A Scientific Case Against Rape Jokes

Imagine you are offered the opportunity to run a business.  You are welcome to sell whatever you want, so you think to yourself, “What do I want to sell?”  You notice that a lot of businesses are selling matches and gasoline, so you think, “I’ll open up a Match and Gasoline store!” and business does really well (better than those other idiots who decided to open up cupcake shops).  You’re making lots of money selling matches and gasoline, but over time, people start mentioning to you that some people who shop at your store burn down buildings.

You say, “That’s not really my problem.”

They say, “But you supply them with matches and gasoline. You are complicit in their arson!”


They say, “We’re just trying to inform you that your actions might be responsible for certain people to burn down people’s homes.”

You say, “I hope someone burns down your home!”

Does this sound familiar?  Perhaps inflammatory (pun intended!), this analogy is similar to a recent kerfuffle in the standup comedy community which arose from disagreements between two parties, standup comedians and female bloggers, on whether rape jokes promote a culture that normalizes rape.

I’ve been working on a project with Jono Zalay* on what makes things funny and why audiences laugh.  We felt that what was lacking in this “rape joke” conversation is actual scientific evidence linking humor and the creation of rape culture.  We (mostly me, but Jono helped out when he was awake) recently began an investigation into scientific studies regarding the impact of humor on rape culture, and were astonished to discover the wealth of literature supporting the notion that humor can be used to create social norms that justify prejudice.  Not only is there a link between certain types of humor and rape culture, but it’s strong and supported by several independent research groups.

That being said, we’d like to make a case for comedians to re-assess what they are doing with their humor, particularly “rape jokes”, for the following reasons:

  • Humor can be used to covertly deliver messages that can reinforce negative attitudes towards women
  • Enhanced negative attitudes towards individuals can lead to aggressive behavior
  • Jokes delivered by a comedian are perceived to reflect the views of the comedian


It’s pretty well known that advertisers use humor as a persuasion device to convince consumers to buy their product.  Why does this work?  It’s believed by many psychologists that the human brain operates in two forms: serious mode and humor mode. In serious mode, our brain takes incongruous notions and tries to rationalize them critically and logically, trying to find an explanation to strange events, sort of like figuring out a Rubik’s cube or becoming a conspiracy theorist.  However, in humor mode, our brain takes the “leap of faith” on incongruity and basically says “Ahhh… Screw it! This is fun!”  We throw away the Rubik’s cube and go off frolicking in the meadow.  Why are we in a meadow? Doesn’t matter.  We’re in humor mode now.

The decision to make the switch from serious mode to humor mode occurs through a series of events.  What those are is poorly understood by scientists who do this research (i.e. Jono and myself). Typically, all of those priming events are present at a comedy show, which leads us to tell our brain, “Ok, switch off.  Let the yuk-yuks just flow on through.”  Having our brain shut off isn’t normally a big deal for the comedians who are joking about how disgusting Hot Pockets are or how dumb and chubby their cousin is.  In fact, it can work to a comedian’s benefit.  Shifts in culture are often ascribed to comedians such as Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce who, likely, were able to deliver cultural messages to audiences whose critical brains shut off to hear jokes.  The use of humor essentially hypnotizes us to have our opinions “massaged” in one direction or another.

Where this can lead to problems is when comics do material on the topics of rape or sexism.  We’ll get into the motivations of why comedians do this type of material later, but, because our brain is in humor mode, we’ll lap up whatever opinions a comedian proposes. For instance, if a comedian says a joke to the effect of: “Hispanics are lazy”, or “Black people are stupid”, or “Women are asking to be raped”, the response falls in one of three categories in the audience:

  • CATEGORY 1: “HA! THAT’S SO TRUE!” (genuine laugh)
  • CATEGORY 2: “I DIDN’T KNOW THAT, BUT SINCE MOST PEOPLE THINK IT’S FUNNY, IT MUST BE TRUE!” (genuine laugh, or feigned laugh to support genuine laugh of CATEGORY 1)
  • CATEGORY 3: “WHAT THE F***? THAT’S NOT TRUE!” (no laugh, brain switches back on to serious mode)

It’s worth noting that every person we create in CATEGORY 3 is an indication of our failure to make a person laugh.  So, that’s the first argument against doing rape-jokes – getting fewer laughs.  Furthermore, based upon studies, people in Categories 1 & 2 would be described as hostile or benevolent sexists (which could also be applied to racism, so we’ll just use “bigots” instead). Hostile bigots are people who genuinely and aggressively believe in their individual superiority and inferiority of other, different groups.  Benevolent bigots are people who believe that other groups are inferior but it is their job to help those inferior people because they’re so inferior (i.e. White Man’s Burden).  Basically, the only groups laughing are people who believe in inequality (more on the issues with this later).


