Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why I Should Avoid Reddit: Arguing Against Rape Jokes [Update]

*Trigger warning: This post discusses rape jokes and insensitivity to rape survivors.*
[Update: I added two links to other relevant and brilliant articles at the bottom.]
Duty Calls
Thank you, xkcd. You have perfectly summed up my evening.

Last night I intended to go shamelessly promote my "Nice Guys" post over at Reddit, and when I go there, I always check out some of the other posts in the hot and new sections of the Feminism subreddit. Unfortunately for me, there was a huge debate going on on several posts regarding Daniel Tosh of Comedy Central's Tosh.O. 

In case you don't know Tosh or his brand of offensive slurs and homophobic rants strung together humor, here is a brief video:


(Reason for the outrage after the jump)

As it turns out, the world is in a bit of an uproar about Tosh. The reason being that he made some jokes that, in my opinion, crossed a serious line. Here is the gist of the story as told by the audience member it happened to:
So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”... 
After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.
Okay, so I have a couple important disclaimers here. First being that you should never heckle a comedian. If you don't think the comedian is funny, don't laugh. Or leave, but don't shout things out at him or her. That being said, I'm not sure if I could have held my tongue while someone repeatedly insisted that rape jokes are always funny. The other disclaimer is actually said best by Margaret Lyons over at Vulture
There's no such thing as off-limits in comedy, and comedians are always — always — entitled to make jokes about whatever they want. But "entitled to" and "obligated to" are not the same thing, and comedy is not immune to criticism.

I guess what is so especially offensive to me here is not that Tosh was making rape jokes in the first place (even though it is disgusting, it is what I expect from him); I am offended by his response to the audience member. Instead of saying something else offensive, making fun of her, etc., he asks the audience to laugh with him at the possibility of her being gang-raped. 

This is what I kept getting sucked into arguing over at Reddit. The full comment thread is here, but I'll give you some of the more important points of debate.

Mostly I found myself debating Disposable_Face. After being told by another Reddit poster that rape affects men as often as it affects women, Face argued:
But, while the victims are of equal number, it is still considered to be a crime with more female victims by the law, the media, and Margaret Lyons, and while if you had to limit yourself to one crime to complain about, rape is one of the worst (I'd still say that homicide and genocide are worse, as are most hate-crimes), it is not necessarily THE worst unless you are only considering how equally it affects everyone, as opposed to number of victims, or the scale on which they are committed, or the state of the victim after the crime,
My point is that Margaret Lyons, and the people who complain that the whole Tosh rape joke debacle is sexist against women, seem duplicitous because they make no mention of the other horrible things he (and other stand up comedians) make light of, instead focusing on the thing they perceive as targeting them, even though the statistics don't even back them up on that. 

At this point I was beyond outraged, so I was not nearly as articulate as I wished to be, but I managed to get my main point across. Here is the remainder of that exchange directly from Reddit:

[–]Disposable_Face 1 point  ago
So, what makes it the worst kind of joke or tragedy to throw at a heckler, is the fact that society and victims feel the victim is complicit?
Cause he's not the first comedian to silence a heckler in front of a cheering crowd by throwing insults and wishing personal tragedies to occur.
[–]Disposable_Face 1 point  ago
Only if rape is the only tragedy used to silence hecklers, which it isn't
The remainder of our exchange can be summed up in one of the other threads we debated on:

[–]Disposable_Face 0 points  ago
If your problem is that jokes take away from the experience of victims, then you should not limit your opinion to rape, but extend it to all violent crimes, war crimes, and horrific tragedies that are regularly used as fodder for stand-up comedians.
And while rape is largely gender split regarding victims, it is still largely regarded as a woman's problem, that the primary victims are woman, that it is worse for a woman to experience, and that the law should reflect that, which is apparent from the title and link,
So, limiting the complaint to this joke is essentially equivalent to saying "I have a problem when this is done, but only with things I perceive as being specifically detrimental to me"
[–]Disposable_Face 1 point  ago
No, by my argument, people should discriminate in their outrage, either Tosh should be getting crap for EVERY joke he does, as should every comedian who insults hecklers in front of a laughing crowd, or people should just accept humor as humor. Outrage is a renewable resource, it doesn't cost money to post on reddit about how he's inappropriate and tasteless.
Because duplicitly guilting people into agreeing with you is not a basis for long term social change. You need a solid consistent basis to enact effective social change

