The problem with rape jokes isn't who tells them. Or who objects to them. The outrage is the sheer number of people who think that stories about degrading and violating women, the more violently the better, is laugh-out-loud entertaining. They spend a lot of time and money proving this. It seems to me that who tells the joke is only marginally important. Who laughs at the jokes is infinitely more critical to understanding why we're having this conversation. That's why this isn't about the "age of outrage" as suggested here earlier this week. It's about the ubiquitous hold that rape has on our cultural imagination and the essential role it plays in the oppression of women. This is the line crossed that no one is talking about. Ultimately, not one will care about Tosh. But, someone will care about this: in the time it took me to write this paragraph another woman was raped, as one in five women (and countless children of both genders) will be in their lifetimes in this country. Jokes like the one Tosh told perpetuate a culture that not only tolerates this, but encourages it. I'm all for free speech, just not a fan of its hate-based exercise and acceptance.
You may rightfully have Tosh fatigue, but in case you missed it: During a live show, Tosh asked what people wanted him to talk about and an ardent fan yelled "Rape!" Tosh then proceeded to go on about how rape is always funny, until another audience member yelled out, "Actually, rape jokes are never funny!" Tosh paused before following up with, "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..." Anyone who has previously been exposed to Tosh knows this is not surprising. She was asking for it.
News articles, TV programs, Tweets, sympathizers and objectors abound. He's a good guy, just misunderstood. Tosh has the right to free speech. Objectors are humourless and oppressive. Maybe this is how you feel. Or your boyfriend, your daughter, your son or husband. This would be the "lighten-up/free-speech" defense.
There are times when jokes, told by the right person in the right way, are taboo-breaking and revolutionary. Consider, for example, George Carlin or Chris Rock or Wanda Sykes (check out "Rape Jokes Supercut: I Can't Believe You Clapped for That"). But, those are few and far between. It was certainly not the case with Daniel Tosh. What he did was just a dumb exercise of privilege and power. No subversive satire challenging assumptions. No brilliant dismantling of culture. This was just a straight down the line rape-for-good-old-rape's sake. It's safe to say that most rape jokes are like this and are not being told by incisive comedic geniuses with a keen sense of social justice. The problem with rape jokes is that men like Tosh tell rape jokes like he did (some argue instead of jokes like these) to millions of 13 year olds. The problem with rape jokes is that the objector, and not the guy who yelled "Rape!", walked out of the show.
Tosh's response to the objecting audience member was dismissive and demeaning. It translated into "Shut your mouth, woman, because we can always do it for you if you don't." Women, and men with empathy, don't find that funny. It didn't pointedly reveal anything about the reality of how rape works to control and oppress women. In this way it normalized and perpetuated a culture in which the silencing and degradation of women is not only tolerated, but fun. The way racist blackface humour was fun. Today's rape jokes are no different from yesterday's lynching jokes. It's just that overt racism is not acceptable, while misogyny and sexism are still celebrated.
Otherwise, people wouldn't have laughed so hard when Tosh incited a gang rape as a response to a heckler who, stunned, humiliated and fearful, then left. One man told a really lame joke, but many, many men and women laughed at it. We don't equip people with the tools to understand how deeply immersed we are in a rape culture. I'd warrant most haven't even considered the term and what it means. Consider, for example, what it means that when I searched "rape jokes" on Coed magazine's website, an ad for the preschool Maya and Miquel TV show was served up to the target audience.
Culture is why Tosh is just a symptom. Tosh was simply doing what has generated a small fortune, captured six million Twitter followers and made him a number one rated comedian.
That's why this isn't a First Amendment problem but one of market demand. The First Amendment gives people the right to make rape jokes and this right is critical and non-negotiable. But, it doesn't obligate comedians to tell these jokes, nor does it obligate others to pay to hear them because they find them entertaining. That's a matter of our culture and what is considered the current norm for human decency and empathy. Tosh in this way is no different from Facebook, which chose to keep rape joke pages up (in violation of its own guidelines prohibiting hate speech, if they apply to women) but removed a picture of an asexualized woman walking down the street topless in NY for being obscene. I'm not letting him off the hook, though. He has no (meaningless) corporate guidelines to follow, but he has an ethical choice about the jokes he makes and how he makes them. As Julie Burton and Michelle Kinsey Bruns of the Women's Media Center, explained on CNN this morning, "Tosh was free to say what he said, of course. But that doesn't mean it wasn't morally repugnant. It was." Rape jokes aren' simply R-rated antics. Rape jokes are why a group of boys in college think its OK to run a "Who Would You Rape?" survey.