“Ok, big deal, so I laughed at an offensive joke.  That doesn’t mean anything!”

That is the general response when you call a person out about laughing at a bigoted joke.  The recent debate on Totally Biased focused on the notion of rape jokes leading to normalization of rape in society.  So, does hearing rape jokes lead people to rape?  Well, that is difficult to assess, as it would require scientists to allow people to get raped (which is relatively unethical… depending on your predisposed attitudes towards rape).  However, several studies have shown that appreciation of sexist jokes and just being shown sexist jokes leads to:

  • Increased blame attached to victims of rape
  • Increased acceptance of desire to rape
  • Decreased view of rape as a “serious” problem
  • Decreased desire to punish rapists

So, all the evidence point to rape jokes promoting rape culture. Even still, that only reflects people’s attitudes towards rape after hearing sexist jokes; it doesn’t mean that jokes lead to actionable violence.  One study provides evidence that humor affects behavior by using the Buss aggression machine technique to observe the relationship between disparaging humor and non-disparaging humor on people.

In the experiment, students who had received either derogatory criticism or positive criticism from a person were shown disparaging humor, non-disparaging humor, or no humor (pictures of furniture).  They then had an opportunity to “shock” that person who gave criticism (the person wasn’t really shocked, just an actor who pretended he was shocked).  If students received negative criticism and heard disparaging jokes, they generally gave a person a long, strong electric “shock”.  However, if they received positive criticism, there was no difference between whether they heard disparaging jokes or non-disparaging jokes (which was overall a low, weak “shock”).  Most interestingly, listening to non-disparaging jokes after hearing the derogatory criticism decreased the “shock” level BELOW what was administered if the person gave positive criticism.

In one study there was a clear action that resulted after hearing offensive humor compared to inoffensive humor.  In another study, women who heard offensive humor (Don Rickles) made them more likely to aggressively reject female job applicants than when they heard inoffensive humor (George Carlin…apparently).  Clearly, hearing certain types of humor can lead people to perform actions that ultimately hurt others (in the former, perceived physical pain, in the latter, discrimination).

Although there is no smoking gun that shows that rape jokes lead to rape, there is a wealth of evidence that indicates that predispositions towards rape are enhanced by hearing rape jokes (or jokes that normalize rape). And if a potential rapist uses a joke as justification for raping someone, shouldn’t that be good enough reason to not want to perform that joke anymore?


Nobody wants to be portrayed as the “Joke Police”, and we don’t claim to either (as we lack the discipline and racial profiling techniques necessary to be policemen).  Nevertheless, we view the purpose of comedy is two-fold: provide entertainment and promote the betterment of society.  If you’re not doing one, you should be doing the other, and most great comedians do both.  Based upon existing literature, it would seem clear that telling sexist or rape jokes doesn’t promote social welfare.  In fact, the only people rape jokes entertain are those who are against the betterment of society (they are sexist).

Comedy by its nature is inclusive.  The origins of laughter stem from social bonding among early primates. Despite this, rape jokes promote social division, as we described previously.  Still, some comedians are OK being branded as a “controversial comic”, like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks.  But there is a difference – controversial comedians lose fans because of the fans’ inherent prejudices, not because of the comedian’s prejudices.

One of the main arguments by comedians in this debate is the “it’s just a joke” argument.  A study in 1990 showed that many people believed that when they told a joke that might be offensive, it did not reflect their attitudes towards a certain group; yet, when other people told offensive jokes, it reflected their attitudes towards that group.  In essence, saying “it’s just a joke” allows comedians to de-commit from owning their opinion, and allows a person to hide their prejudices behind a “well-structured” joke.

For example, when a comedian makes an observation about a homeless man sleeping on a Central Park bench.  Many comedians will likely make fun of the behavior of this man, calling him lazy, or making fun of his attire.  The underlying message of his joke “homeless people are less than us”.  Why not make fun of the rich people who pay millions of dollars to live around Central Park, while he gets to live in Central Park for free? As comedians, we have a choice about what we choose to laugh at.  The point about this whole debate is let’s stop attacking victims, and start attacking oppressors.

