos and pictures of rape and sexual assault to their friends and it spreads like wildfire. People post jokes about rape on social media, and when others try to say it's not funny, they reply back and say they just don't get that kind of humor.

Though the details are still being hashed out, essentially comedian Daniel Tosh made a "rape joke" when an audience member "heckled" him and that story has gone viral. He said:

"Wouldn't it be funny if that girl [referring to an audience member who "heckled" him about rape jokes not being funny earlier in his set] got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?"

But the true meaning of what "rape" and "joke" together needs to be looked at further. As Elissa Bassist wrote in her article in the Daily Beast:

"The debate over Tosh shouldn't be "are rape jokes funny?" That's misdirection: his statement was a wildly inappropriate putdown, reminder, and threat that this woman could be gang-raped, like right now. There's a distinction between making a joke to cope or to point out the absurdity of a situation and what Tosh did, consciously or not, which was to use humor to humiliate a woman who stood up for something she believed in."

What does joking about such a serious issue say about recognizing sexual assault as a violent act? In a new report, it was revealed that young women "regard sexual violence against them as normal." If we keep downplaying the effects rape and sexual assault have on a person, keep acting blasé over a rape scene in a movie, continue to say "boys will be boys," and then continue the process of victim-blaming, how can we move past this?

Tosh did apologize, but it seemed to be a "sorry I'm not sorry" tweet:

He later tweeted:

Just because there is such a thing as free speech and yes, you are able to and have the ability to say anything you want and make jokes out of tragic situations and even people, it doesn't mean that you should. It doesn't mean that it's right. Not every awful thing in the world needs someone to make a joke about it.

There are comedians who aren't defending rape jokes:

From W. Kamau Bell: From Molly Knefel:

From Hari Kondabolu:

...and there are others who are defending it.

From Dane Cook:

From Stevie Ryan:

From Sarah Beattie:

Some comedians view it as once you walk in the comedy club, anything goes. That was the view of comedian Jim Norton, when he and Jezebel's Lindy West talked about the ethics of rape jokes on FX's late night series "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell." When talking about why they talk about serious subjects in comedy clubs, Norton said:

"We all walked out feeling the same about those subjects but the relief of comedy is it takes things that aren't funny, and it allows us to laugh about them for an hour and then we have the rest of the day to look at them like they're as horrible and as sad as they really are."

You can watch the full debate below:

But sometimes, comedians aren't so lucky when expressing their opinions about comedy.

Feminist and Citizen Radio podcast host Jamie Kilstein said that rape jokes aren't funny in an MSNBC interview and since that point, he's lost friends and gigs. He said later:

"What's so hilarious is comics who make these horrible rape jokes, say they're edgy. There's nothing edgy about living in America as a white man and harassing women. That's really the least edgy thing you can do. You're not a rebel by going along with that. Comics have so much they can come together on. We don't have health insurance. We don't have a union, but somehow when rape jokes are brought up, all the comics in the universe find something they agree on, so the black comics and the gay comics and the white comics they all unite and say rape jokes are funny. It's bullshit. I think it's lazy and it's mean."

But rape jokes aren't only said behind closed doors of comedy clubs. It keeps happening and we keep seeing it in television shows and pop culture. Rape culture is prevalent, as shown in part by this video compilation by New York Magazine:

The worst part about joking about rape and sexual assault is that there are serious consequences. Young men and women have killed themselves because of the aftermath of sexual abuse and rape. Around 33 percent of people who have been raped have suicidal thoughts and around 13 percent of rape victims will try to commit suicide.

Fifteen-year-old student Audrie Pott was found hanging in a bathroom days after she was sexually assaulted at a house party and pictures were used to bully her. Thomas Malone, an Amherst college student, left a suicide note and killed himself when he could no longer cope with the sexual assault that had occurred when attending Amherst College. A 17-year-old Canadian girl, Rehtaeh Parsons, died after a suicide attempt. The family said the girl never recovered from four teenage boys who allegedly gang-raped her. Her father wrote a heartbreaking post about the aftermath of her suicide, and what had allowed this to happen.

These are horrific occurrences filled with victim-blaming and a community that shuns the victims while lauding the rapists as "victims."

Moving forward, how can we stop rape? Sexual assault? Rape culture? Rape jokes?

We need to address rape culture. We need to acknowledge that according to a recent study, men are raped about as often as women. We need to understand that both sexes have similar experiences for some kinds of sexual victimization. We need to stop victim-blaming. We need to stop asking "what were you wearing" and start showing compassion. We need to stop forcing victims to hide because of "jokes" and instead encourage victims to be brave and come forward to alert authorities and report what happened.

We need to break the silence.

By involving men and boys in this discussion, along with women, it encourages communities to take action and it's forcing everyone to be accountable.

Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview with The Huffington Post that "It's not good enough not to be an abuser." The White House also recently launched a PSA which prompts men to take action if they see a woman being assaulted. From The Huffington Post:

The vice president dismissed the idea that the White House needs Congress to take action in order to have a real effect. "We don't need new laws for this," he said. "We're trying to change culture."

You can watch the video below:

There is a fine line and once it is crossed there is no going back. You can never truly forget the fact that someone has been raped or sexually assaulted.

That knowledge stays with you. It will never go away. And it should never be something to joke about.

In the words of comedian Sara Schaefer:

"In my opinion, comedy flourishes most when it brings us together, not when it tears us apart."

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.