Punching Up – Are Rape Jokes Ever OK?

‘Who is going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims? They barely even report rape.’ 

Sarah Silverman

I agree with comedian George Carlin, who said that ‘anything can be funny, it all depends on how you construct the joke’.  Another comedian, Daniel Tosh, made an attempt at a joke at a gig in 2014, that scared the woman he targeted. This was his joke: “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…” He stunned her into silence, and into leaving. The crowd laughed at her departure. The intention of this ‘joke’  was to humiliate and intimidate her. It worked.

What I love about humour and comedy is its ability to get to the root of something and make a point in a lateral, intelligent way, with a grim understanding of the human condition. I love comedy that has integrity and honesty, that is subversive and dark. Comedy is fascinating to me because it is so difficult to pin down or explain; it has no rules, no boundaries and can change direction on a whim.  I love how it points out the absurdity and ridiculousness of our own existence.  When I asked Irish comedian PJ Gallagher about it, he likened comedy to a mirror: ‘People laugh because it relates directly to their own experience. Comedy holds a mirror to our lives. That’s why it’s so funny – we’re laughing at ourselves’.

So within the context of rape jokes, what are we laughing at? – what we really believe about rape and rape victims? Or are we laughing about our own prejudices, or the myths that surround rape? Are we laughing at the victim? The rapist?

What is funny about rape jokes?

PJ concurs with Carlin, adding that the attitude of the joke maker is the most important thing. It follows that the comic’s attitude will inform the construction of the joke – the build up, background and intentions of the joke. So, what informs the success of the joke is in the construction, attitude and delivery – not the rape element.

After telling us that anything can be funny, Carlin then goes on to tell a very long rambling rape joke involving an 81 year old woman. It made me get angry, cringe, squirm and wince, but at the end of it, it came back to highlighting the ridiculousness of the ‘she lead him on/she was wearing a skirt’ belief that unfortunately too many people hold. We had to grin and bear the set up but the end was worth it. The butt of the joke was the rape myth and those who idiotically believe it and promote it, not the victim. Carlin used his joke to work against a pervasive element of rape culture; victim blaming.

This is why the construction of a joke involving rape or violence against women is so important. If the butt of the joke is the rape victim, which unfortunately it oftentimes is, then the comedian is just seeking a cheap laugh. Comedy is supposed to take down the oppressors, not the oppressed, as Carlin showed us. A joke that picks on the oppressed is a joke with no point. A racist joke is great as long as the joke is racism. A homophobic joke is fine as long as the joke is homophobia. The over-turned expectation which is what gives depth to humour, is the non arrival of any racism or homophobia. A joke about rape is fine as long as the joke is rape: the culture that supports it, the rapist,  the way rape is reported, the myths people believe, or the victim blaming that survivors are treated to. But not the victim. Comedy does not have the right to further victimise victims, or give further power to oppressors. Good comedy has a point, is intelligent and understands what it is talking about. Comedy should teach us something new, or show us a  new perspective. Its job is to make us laugh. Not to laugh at our most traumatic moments at our expense.

Downright mean jokes about rape, like Jimmy Carr’s ‘nine out of ten people in a gang rape said they enjoyed it’ are the damaging ones.  The hilarity is that the tenth person didn’t enjoy it because the tenth person was the gang rape victim. I can’t be the only person feeling slightly squinty eyed about that one. Jimmy is correct; gang rape victims do not enjoy being gang raped. Is the funny thing that it’s stating the obvious? Is the humour in the weird juxtaposition of the banality of statistics reporting and the violence of gang rape? Or is the humour in the ridiculousness of statistical analysis of such a shocking crime?  Even if that is where the humour lies, the target of the joke is still the victim. And why would you want to mock a gang rape victim?

PJ Gallagher uses the following as a barometer for his jokes, ‘Would I do this joke in front of ….. insert category of person?’  It comes down to respecting the people who find watching you a worthwhile way to spend their evening; ‘They bought a ticket – they deserve respect. Your job is to make them laugh. You’re privileged’.

‘Comedy ideally brings people together’ says PJ, ‘that’s where the magic is’. People go to comedy nights to escape their boring/awful/depressing/traumatic lives, not to be reminded of it. He told me about how jokes about the recession in 2008 fell flat due to the audience not wanting to hear about something they were trying to get away from for one night a week. It wasn’t funny for them. Targeting potentially vulnerable audience members does not bring people together. It isolates.

Sexual violence is both incredibly isolating and silencing, both because of the psychological impact of trauma, and also because of the sheer amount of unhelpful beliefs, myths, victim blaming attitudes that are festering out there. Let’s not add on to this by defending rape victim targeting jokes.

Main image via jlcauvin.com