On this point, we are not trying to attack comedians, who we feel have their heart in the right place (NOTE: Though most comedy clubs won’t tell you in a showcase, comedians are different from people who just do open mics for less than a year, and we recognize that).  What if a comedian’s experience is that they don’t like women, or they don’t like Asians?  That informs their hypothetical non-sexist/racist comedy, which is otherwise quite funny.  Nevertheless, a comedian who is racist/sexist needs to limit prejudice in their audiences, as it will eventually limit their fanbase.  Just ask the Republican Party.

Fortunately, it has been shown that when people are made aware that jokes are prejudiced, they are less likely to accept the prejudiced viewpoints.  So, even if audiences’ brains are lapping up sexism in humor mode, a comedian can take a step back and say “Hey, that’s a messed up thing I just said, and you’re OK with it!  WTF?”  The good news is that though comedy promotes rape-normal attitudes in audiences, these attitudes are very labile.  So, if a comedian decided to keep telling a rape joke, they can still prevent rape culture by saying, “Yeah, that’s a messed up joke.”

Finally, while this may seem a lot of white male-bashing, female comedians are not exempt from promotion of rape culture. In fact, sexist jokes delivered by women or from a genderless source [i.e. a joke book (in English, as joke book in French is masculine)] increase tolerance of sexism more than sex jokes delivered by men.

Ultimately, we can’t just open up a Match and Gasoline store and not imagine that some of our customers might be arsonists.  Hopefully, this discussion will lead to more introspection among comedians on what we’re doing with the time that audiences yield their humor mode brains to us, and comedy will be better because of it.

*This post was originally intended for the NERHD blog, but we figured it made sense to explain what we were researching first before actually delving into “rape”.  So, that’s why I’m writing in the first person plural.


112 thoughts on “A Scientific Case Against Rape Jokes

  1. I love this. Have you also seen research about behavior tendencies related to how much porn they watch? Not necessarily the same subject, but it promotes that exposure leads to desensitization. When you’ve seen a lot of “rape porn” it makes people think that rape isn’t all that bad, especially numbing their feeling for the victim.

    1. Great point India. I think comedy is just a microcosm for the overall portrayal of women in media. However, comedy, because of the whole “humor mode” mindset might be more detrimental than other forms. Buried in the text is a reference to Prejudiced Norm Theory, which underlies the basis of many of the studies I described. Here’s a link to the article again: http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/jhamlin/3925/4925HomeComputer/Rape%20myths/Social%20Consequences.pdf

      1. Richard, check the link right before Raj begins talking about “humor mode” and “serious mode.”

    2. Only when you watch non-consiously. I watch porn with a very conscious eye and I cringe, FF or change the channel when it gets aggressive much less when it shows rape.

    1. Joke creation falls under one of three umbrellas: incongruity (surprise), superiority, or relief. I don’t use the categories to define how the joke is constructed (which is 50% of the reason audiences laugh), I’m describing how audiences are responding to the the underlying message within the joke. The people most likely to genuinely laugh at an offensive joke are people who agree with the sentiment, followed by people who want to go along with the sentiment. People who disagree with the sentiment are most likely to not be in “humor mode” and not even appreciate the construction of the joke. Which is why many comics who disagree with offensive jokes (such as Jeselnik’s Marathon bombing joke) are quicker to dismiss the quality of the joke than admit that they don’t agree with the sentiment of the joke.

      1. I must be anomalous, as I laugh at bald jokes while mostly bald and laugh at blond jokes while partly blond. I laugh at jokes that target the intelligent and nerdy, while considering myself to be as described. To claim that agreement with a stereotypical depiction embedded in a joke has been defined by finding humor in the context is truly worthy of ridicule. I do not get my information from or define my mores by what I find humorous or laughable, and take offense to the idea that you may.

  2. I’d also be interested if there is a difference between tongue-in-cheek/sarcastic jokes about such subjects vs. actually saying things like, “Yeah, that’s a messed up joke.” In the latter, the joke would have originally been said much more earnestly.

      1. I was a bit concerned that all rape jokes were looked at as equal. It would be like equating all depictions of rape in the movies the same. The depictions in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were used to make points. Similarly the depiction in The Accused was also central to the story. In A Time to Kill rape was part of the story but not shown. So likewise I’ve heard comedians who mention rape and point out the absurdity of some people’s ideas as well as show “that’s messed up.”

      2. there was a study on Gross out humor that may be appropriate to this discussion:
        the point they make is that comedy that violates social norms, the “that’s messed up” comedy is only perceived as funny if a person believes the act didn’t really happen. That is where we run into another major issues when it comes to rape: Most people want to deny the reality of rape. If they are laughing because of the “that’s messed up” reaction, they are also not believing the act is real, and the joke is reinforcing the denial of rape and myths related to that denial.

