More thoughts on why rape jokes aren’t funny

This post, “why rape jokes aren’t funny, even if you’re kinky,” by Andrea Zanin, aka the Sex Geek, targets the kink community but the message is relevant for a broader audience as well.

Andrea Zanin is a writer, sex educator, and PhD student in Women’s Studies and you can read her very entertaining bio here.

19 thoughts on “More thoughts on why rape jokes aren’t funny

  1. A serious question here, putting aside the claim that rape jokes are or aren’t funny.

    What’s the status of rape fantasies? Rape porn? Should the former be viewed as mental illness? What about the latter – something that should be illegal? Naturally, I’m talking about totally “consensual” stuff here – in the first case, fantasy that never goes beyond fantasy. In the second, acting. Not some monsters running around recording and performing rapes.

  2. Crude, I am nowhere near to having a complete aesthetic theory of fiction and fantasy, which is in itself one of my reasons for caution in this area. But it could hardly be more obvious that elements are sometimes present in fiction and fantasy precisely because they are undesirable in reality. Perhaps their entire purpose is to underscore the real world undesirability of the element in question, but much more commonly the real-world undesirability contributes in some way to the ability of the element to perform some metaphorical role. But regardless, it is clearly not automatic that a fantasy about something bad is itself bad (or that it is good, of course). In the absence of anything like the complete aesthetic theory which would enable us to determine all of the metaphorical roles and their various effects, we could err on the side of caution, and try to prevent people from ever thinking or expressing anything unpleasant which isn’t a factual report, or we could arbitrarily condemn some elements and allow others without any good reasons for our choices, or we could let people make their own judgments and encourage them to be thoughtful and reflective. I must admit to a strong preference for the third option, myself.

  3. Alright, so option three. I guess that would cash out to, “Are rape fantasies bad? Who’s to say? But the fact that someone is aroused by rape fantasies and puts money towards the production of rape porn is no reason for us to judge them.” Is that on target?

  4. Crude, I think one cannot equate fantasy and porn. There are a number of reasons for distinguishing them, one of which is that the idea that the participants are consenting is worth scrutinizing. One way of forcing someone to do something is to see to it that all their alternatives are worse. Participating in creating rape porn may be the best option for someone who is addicted to an illegal drug, if it means he or she can get access to the drug. Similarly, it may be the best option if it is the one sure way to avoid being exposed as an undocumented worker, the only way on can find to support one’s family, etc. The societal effects of porn provide another very serious issue.

    Notice, I’m really not proposing that we discuss these issues. My point is just that these issues do not seem present with fantasy.

    BTW, at least one religion does forbid arousing fantasies of rape, at least outside the context of marital sex.

  5. Alright, so don’t equate them. I’m still left with my question of how we’re supposed to regard people who have rape fantasies and/or people who put money towards rape porn. Keep in mind, rape porn doesn’t always involve living actors. There’s animation and cartoon art as well. Increasingly realistic stuff too, in terms of production quality.

    For the sake of discussion, let’s say that for the rape porn in question, all those involved are legitimate citizens for whom the porn is either voluntary (Hey, they just like making rape porn. Some people like pottery. Others like this.) or merely a better paying job than ready alternatives. (It’s either this or working at the bank, and this pays better with more reasonable hours.)

  6. Crude, so we’re to pretend the porn industry is really just like Macy’s? Sorry, that missing a large part of what’s wrong with it. But even if it were, or if the actors were all really animations, there’s lots more. I think the material linked to is good on the topic, though there are lots of other and possibly deeper reasons.

    But, as I said, that’s not what I wanted to discuss. There are, I’m sure, others with more energy than I have now, given I’ve just put up a large number of posts in order to distract myself from a much larger task I have to face up to.

  7. No, we’re not to pretend that. I limited my example expressly for the sake of argument and said so – and believe it or not, animation is now a considerable part of the porn industry, and it would seem that wholly consensual flicks are part of the industry as well, large or small.

    Here’s a problem I’m having here: on the one hand it’s being claimed that rape jokes aren’t funny, end of story. Not only that, rape jokes “directly support and encourage rapists”. Quite a claim, that. Now, taking aim at humor with both barrels is considered reasonable here, clearly. But discussing rape fantasies and pornography? That’s coming across as a hands-off subject.

    Here’s another way to put it: are you really telling me you don’t have the time or energy to discuss what attitude should be had towards (again, even with consenting actors/actress) rape porn or people who have rape fantasies, but whether or not rape jokes directly support and encourage rapists, hey – that’s worthy of finding some time for?

  8. At the very least let’s distinguish rape porn from fantasies. One is a purely subjective mental state, the other is an industry with various real world implications (some good but mostly bad).

  9. I’ve been trying to distinguish between them – I keep mentioning them as two individual things, not the same thing. I’ve also been trying to distinguish between the darker side of the sex trade and the… well, less-dark. (Unless someone wants to take the tack that there’s no ‘non-dark’ side to the sex trade.)

    Also, are BDSM clubs part of the “sex industry”? That’s part of what’s strange here. I’m getting the mental image of some woman in black latex, six inch stilettos, and wearing a strap-on that has the words “Weapon of Ass Destruction” written on the side of it, lecturing sternly about how rape is never funny.

  10. Crude, it seems that you are questioning why we should take different attitudes to jokes, porn, and fantasies. Well, they are different in a lot of ways. Honestly, I think “rape jokes are never funny” is oversimplified, but I can’t off hand think of a funny one, and I do think that in general when someone is offended/disturbed by a joke, the right response is to apologize and not tell further jokes like that, not try to explain why it’s no big deal. And I think in general it’s a good idea to not take chances in this area, where there are a lot of people who might be offended or disturbed (or encouraged, of course another risk with certain kinds of rape jokes and certain audiences).

