Humor is an excellent tool to de-stress, to address pertinent issues, and to entertain. However, it seems comedy is often used as an excuse to insult and make ugly remarks. “Funny” doesn’t come to mind when this humor minimizes the struggles of people who have experienced something outside of their control, as in rape jokes.
Comedians have a platform — they operate in a position of power — so they can easily use the powerless as fodder for their “jokes.” Survivors of sexual violence deserve support and respect. They should not be made to feel triggered for the sake of a few laughs. This is just basic decency. So it must be said: Rape jokes are not funny.
We’ve heard all sorts of justifications for rape jokes, so let’s take a look at the most common ones:
“I have the right to free speech!”
Yes, we all do, which means that we can use our right to free speech to make or criticize a rape joke. No one is saying that someone should go to jail for their joke. We’re just saying that they morally shouldn’t say it. Everyone is well within their rights.
“It’s just a joke; people need to lighten up.”
First, rape is horribly common. One in five women and many men are victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Whenever a rape joke is made, there is an incredible and unfortunate likelihood that a survivor is hearing it and could be negatively affected.
Second, rape can have a severe and negative impact on survivors’ lives. Many survivors experience Rape Trauma Syndrome, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a multitude of physical, emotional, and social consequences. Rape jokes could trigger emotional distress and even flashbacks.
And even if the joke doesn’t trigger such a severe response, it certainly shows that the joker doesn’t take rape seriously. Friends who experience sexual violence may end up not trusting the joker enough to share their experiences with them.
“Comedy is about pushing boundaries. / Nothing is off-limits. / People make jokes about all sorts of terrible things, so why should rape get special treatment?”
Rape culture encompasses the ways in which society blames victims of sexual assault and normalizes sexual violence. Author Emilie Buchwald explains that when society normalizes sexualized violence, it accepts and creates rape culture. We see rape jokes in TV, movies, social media, video games, and so much more.
Generally speaking, when we see news about a murder, our first reaction is to acknowledge how terrible this crime was. But when we see news about rape or hear about friends’ experiences with sexual violence, our first reaction is to question and blame the victim.
It’s important to recognize the context of our jokes. Because we live in a rape culture, a joke at the expense of a rape victim feeds into that normalization and victim blaming. This makes it different than say, a joke about murder, which in general doesn’t normalize homicide or the victim blaming of homicide victims.
“Come on, of course I don’t really mean it.”
In his research, David Lisak identified “undetected” rapists – those who are not reported or prosecuted – and asserted that these represent the vast majority of rapists and account for the vast majority of rapes. Furthermore, these undetected rapists commit rape or sexual assault but do not label those acts as such, nor do they think of themselves as rapists. They often go undetected because they are not perceived as dangerous in the conventional sense.
So considering this, we never know if the guy cracking a rape joke really means it as “just a joke” or if he’s one of these undetected rapists who thinks he isn’t doing anything wrong while he sexually assaults someone. We never know if the guy cracking a rape joke is actually dangerous or not.
And if the joker actually does fall into the “just a joke” category, there is a possibility that an undetected rapist hears the joke and feels validated in his atrocious criminal behavior.
Lisak’s research found that undetected rapists:
• “hold stereotyped beliefs about the ‘proper’ roles for women and men in society.”
• “harbor chronic, underlying feelings of anger and hostility toward women.”
• exist in “’sexually violent subcultures’ – such as fraternities and gangs – that “both reflect the rapist’s views… and also help to shape them.”
• “see themselves as hyper-masculine” and react to women’s resistance to his coercive sexual pressure with “anger and aggression.”
Most rapists hold these beliefs and aren’t challenged on them but are instead encouraged by our rape culture to be hyper-masculine and view women as sexual conquests who are lying or who secretly want to be raped. In this context, a rape joke or a joke about women’s “proper” roles reinforce these ideas and lend cover to rapists and their actions.
Not only do rape jokes offend survivors and their allies, they validate rapists in their behavior and thinking. With a large number of rape victims (1 in 5 women) and a large number of rapists (1 in 16 men) in our society, there is a strong likelihood that you have at some point interacted with someone who has committed or experienced sexual violence. And in that interaction, perhaps a rape joke was told. People may have laughed; some may have not said anything. But appreciation or silence in the face of a rape joke condones rapists’ behavior.
So today, tell a cheesy joke or entertain yourself a stand-up special, but please have the decency to stop rape jokes in their tracks – because rape jokes are not funny.
Lahari Pullakhandam is a new volunteer at the Center, assisting with office administration and program preparation. She is a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Nutrition and minoring in Computer Science.
Alyson Culin is our Associate Director. She supports the Center through fundraising, communications, and outreach efforts.