  3. This is a propaganda piece clearly skewed to a specific viewpoint. Science is impartial weighing both pros and cons. This article uses the phrase “science” in an insulting manner as it clearly has not stated anything with an open mind or perspective. As a comedian who has directed the Vagina Monologues, volunteered regularly at the North Shore Rape Crisis Center in Massachusetts, and as someone who has been raped, I find many rape jokes extremely beneficial to society. They make people more able to discuss a very uncomfortable subject. In this light a good rape joke does better society. I would go farther into this article but I would have to write something at least equal in length to truly address all the flaws in this piece. Sufficed to say I feel Joan Rivers addressed it best when she was heckled for making a joke about Helen Keller: http://youtu.be/rAD-ky3TYQk

    1. I am sorry that you have been raped, but regarding the science of this, science is not about weighing pros and cons impartially. It’s about taking an observation and formulating a model to explain the observation, and then backing it up with evidence. I am merely presenting the evidence that exists and formulating a model based upon what evidence is available to me. I have not found any evidence that refutes the theory that sexist jokes promote rape culture (conceding the possibility of publication bias). As someone who works so much with rape victims, I would be intrigued to see how rape victims feel about rape jokes. In fact, I have a genuine question – are you telling rape jokes to people at your rape crisis center? And if so, what is there response?

      1. Speaking of science, where is the science of the existence of a “rape culture”? Yes, there are people who commit rape. Yes, there are attitudes that seem to lessen the seriousness of it. I still don’t find a culture supporting it. I do find a society with all kinds of sexual hang ups such that it doesn’t do well with sex education or treating std’s in seniors. That however doesn’t make us a “rape culture”. I fear the proponents of rape prevention do us a disservice by the use of this term. It sets up a faceless, unnamed group that we can now attack but since the group doesn’t exist, when we destroy it we will have destroyed nothing.

      2. “Taking an observation and formulating a model to explain that observation, then backing it up with evidence” sounds a little too much like confirmation bias in my opinion, as in, the observation should lead to gathering various evidence, which is then formulated into a model. To do otherwise is to risk only gathering evidence which supports that model, and overlooking any that does not fit your conclusion, which is actually what a lot of sexist and bigots do subconsciously.
        I agree that sexist jokes and jokes that place blame for sexual assault on the victim DO normalize the attitudes, but your matches and fire allegory is really problematic because
        A) Matches are a tool which enable someone to physically do something, while telling a joke only influences what someone might BELIEVE, and has no effect on their physical ability to do it. (If you wanted to go that route you would have to say something about how you selling matches means people think that buying matches is appropriate because so many people do it)
        B) Your continued use of the word “responsible,” as in “You may be responsible for some of these fires” is once again connected to a physical ability to do something, not the normalizing of an attitude. For instance, we would not say that a car manufacturer is responsible when someone crashes one of their cars, but we would say that if they put a car on the market that was unsafe, they should take responsibility for their negligence (i.e admit that their attitude about it was wrong)

        Furthermore, I believe that you have confused actions with neurological signals, as I can find no trace of any scientific article that proposes a humor and serious mode to the brain, except for a book about laughter and the self which actually states that the two states of being must balance each other out in order for us to make sense and feel connected to the world. Your link talks more about perceived space as either humorous or serious, which the confusion or can lead to breakdowns between what it appropriate and what is not, but this is a problem not with jokes themselves, but what places we tell them. The spread of internet culture is most likely a huge factor in this, because a large number of people believe that since we can’t control everybody’s behavior on the internet, we shouldn’t try to regulate it. Therefore, nothing on the internet is serious and we should just “accept” this.

        Overall I found this article insightful in terms of learning how jokes can lead to internalized attitudes, and these to make us more hostile, but question whether it’s really okay to use a scientific observation from a study on hostility to explain a separate one which links humor to behavior. Not to draw an improper simile, but people who listen to jokes about genocide or baby killing aren’t more likely to do either, just more likely to think they are humorous then serious. In light of this, a more informative title might have been “A Scientific Case Against Rape CULTURE,” which is what I think you’re really trying to say.

        I agree that we shouldn’t make sexist jokes or ones which make light of sexual assault, but not because they lead to people preforming this behavior, but because it makes it seem as though that kind of behavior is “Normal,” and if people think blaming a victim is “normal” then we have a problem and an obligation to remind people that it is NOT normal. Same with genocide, same with baby killing.