Many people, like Melissa McEwan, are having to spend a lot of time explaining, with no ambiguity, why rape jokes aren't funny ever. Others, like Megan O'Keefe, explain that sometimes they can be therapeutic, transgressive or revelatory. Feminist author Jessica Valenti, appearing this weekend on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, explained the role of power in understanding the differences. Consider though the tide against which these voices swim: mainstream media still insists on using terms like "sex scandals" for child abuse and sexual violence, for what are clearly "rape tragedies" and reporting on how 11-year-olds dress when they are the victims of gang-rape.
I urge you to consider these arguments if you're in the "lighten up" camp. Jokes are meant, through laughter, to bring people together and, when brilliant, can be provoking and consciousness-raising. But, instead, what most rape jokes do is neither, relying instead, with a staggering lack of cleverness or insight, on dumb domination and violence. Really, I'd like rape jokes to be neither. I'd like to get to the point when comedians don't feel compelled to engage in either searing social commentary on the prevalence of rape nor engage in thuggish, abusive humour at the expense of women's safety. People no longer think jokes about public disembowelments are relevant or funny anymore, although at some time in our past they surely did.
Of the 200,000+ people who will be assaulted this year n this country, almost 50 percent will be under the age of 18 and 38 percent will know their rapists, 97 percent of whom will never be punished for their crime. Only the very rarest social commentary can make this entertaining.
Chris Rock stopped using his Niggas versus Black People routine. It, like Sara Silverman's or Wanda Sykes rape routines, was side-splittingly funny, but he won't use it anymore because he felt it gave racists license to use the word nigger. Telling rape jokes -- regardless of their quality -- gives men like Tosh and his audiences license to do the same with rape. Rape is about power and degradation. People who have cultural capital, like Tosh, whether they asked for it or not, have a responsibility to think about the impact and influence of their words. Don't forget, predatory rapists believe that all men are just like them. Other men, like Tosh, generally don't understand the limitations that fear of rape, or the experience of rape itself, places on women in society. Perhaps they should consider this comparative illustration by Curtis Luciani who helpfully explains:
"Let's imagine a world in which women cut men's dicks off. Like, frequently. To the extent that one in five men has had his dick cut off by a woman or had a woman attempt to cut his dick off... Sometimes it's a clear-cut case where a woman attacks you in the street, out of nowhere, and cuts your dick off. But more often it's a situation where you actually know the woman, maybe you trust her, maybe you think everything's okay, and then one day she cuts your dick off. Still with me? This is going to take a while. I'll tell you when I'm done. (And if you think I'm being insufferably self-righteous: Good news, you don't have to read this!) Okay, now let's also say that the shame and guilt around having your dick cut off is so strong that many dick-cuttings go completely unreported. After all, someone is likely to raise the question of whether or not you were "asking for it" in one way or another. And if you do accuse a woman of cutting your dick off, you can expect to see people (quite naturally) rally to her defense and slander your character in response. You can expect to see her friends... who are maybe also friends of yours... shrug their shoulders and say "Well, I don't know, it's complicated... it sounds like something was just happening between the two of them and maybe it got out of hand. I dunno. But I know that Sarah's not a bad gal. I know she would never, like, MALICIOUSLY cut a dude's dick off." So, a shitty state of affairs for the men-folk of our imaginary world, yes? Now imagine that in this world, something like 90 percent of professional performing comedians are women. And they've accepted that there are certain codes of behavior when it comes to comedy. Most people who "like comedy" generally accept the premise that there are no subject areas that cannot be somehow given a comic treatment, but it is also accepted, as a practical rule, that as the subject gets more troubling, more intense, more painful, a more skilled approach is necessary to find the humor in it... HOWEVER, there's this ONE thing. Many of the comediennes of this world have this ONE little sticking point. One little thing. It just IRKS the hell out of them that they can't seem to make jokes about cutting dicks off without some whiny pussy male in the audience throwing a shit fit about it!"
You really should click on the link and read the rest of it. It's well worth your time.
As a result of this and other responses to the events of last week, Tosh, who tells at least one theoretically pee-in-your-pants joke about his sister getting casually raped might pause to consider how he choses to exercise his First Amendment right and revisit whether or not he wants to continue to grow his popularity by telling sexist and racist jokes to impressionable 13-year-olds. He has apologized in an anemic, gaslighty way and is apparently furiously editing out rape jokes from an upcoming animated series. Maybe difficult considering that according to a production source "most of the pilot is about rape."
Portions of this post originally appeared in Fem2.0 earlier this week.