    Personally, I probably wouldn’t distinguish as sharply between fantasies and porn as some people in this thread, but they clearly are different from one another, and both quite different from jokes. Not sure why whatever attitude we take toward either should be presumed to transfer in any way to jokes, which play a very different contextual role.

  11. “Crude, it seems that you are questioning why we should take different attitudes to jokes”

    I’m not even going that far. I’m asking a pretty open-ended question, though admittedly it moves in the direction of “If rape jokes are never funny, if they are in fact actively aiding and abetting actual rapists, then – given this evaluation – what should we think of rape fantasies and rape porn?” That allows for explaining why the distinction is made, and – crucially – examining whether it’s valid. But it’s not superficially obvious that they’re completely different in terms of effect, or stranger still, that clearly rape fantasies and rape porn don’t have a negative cultural impact.

    Back to the imaginary dominatrix with the strap-on. “Rape is never, ever funny. Admittedly, sometimes it’s pretty ****ing hot.”

  12. There’s lots that I could say in reply to Crude, but I think the point I’d want to emphasize is one Protagoras mentions above: it’s the context that matters. When people make “rape jokes” what they’re doing (in most possible contexts that I can imagine) is making light of rape–making it seem like it’s not really a problem (jokes about how women really enjoy rape or were somehow ‘asking for it’, etc.) While there are a lot of criticisms that could be raised of the sex industry, porn, BDSM, etc., the feminists (and many others, too) who take part in these industries and activities would defend them as being *very different* from what goes on in actual rape. If one is having a rape fantasy (in one’s own head) or is asking a partner or even a paid dominatrix to enact some version of this fantasy, this is not the same as “joking” about rape. The claim here is that the consensual nature of the interaction (even if it involves doing something that may look or sound like rape) makes a difference. Those who joke about rape seem to suggest that rape is not “real”–that it is something that women make up or lie about. And that strikes me as incredibly problematic.

  13. Helensch, you make me aware that I was following Crude in treating the porn industry as homogeneous, whereas clearly it isn’t.

  14. “When people make “rape jokes” what they’re doing (in most possible contexts that I can imagine) is making light of rape–making it seem like it’s not really a problem (jokes about how women really enjoy rape or were somehow ‘asking for it’, etc.)”

    No, making light of something is not the same as making it seem like it’s not really a problem. Have you never heard of gallows humor? Do you think anything joked about is something regarded as “not a problem”? And “rape jokes” was condemned in total – do you think “rape jokes” all involve women? Or wait, is this a case where that’s the only kind of rape to be concerned about?

    Because there are many, many jokes about male on male rape. And man of them are damn funny. But the subject matter is also serious.

    “And that strikes me as incredibly problematic.”

    Ignoring, again, this bizarre claim that a rape joke is tied to the belief that rape “suggests that rape is not real” or unimportant or anything close to that… More problematic than regarding rape as really hot? How about producing media where rape is – what’s the word – glamorized? Presented as entertaining? Desirable, in a certain context?

    I’ve never suggested that simulated rape is somehow the same as real rape – I stressed the consensual nature of such things in their contexts, or at least when consent applies. (Animations do not give or withhold consent.) I’ve asked if they’re at all a problem. No one wants to discuss this. Instead, it seems like everyone wants to criticize rape jokes, but the big, latex-wearing, whip-holding elephant in the room is ignored.

    But, I’ve tried for days to inquire about how rape fantasies and rape porn should be viewed. No one wants to talk about that. Alas, this is the consensus opinion I’m forced to take away, here at the end of the conversation.

    “Rape jokes are never funny, and also making a rape joke means you think rape doesn’t happen or isn’t a problem. But man, rape sure can be really hot and arousing sometimes. I can totally understand why someone would want to play-act being raped, or play-act raping someone, or produce films and media where this takes place. I’m all in favor of that. But *joke* about it? What sort of monsters would ever..?”

  15. I think the intent of the criticism of rape jokes is really to target comments that trivialize rape or treat it as a light subject. Often these comments aren’t strictly jokes, but they’re the kind of thing people excuse by saying they were “only joking.” That such trivializing comments are not the entirety of joking things to be said about rape is part of the reason I said early on that I personally think “rape jokes are never funny” oversimplifies.

    However, while I am a huge fan of dark humor, it does seem that making it work with rape is especially hard; much harder than making dark humor about, say, murder. A speculation as to part of the reason is that dark humor relies on employing a subject matter which nobody (or at any event only a monster) would sincerely consider trivial. So the existence of the elements of rape culture that trivialize rape, that treat it as a joking matter, is not only problematic (and unfunny) in itself; it serves to make the topic hard to use successfully as the subject matter of dark humor.

  16. I can’t remember the last time I heard a “rape joke” that didn’t involve prison rape between men. I have the subjective impression that that’s by far the most common and socially accepted variety of rape joke. Think of how standard it is for films and TV shows to include some kind of witticism, sardonic remark or gag alluding to prison rape when the subject of incarceration comes up.

  17. Several weeks ago, and a couple of posts back, I ventured the thought that the one subject area with respect to which rape jokes really enjoy toleration and acceptance is male prison rape, amply demonstrated by the prevalence of such jokes on TV shows and in movies.

    In the current issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik’s article on incarceration in the United States notes:

    “Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized.”

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