        Just some food for thought. I apologize if I misconstrued anything and hope you take the time to respond.

      3. Thanks for the comment. I think a large part of the problem is that research in this area is very limited. But there is a small but consistent consensus that “aggressive humor” (a jargon term in the literature that is applied to jokes that in general disparage a minority community) leads to reinforcement of anti-minority attitudes (rape culture being one such example).

        Here’s a video of humor reinforcing attitudes (which, by extrapolation, could be applied to normalization of genocide/baby killing).

      4. As a rape survivor, I love your analysis here. I absolutely abhor rape jokes, because they’re often used as a way to dismiss my experiences, dismiss my validity, and often result in people being less likely believing rape survivors.

        If you joke about the rapist, then that’s a different story altogether because it’s punching the oppressors rather than the victims, but often rape jokes don’t do that, and focus on tearing apart the victim for the amusement of others. Of those that I know — who I’ve worked with and talked with about this (and have experienced it) — it’s genuinely unhelpful to joke about the victims. It just makes it harder for us overall.

      5. Thank you SO MUCH dude for your response to Todd and for your article! I was shocked to the core by what Todd said there. I am a survivor too, and rape jokes – while sometimes something I mistakenly brush off as inevitable – really do distress me. And – as a scientist myself – reading the scientific papers you cite as to how people laughing at things really does reduce them to a laughing matter in their minds as finally helped me to realise that my disgust and outrage at such jokes really is justified. If someone at a rape crisis center or on a support forum told a rape joke, I think I would feel utterly let down, belittled and betrayed by a person I should have been able to trust.

    2. As another female comedian with similar experiences (acted in the vagina monologues, volunteered at AIDS Project Worcester, no need to talk about whether or not I was raped because I don’t feel the need to disclose that) I disagree with you. I understand that we should be able to make light of terrible things that happen, but sexism exists and making sexist jokes that make the victim look even more victimized isn’t how to make light of the situation. If the joke were only on the rapist it would be different. It’d be like making a holocaust joke about nazis which is a regular thing because they were assholes, and everyone can agree that we can make fun of them, but saying the Jews asked for it? I don’t see how that’s ok and it makes the audience become numb to the issue at hand that the victim should be felt for, not laughed at. A person that was raped that can sit in an audience and laugh at a joke that has the message of, “You needed it” or “you saw it coming and were asking to be raped” that’s very seriously self-demeaning.

      1. Do rape jokes necessarily make fun of the victim or the situation, though? Also, rape jokes aren’t inherently sexist. In fact, to assume that rape jokes are inherently sexist is sexist itself, as the stereotype of rape is a man raping a female. Though I might be straw manning a bit here.

    3. The difference is simple: A rape joke makes fun of the victim. A positive joke about rape makes fun of the culture/rapist and gets people thinking.

    1. Oh, well done you for proving so many points that were made in this discussion…but you would have known that if you’d kept reading. I wish you all the best in your pathetic racist life.

  4. “Ultimately, we can’t just open up a Match and Gasoline store and not imagine that some of our customers might be arsonists.” Sounds like a gas station…

  5. “Fortunately, it has been shown that when people are made aware that jokes are prejudiced, they are less likely to accept the prejudiced viewpoints.” That’s not what that study says you fucking idiot.

    1. From the paper: “Furthermore, the findings of Experiment 2 suggest that the interpretation of sexist humor in a noncritical manner is necessary for sexist humor to create greater tolerance of sexism in a given context. When the typical noncritical reaction to sexist humor was prevented by instructions to focus on the content of the humor, the effect of sexist humor on tolerance of the sexist event was nullified for participants high in hostile sexism.”

  6. I appreciate what you’re going for here, but calling this article a “scientific” case against rape jokes isn’t doing anyone any favours. As far as I can tell, the whole bit about “humor mode” vs “serious mode” and categories 1-3 are based entirely on ONE GUY’S M.A. THESIS (equals “many psychologists”, I guess?).
    Speaking from the perspective of a different MA student, also studying humour, I can tell you that most theories say that most humour is achieved through recognizing of incongruity, not ignoring it. Not to say that there isn’t evidence for humour sidetracking critical faculties, but there’s also a lot of evidence for it kickstarting them.
    The bigger problem is the three categories – maybe you don’t think this, but it reads like you think those are the only three relevant categories people fall into. But it’s clear to most people, I think, that the majority response to (successful) ‘shock humour’ is something like “haha that’s so wrong and crazy!” Saying that laughing at a joke entails agreeing to the joke content is clearly false, not least because the “content” of a joke is notoriously hard to pin down.

