Why Is It So Hard to Understand What’s Wrong With Rape Jokes?

I can’t believe we’re still arguing about rape jokes. Perhaps I’m someone who gives humanity more credit than it deserves! But, of course, I can’t believe men still rape women (and men still rape men, because that happens, too!), so perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked that moderately funny people still scratch their dirty fingernails across the bottom of the shitty comedy barrel and rely on lame, offensive humor to get cheap laughs from people who don’t like to think critically in any way about how we as a culture deal with the problems of sexual assault.

Perhaps I’m asking too much from comedians, as well as comedy audiences. Sure, not everyone wants to hear a stand-up comedian say something thoughtful, because thinking is not for the comedy clubs. So that’s why there are the Daniel Toshes of the world, because there are people who legitimately think that dude is funny. That’s totally fine, too — but it’s still a bummer that the people getting laughed at are not those who are doing something terrible, but rather the people who are the victims of terrible crimes.

I mean, take a look at Sady Doyle’s back-and-forth with comedian Sam Morril, whose brand of rape humor can be broken down to: “Isn’t it hilarious that women get raped?” (It’s easy to find that funny, I guess, when you’re of the gender of humans who are most likely to rape another person.) Think about Jezebel’s Lindy West, who published a fantastic piece last year about the ethics of rape humor. Now watch the video of her reading the response to her appearance on Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, in which hundreds of people (read: men) belittled her appearance, some claiming that she should be raped, others stating that she would never get raped because, apparently, men who rape women only go after the prettiest girls. And that’s because she had the gall to suggest that there’s a pervasive culture of rape in our society, one in which men treat the crime so cavalierly that they feel it’s totally cool to joke about the victims of it, and one in which the notion that rape is not something worth casually laughing at is met, in turn, with rape and death threats.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not as sensitive as I might sound. But there’s a way to write and deliver a thoughtful rape joke. I’ll always laugh when I think of telling my best friend, a female comedian who lives in Chicago, that there are no alleys in New York City, to which she responded, “What! Where do people get raped?” She was poking fun at the idea that rape is always a random attack, not laughing at the victim of a crime. Once, at a bar, a friend described a leering, cocky man who wouldn’t leave her alone as looking like “a sleep-rapist.” She was making fun of a potential perpetrator, not a potential victim. Like all humor, not everyone would find those jokes funny. But I think those are more powerful than the kind of jokes that make light of the real sexual threats that women (and, again, some men!) must face every day and instead question the culture of thought perpetuating sexual assault in the first place.

But I suppose the biggest problem with most rape jokes — and dead baby jokes, and AIDS jokes, and cancer jokes, and pretty much any joke about a societal taboo — is that they’re lazy. They piggyback off a serious and controversial subject without considering its deeper implications. They don’t require much thought, because they’re not inspiring any insight, either. Anyone can make a rape joke, just like anyone can make any sort of inoffensive joke. But not everyone can do it well, just like not everyone is funny enough to get up on stage behind a microphone. It’s kind of like how anyone can post his or her opinion in the comments section of a blog post, or on Twitter, or on Facebook, but that doesn’t mean that every online screed is the result of rational and critical thought. (That’s why writers like me never read the comments.) That’s why there are people who can calmly ask an audience to think about the way society contributes to its own problems through careless humor and a lack of self-awareness. It’s always a little baffling and disheartening to see an audience not only refuse to recognize the irony in responding to suggestions of a culture of violence and sexual assault by then perpetrating the very same offensive and shameful worldview.