What’s So Bad About Rape Jokes?

In a recent episode of Totally Biased, W. Kamau Bell moderates a discussion between a comedian (Jim Norton) and a feminist (Lindy West) over the topics of censorship and sexist (rape) jokes.

It’s an interesting discussion, and I believe both parties sort of dance around the same point – much of comedy is contextual, most rape jokes are performed by bad comedians, and while rape jokes are permissible, they should generally be avoided.

As a comedian, I’ve always felt that comedians should be able to talk about whatever they want on stage.  However, I feel many people take this privilege to be a right to say whatever they want, opinions of audience members be damned.  So, in the mind of many (mostly male) comedians, “Sorry if you’ve been raped, but I’ve got this really well-structured joke that makes people laugh, and therefore validates me as a comic.”

If you go into sociology (and other lesser sciences), there are a few intriguing theories that are worth discussing regarding the use of rape and other “edgy” humor.  One is Intergroup Conflict Theory, which proposes that “groups” are created based upon competition over perceived (or actual) limited resources.  Within Intergroup Conflict Theory is another theory called Prejudiced Norm Theory, which proposes that in-groups are maintained and stabilized by legitimizing myths about the out-groups.  So, for instance, a myth that “women get raped because they dress too sexy” could be legitimized by certain jokes.

A key aspect of the humor theory developed by me and Jono Zalay is that humor is used to segregate between in-groups and out-groups.  What we find funny defines how we socialize and how we create hierarchies.  Humor has the power to transcend race and tear down power structures, but it simultaneously has the power to reinforce oppression and justify bigotry.

Many comedians (again, mostly male) dismiss sexist jokes by saying “jokes don’t influence rape”.  Meanwhile, feminists (mostly female) argue “jokes perpetuate victimization of those who have been raped.”  Just doing a cursory glance through the literature, it shows that there is strong evidence that while sexist jokes do not make rapists, they do make men with hostile sexist tendencies (i.e. they view women as being innately inferior to men) more favorable towards rape.

Two papers show that when presented with sexist jokes compared to non-sexist jokes, a random sampling of college-aged and older men are more likely to have:

  • Increased likelihood of blaming victims of rape
  • Increased tendency towards rape
  • Decreased view of rape as a “serious” problem
  • Decreased desire to punish rapists

While the studies were slightly different, they are interesting in that they just randomly grouped men and presented them with either sexist jokes or non-sexist jokes and observed what their attitudes would be to various scenarios of rape.  What are sexist and non-sexist jokes?  Here are the examples of jokes:

SEXIST JOKES:

  • Why are women like carpets? If you lay them properly the first time, you can walk all over them for years.
  • Why do women have small feet? So they can get closer to the sink!
  • How many men does it take to change a light bulb? None let her do the dishes in the dark.
  • What is the best thing about a blowjob? Ten minutes silence.

NON-SEXIST JOKES:

  • Psychiatrist: What’s your problem? Patient: I think I’m a chicken. Psychiatrist: How long has this been going on? Patient: Ever since I was an egg!
  • How do you know when elephants have had sex in your house? The trash can liners are missing!
  • What’s the difference between a golfer and a skydiver? A golfer goes whack… “Damn!” A skydiver goes “Damn!” … whack.
  • Why was the leper stopped for speeding? He couldn’t take his foot off the accelerator!

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of these studies is that just FOUR of these jokes is enough to affect the tendency of these men towards rape.  And these jokes were just generally sexist, not even jokes that validated rape specifically.

So, it begs the question, should comedians be held to a higher standard when it comes to joke creation?  While these studies don’t conclude that men with higher rape tendencies are more likely to rape, they do suggest that men with attitudes towards misogyny will feel more comfortable in their anti-female attitudes just from these sexist jokes.  How these attitudes manifest in behavior is unclear, but it would not be surprising if increased rape and abuse are functions of these fortified anti-female attitudes.

As comedians, I think it’s probably worth assessing what type of material we use for jokes.  Do our jokes demean a certain demographic or legitimize myths about them?  Is it OK to insult certain types of people, as long as they are in the context of funny jokes?  I think we as comics really need to evaluate what we’re doing with our comedy, and we should be using humor to speak truth to power, not using our pulpit to further oppression.  My conclusion is that the only demographic I’m willing to make fun of is ME (other comedians are also welcome to make fun of me for a nominal fee).

If you want to read the papers:

J Interpers Violence-2010-Romero-Sánchez-2339-50

Viki__Thomae__Cullen___Fernandez__2007

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2 thoughts on “What’s So Bad About Rape Jokes?

  1. I don’t know. I think some rape jokes are funny, and I would be happy if every rapist got the death penalty.

    • The “rapists should get the death penalty” mentality is…well, it’s not really a help, dude. Rape and assault happen not by cartoonish villains skulking in alleys, they happen by people’s friends and family members and community members. Rape happens more often than not in situations like this and the way to stop it is to address its causes, not just to make increasingly violent threats towards those who do it – especially since that threat becomes leverage for survivors to not report their attackers.

      It’s more complex than just “rapists are bad, shoot them in the skulls”.

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