    Inasmuch as the rape joke thing is a ‘debate’, I have to say that I don’t think anything that doesn’t help us work out the distinction between “rape jokes” and “jokes about rape” is going to be really useful in moving us forward.

    1. It seems that we made a pretty strong distinction. “Rape jokes” are jokes that victimize women or other people who are stereotypical victims of rape. “Rape culture jokes” are the jokes that are social commentary of rape and rape culture, which is what most people seem to be OK with.

      We did cite Ford’s work a lot, but primarily because the field is so small, and Ford’s work was very influential on developing Prejudiced Norm Theory. We actually use many other groups (Viki, Ryan), and considering how small the field is on this topic, the theory seems pretty well supported.

      What humor research do you do? (Genuine question)

  7. This is great. I’ve written about these kinds of studies before; this research is fairly new but evidence is building up quickly. To those who claim that this isn’t “science” just because there aren’t chemicals and beakers involved, you’re engaging in denialism.

    1. Here’s why it’s not science. Copy and paste from my reply on reddit.

      This article says nothing to a skeptic and its far from scientific. I cannot believe that a community based on skepticism can so predictably jump to conclusions and executes “science” with such a clear degree of confirmation bias. It’s as though people see wow, there’s a link to JSTOR, this is really hard evidence and then are too busy drawing conclusions and patting themselves on the back for “knowing” this all along to question anything.
      To be very clear on our definitions, this is not science. There is no experiment being executed or observations being made about the relationship between jokes and instances of rape. There are some studies about various other relationships, but the argument supporting the “jokes lead to rapes” claim is entirely deductive in nature. This is the groundwork for science, but inductive reasoning is the corner stone of the scientific method so you cannot yet say that science suggests jokes lead to rape.
      The methodology for a lot of these studies is extremely flimsy and causes a great many concerns about internal validity. The Gray Study asked people to imagine themselves in either an office setting or in a comedy club and rate the offensiveness of jokes. That is probably the most bullshit study design I have ever heard of. First of all, having people imagine they’re in different locations is so open to uncontrolled variables that I’m in shock. Is everyone’s imagined comedy club the same,mor is everyone’s office setting the same? Is the office setting with your work friend who you know well in a cubicle so you feel comfortable laughing at an offensive joke or is it around the water cooler with your boss? Secondly, that study makes no link between offensive and serious mode. I would include racist jokes as offensive, but I don’t go into serious mode whenever I hear one.
      The two other “studies” that try to show a link between jokes and “rape proclivity” were similarly uncompelling. They both rely on people self reporting their likelihood to rape of consequences are withdrawn and then that is equated to being more likely to rape. That conclusion is based on comparing repsponses to these question with imprisoned rapists. Aside from the fact that people who have been in prison for years are naturally going to answer that they would be more likely to rape, there is still missing link in the causation tree. If we accept the conclusions of previous studies, then we know that rapists are more likely to score higher on these tests than a general population control. We have no data that says people whose rape proclivity score is induced to be higher become more likely to rape. It is still questionable how long after hearing the joke, people’s proclivity remains raised. I assume all the study participants had heard rape jokes before so for their rape proclivity to have increased in the lab, it must have remained at some relatively constant level prior to the experiment.
      In light of previous mentions of a joke state and a serious state of mind, it should be addressed that after hearing a joke, people may go into the less serious frame of mind, perhaps more so than when they here a non-dirty joke. However, when they are then thrust into a real world sex situation, they enter the serious frame of mind and any effect is lost.
      While these critiques can be viewed as nitpicking to serious methodological questions, the point remains that it is impossible to conclude with anything resembling certainty that rape jokes lead to more rapes.
      I have a feeling that some people here may still remain unconvinced so now I want to show some probable counter examples. Suppose we gave these same rape proclivity surveys to men while they masturbated. Do you think we would see a similar increase in the rape probability metrics? Suppose we applied the test to men who had been camping in woods for ten weeks without a chance to masturbate? What about men after moderate alcohol consumption? Men while they had an erection? Men sitting next to a traditionally attractive woman on a mock subway? What if you gave the survey with a condom taped to the top left corner? The point is, all of these instances, I believe, could induce a similar rise in rape proclivity scores. Should we also conclude that any of these increases the likelihood of rape? Do masturbating and not masturbating for a prolonged period both contribute to rape culture? This is why you can’t build a deductive tree from various inductive experiments, draw conclusions, and call them good science.
      Then there is the plea at the end about banker jokes. Clearly this author is more motivated by ideology and dogma than by good science. I’m all for popularizing science. I’m all for inserting science into political discussions. What I am absolutely against is putting politics into science and continuing to call it science instead of rhetoric.

