Columns

Thomas ’15: Rape jokes cause more damage than offense

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, February 23, 2012

 

A friend recently asked me to define the term “rape culture.” He was grappling with claims he had observed on the Internet saying that rape jokes should be protested because they contribute to rape culture. After explaining that rape culture refers to a set of societal norms, attitudes and practices that normalize, trivialize and even condone rape, I presented a case for why people should not make rape jokes.

To those of you for whom the answer might seem self-evident, bear with me. I can, for the sake of argument, give credence to opinions that no topic is above humor. I agree that censorship is not the means to address the issue, but I will make a case that rape should not be socially accepted as a category of mockery.

The basis of this argument will not be that the jokes are offensive. If one is concerned with offending someone else, it should be obvious that a joke about rape — or black people, or women and so on — should not be made. I concede that, for my opponents, offensiveness by itself is not enough to condemn a brand of humor. However, there are much stronger reasons for shunning rape jokes.

Let me begin by drawing attention to the statistic from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network that one out of every six American women has been a victim of sexual assault. Closer to home, according to Brown’s Sexual Assault Task Force, one in four women who attend college will be sexually assaulted during her academic career. I refer to women here to make a point about frequency, but it should not be left unsaid that 3 percent of American men have also reported an instance of sexual assault at some point in their lives.

These statistics indicate a fact that is often overlooked: When you joke about rape, there is a high likelihood that you are doing so in front of someone who has experienced it or someone who knows someone who has.

This is not an issue of offending someone. It is an issue of bringing up very specific and painful memories that elicit feelings of fear and isolation.

Beyond this, a rape joke invalidates the experience of the victim who potentially overhears it. For victims who have gone through the court system, this is probably an experience that they have endured. Joking about rape trivializes a traumatic event and makes the victim feel silly for thinking it’s a big deal.

This contributes to a rape culture already denigrating victims in a couple of salient ways: victim blaming — “she deserved it” — and attitudes that women secretly enjoy rape, as is often depicted in pornography.

Rape culture is what contributes to absurd court rulings like the one in Australia that acquitted a man of sexual assault on the grounds that he could not have removed the alleged victim’s very tight jeans without her assistance.

This climate causes victims to doubt their innocence in sexual assaults, producing feelings of guilt where they are completely inappropriate.

If you don’t believe me that we are living in a rape culture, think again of that statistic of one in four women. Clearly not enough people think it’s wrong or that it’s punishable.

This brings me to my second point. Given the frequency of sexual assault, on campus or otherwise, there is also a high likelihood that you are speaking about it in front of someone who has committed the crime. This may seem absurd, but it is a statistically valid assumption that demands consideration. When you joke about rape or sexual assault in front of someone who has committed it, you are reducing his or her terrible crime to a laughable topic. Though it may be unintended, you are granting a small amount of tacit approval to the assailant in the room.

Even if you dismiss this point completely and are so sure those around you are fully and completely aware of all implications of consent and sexual relations, can you say the same of all the people who consume the media that make these jokes? Are you so sure that everyone in this country is on the same page about respecting partners and attaining consent? Rates of domestic and partner violence would say differently.

The fact is that not everyone gets that it’s a “joke.” As long as we are living in a culture where respect for women and recognition of the nature of sexual violence is so clearly lacking, we cannot expect our audience to make the connection that the content of our joke is actually a serious crime.

   

Leigh Thomas ’15 is from Irvington, New York. She can be reached at leigh_thomas@brown.edu.