Excuse my snarkiness. I couldn't help myself by the time we got to this point in our arguing. Okay, enough bringing you the ignorance of the internet. I just had to share with the world that people are legitimately still downplaying the stigmatization of rape and the unique dynamic it has in our society. 

The idea that these jokes are harmless is ridiculous. If you look at psychological studies, you will find evidence that rape jokes are harmful. For instance, in a study published in 2007 researchers found that a group of males exposed to sexist humor is more likely to victim blame and to excuse the behavior of rapists than other groups. (They also studied the difference between scenarios in which the rapist is a stranger vs. those in which the rapist is an acquaintance. If you know much about rape culture, the results won't surprise you.) So basically, the science is backing up what feminists have been trying to argue: sexist jokes and jokes about sexual violence are dangerous because they reinforce the social norms of our rape culture and tell victims they are wrong and rapists they are right. 

I also really appreciated A Division By Zer0's directing me to an old comment on a Shakesville post by Time Machine: 

A lot of people accuse feminists of thinking that all men are rapists. That's not true. But do you know who think all men are rapists?
Rapists do.
They really do. In psychological study, the profiling, the studies, it comes out again and again.
Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape

If one in twenty guys is a real and true rapist, and you have any amount of social activity with other guys like yourself, really cool guy, then it is almost a statistical certainty that one time hanging out with friends and their friends, playing Halo with a bunch of guys online, in a WoW guild, or elsewhere,you were talking to a rapist. Not your fault. You can't tell a rapist apart any better than anyone else can. It's not like they announce themselves.
But, here's the thing. It's very likely that in some of these interactions with these guys, at some point or another someone told a rape joke. You, decent guy that you are, understood that they didn't mean it, and it was just a joke. And so you laughed.
And, decent guy who would never condone rape, who would step in and stop rape if he saw it, who understands that rape is awful and wrong and bad, when you laughed?
That rapist who was in the group with you, that rapist thought that you were on his side. That rapistknew that you were a rapist like him. And he felt validated, and he felt he was among his comrades.
The full text of the comment is available here. It is an excellent argument against joking about things like rape.

You should also check out Miss Representation's take on the subject. They discuss many different factors including how the context of the joke actually makes Tosh look worse rather than better.  

And I think Jessica Valenti was writing her article for The Nation while I was fumbling through this post. She makes some great points about how, if we're going to joke about rape, we should be subverting it, not affirming it. It's not very long, so I'll let you read it for yourself instead of quoting her extensively.

What do you think? Am I just being sensitive or do we have a real issue at hand here? Do you have any brilliant plans for how we can address this?

I was looking for this earlier and now I found it. Harriet J at Fugivitus wrote an excellent post on rape jokes and how it feels to be a survivor hearing one. She talks about how shitty all the possible responses you can have are. READ IT!


  1. I learned that a way to sometimes stop the telling of jokes that are not funny is to personalize them. So, for us it could be saying in response to a racist joke, "Wow. You are insulting my son in law with that comment about African Americans." Or to a rape joke, "My daughter was raped. She's still having nightmares." That might not change the rapist or the racist but it does help other people understand that the issue isn't an abstract one. You are hurting a real person right here by your telling of that joke.

    1. Great idea. I finally found the blog post I was looking for by Harriet J over at Fugitivus. I edited the above post to include it. She is brilliant and sad and wonderful. She talks about the possible ways a survivor can respond to a rape joke, and honestly, all the possible scenarios kinda suck. Just like rape sucks. Just like rape culture sucks. YAY! Happy fun times.