      1. I’m still unclear about what you’re skeptical about. That rape jokes lead to rape culture (and eventually to rape)? How does your counter-example examine that relationship? Instead it investigates a red herring that male sexual repression leads to rape somehow. Evidence linking sexual repression and rape are conflicting (though limited in number), while the sexist jokes leading to rape proclivity studies are all in agreement (though also limited in number).

        I think it’s great that we can have a discussion of the methodologies of studies (and I’ll concede that many of them are flawed). However, the underlying point, despite the flaws in methodology is that there is a link between aggressive, sexist humor and negative attitudes towards women that normalizes a “rape culture”. And again, everyone seems to obsess over the relationship of rape culture on making rapists. That’s only half the problem. The bigger problem is, in a rape culture, a woman is less likely to report that she’s been raped and more likely to blame herself for being raped. How does forcing men to not masturbate stop that problem? Anyone can rape for whatever reason, however, we shouldn’t live in a society where a woman who gets raped is forced to live in fear because of it.

      2. Rape (especially violent rape) actually has very little to do with sex. Think about the last time you were playing Xbox live and someone shouted “I’m going to rape you!” They didn’t say it because they found you sexually attractive, they said it because they had contempt for you wand wanted to prove themselves superior or dominant over you. Actual instances of rape are much the same. Rapists, in general, don’t rape because they’re sexually frustrated, they rape because they feel that their victim “owes” them something or because they resent their victim in some way, or because their victim symbolizes something or someone they resent. As such, all your variables about sexual frustration and arousal are unlikely to have any impact on a study about rape culture.

      3. Hey, look, it’s a redditor engaging in that oldest of traditions, assuming that because the science doesn’t agree with his preconceptions, he must therefore be infinitely smarter than the scientists and they must be wrong in every way.

        It’s always good to see people keeping tradition alive.

  8. Great post. I think that a comedian receiving a positive reaction to hateful or violent content from an audience would motivate the existence of the joke. It would also be a direct reflection of a societal issue in supporting the offensive joke. The effect appears to go both ways even though only one person has the microphone. I doubt that most comedians write with a purpose of bettering society, especially those going for the shock appeal, but society (the audience) could also react for the betterment of a comedians material. Either way, it is a tough subject to debate within the context of comedy which is meant to push boundaries even though certain topics should logically be avoided for multiple reasons.

  9. Thanks for this, Raj. I watched the video of Lindy West reading all the troll vitriol and I can’t get it out of my head… Nice to know that some male comics actually get it.

    1. I think most male comics do get it. As much as I like Lindy, I think she came off from the debate sort of School Marm-y, which many male comics found off-putting, thereby missing all of her points. As I said in the article, this isn’t really limited to male comics. Both male and female comics promote rape culture through shitty joke writing that victimizes women. But glad you liked the article nevertheless!

  10. I was about to write a post, but as I was about to review the research to link to, I found your post hit just about every point I was going to make.
    Great Job.
    Dr. Zachary Maichuk

  11. “So, does hearing rape jokes lead people to rape? Well, that is difficult to assess, as it would require scientists to allow people to get raped (which is relatively unethical… depending on your predisposed attitudes towards rape).”

    HA! THAT’S SO TRUE! This must be one of those “Category One” jokes.

    “The point about this whole debate is let’s stop attacking victims, and start attacking oppressors.”

    Oh I see, the problem is not that jokes are “attacking” people – it’s that they’re “attacking” the *wrong* people!

    “Nevertheless, a comedian who is racist/sexist needs to limit prejudice in their audiences, as it will eventually limit their fanbase. Just ask the Republican Party.”

    HA! THAT’S SO TRUE! You know, you’re actually pretty good with these rape jokes. You should consider getting into stand-up.

    1. This is an example of a joke about rape that does not attack the victim:

      Three women walk up to a known rapist and begin beating him repeatedly with large metal pipes. Just before making contact, the first woman shouts to him ‘SO A RAPIST WALKS INTO A BAR…’

      1. “…REPEATEDLY!”

        (Heck, if you add my last word, you can actually skip the whole first part! 🙂 )

  12. If you open up a fuel and matches store, it is no different than opening up a kitchen knife store. You do not contribute to crime further by doing so. Your customers would almost completely be comprised of legitimate uses even if criminals did get their supplies from there.

