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When Rape Jokes Are Never Funny

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When I was an obnoxious and self-centered tween, I complained to my mother about how a schoolmate was dealing with the death of her pet.

"She's been crying and whining and being mean to everyone, and it's so stupid! When my dad died I didn't even cry -- and he was my dad! She lost a dog and she's crying? It's so stupid!"

My mother, in her attempt to teach me empathy while staying empathetic to my completely selfish point of view, offered this, "Well, you know, everyone deals with loss in a different way. I knew a girl in Nursing School who laughed when she was upset. My roommate's mother had died and when she told us, this girl immediately started laughing hysterically. My roommate stormed out and as soon as she was gone, the other girl stopped laughing and said, 'Oh, I'm so, so sorry. I can't help myself. Whenever sometime terrible happens, I just laugh.'"

This story did two things for me. It made me realize that the way I process grief is not the way other people process it, so I should never judge someone in the grieving process. More importantly, it made me realize that laughter is a powerful tool against fear, despair and agony. What my mother's college friend did unintentionally -- it was a nervous tic that helped her psychologically cope -- I wanted to learn how to do intentionally. I wanted to laugh at pain.

So, when I see people say certain subjects should never be joked about, I understand that laughing might not be how they want to deal with those topics, but it helps me and many other people cope with them. I love using satire to show how stupid people who are racist or sexist are. I love writing sarcastic offensive jokes to dispatch wordplay or irony. I adore making fun of Nazis and the Holocaust, because to actually think about what happened during that time period is so horrifying you need to make fun of Hitler sometimes to diffuse the pain.

So why did the recent Daniel Tosh "rape joke" story upset me -- and so many other people -- so much?

Firstly, rape jokes can be funny.

Immediately following the initial twitter storm about the incident, Nell Scovell tried to illustrate this by tweeting a few Sarah Silverman rape jokes, including this one, "I was raped by a doctor... which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl." Silverman's act is about toying with what's taboo in society. She wants to point out ironies in our values with context and wordplay. We know by the steady stream of culturally offensive jokes, and by her painted on smirk, that she knows her topics are considered offensive. It's about the irony of a "cute, likable girl" pushing society's hatred back on itself.

Then on the opposite end of the "rape joke" spectrum, you've got a joke like John Mulaney's "Subway Station Chase", which juxtaposes all conventional rape discussion by showing a young man's sudden realization that his physical actions could be interpreted as sexually threatening and he's in a position where he can't address it without being potentially more threatening. He can't ever make his immediate guilt and mortification for being mistaken for a rapist ever be less than the woman's fear of being raped -- and he knows this. The audience can empathize with the emotional awkwardness of the situation.

I'm also a massive fan of Anthony Jeselnik, who, like Tosh, is a handsome male comic who revels in a "douchebag" persona and who purposely makes offensive jokes. So why do I find Jeselnik's rape jokes hilarious? The difference is that Jeselnik is in love with the wordplay. Like Silverman, he uses rape, racism, murder, suicide and the death of babies as themes in his jokes because he enjoys the challenge of trying to diffuse the horror of those topics with the humor of the perfect one-liner. Plus, Jeselnik so clearly immerses himself in an unlikable persona that he lets the audience know that he as the comic knows everything he's talking about is horrible and wrong.

Daniel Tosh, however, keeps things silly. He keeps the tone jocular. Tosh wants to inhabit the persona of the likable ne'er-do-well who's your coolest friend. So, when he says "rape jokes are always funny", he's not playing the part of a horrible human being who would think rape jokes are always funny -- he's showing us that the cool, likable guy at the party probably thinks rape is funny... and okay. There's nothing in his tone, writing or presentation that says, "Rape jokes are funny because jokes are funny. Rape itself is wrong."

This is why the Daniel Tosh incident "crossed the line" for so many people. It's not that comics can't cross lines. Comics should say whatever they want. If Tosh honestly thinks rape is funny... well, that's his opinion. That's his worldview. What's disturbing is that this is a worldview that is violent and that lacks empathy. What's even more disturbing is that he's not some unknown comic presenting an unpopular opinion. He's one of the most popular and beloved comic acts in the country. Which means that a huge percentage of our country thinks rape jokes are funny, but not because they admire Jeselnik's wordplay or Silverman's irony or Mulaney's empathetic juxtaposition. They think rape jokes are funny because they think the act of physically hurting and sexually dominating a woman against her will is funny.

And it's not. They're not laughing at a joke. They're laughing at the concept of rape. Rape is disturbing and horrible. It's one of the horrors that we should keep at bay with humor, not encourage. Right now, the woman who posted the complaint about Tosh is receiving legitimate death and rape threats from his fans. So, his "joke" didn't diffuse pain or horror -- it sparked it.

If this is what Tosh wanted to do artistically, then, well, he has every right as a comedian to do so. The fact that he backpedaled on the joke on twitter however suggests that he doesn't want to be seen as that kind of comic. Again, Tosh wants to be liked. He wants to be popular, and so we circle back to the fact that the problem isn't Daniel Tosh. The problem is that our society is still a rape culture where a large percentage of people think that rape's OK and that a girl in a short skirt is asking for it and that it's funny to assault someone. Not for the sake of satire, but for one person's amusement over another person's real life victimization.

So, I'm not personally mad at Daniel Tosh. He can say and do what he wants. If he needs to say things like "rape jokes are always funny" on stage in order to cope with whatever's in his life, he totally has that right. Sometimes we laugh at tragedy because we can't physically -- or psychologically -- do anything else.

I'm mad at society. I'm mad that we live in a culture where there are still people who think the idea of brutally gang raping a woman is worthy of laughter.

Because let's be honest. "Wouldn't it be funny if five guys came in and raped you right now?" isn't funny, but it's not because it's a rape joke. It's not funny because it's a rape joke premise. You can't laugh at something so underdeveloped no matter what kind of sense of humor you have -- unless of course, it's really how you feel.