    Your argument holds no weight unless no other stores sold fuel or matches, or fuel and matches together. And even then, they’d clearly be the only store supplying them and would actually decrease the amount of criminals supplying themselves from there since they’d be regulated.

    You have absolutely no argument with that analogy. It is illogical and doesn’t hold up in theory or reality. To use that as the base for your argument is fallacious. You use a ridiculous fallacy of an argument and the back it up by making pathetic strawman quotes, the first of which (which trying to demean the shop owner) is still a logical counter to your first claim.

  13. Ok, so you’ve made some valid points against rape jokes in mainstream culture, but the fact is I still find certain rape jokes hilarious. Does that make me a bad person? I don’t really care. Maybe I’m just too “desensitized” but when something’s funny, I’m gonna laugh. I don’t think I’m gonna be able to change that and I don’t even know if I want to. Some rape jokes are funny but many are just lame and are too dependent on the shock factor.

  14. Or maybe when you go see a comedian you take things for what they are, a fucking joke. If you know some comedians can be offensive in their acts, then why bother going in the first place and then bitch about it? Do I think rape is serious, yes, do I want people to go out and get raped, no, but if I go to a place where jokes are being told, I’m not going to take much the guy says on stage seriously. Essentially what m trying to say is that people need to lighten the hell up and stop bitching that every little thing offends them.

  15. I am SO frustrated by many of the comments left on this. 1. because a lot of people seem to be arguing for the sake of arguing when they clearly know nothing on such a subject and 2. because “science” or no science, what is being said in this article is still true. You can’t deny that “rape culture” has become such a vast issue around the world. Trust me, from experience I know and spent years being terrified and fighting to find some sort of peace and respect and a victimised woman. I know this piece of writing has been left for people to freely comment on, and clearly many have chosen to do that, but DO NOT make others feel awful because you think you know better…and bringing racism in to this? Well I can’t even to begin how repulsed that has left me. As a good friend once said to me…”we need to just ctrl + alt + del this world, because we have really fucked it up.” It’s true. Here are people to are trying to open others eyes to the issues that are going on daily and becoming worse, and all some people can do is hate them and shun them for it.
    I hope many people take all this on board and realise that things can be improved if people stop being so pig headed and up their own arses.

  16. I firmly stand by the author of this piece.
    Rape jokes downplay the seriousness of rape. They can cause rape survivors to have flashbacks and panic attacks.

  17. This is a lot of bullshit, and it’s terrible that people are going around taking this article seriously. You loaded it with logical facilities and spoke in such a biased way that you trick people into thinking that anything you wrote here is accurate.

    Under secret comedy messages, you unfairly compressed every possible reason for laughing at an offensive joke into three categories, refusing to acknowledge that there are other reasons to laugh at something. It is completely possible, and extremely likely, to genuinely laugh at an offensive joke without either being prejudice or being so simpleminded that you take the joke as a fact because other people are laughing. I can laugh because I am aware of a stereotype, fully aware that it’s a stereotype and not true. I can laugh at jokes about women being bad drivers, Asians being good at math, etc, and be fully aware that being a woman doesn’t make you dad at driving, and being Asian doesn’t make you suddenly wonderful at mathematics, but because I am aware of the context of a stereotype I can laugh at the joke BECAUSE I KNOW IT’S JUST A JOKE.

    Your passage about the electric shock study, and the study involving the job applicant, is irrelevant to this subject. The study shows that if someone is angry toward someone, and they are exposed to provocative humor, he/she will remain angry toward someone; if they are exposed to non-disparaging humor, he/she will be less angry toward that individual. This is completely unrelated to whether or not offensive jokes will turn completely sensible people into wild, violent, rapists. They do NOT that that “hearing certain types of humor can lead people to perform actions that ultimately hurt others”, they show that, given a previous agitation toward an individual, they will be more likely to remain (and possibly act upon) that agitation against that specific individual. The actions that followed—where you imply people may hurt someone—were part of the participants requested actions; neither study shows that people will suddenly hurt others, only that when requested to perform an action that affects that individual (not simply given the option to perform that action), the participant will be more likely to react in a harsher manor.

    “And if a potential rapist uses a joke as justification for raping someone, shouldn’t that be good enough reason to not want to perform that joke anymore?” If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the internet, it’s that there’s billions of people on earth, and that no one behaves the same. If you want to ban a joke because one lunatic took it seriously, you need to reconsider your beliefs.

    “In fact, the only people rape jokes entertain are those who are against the betterment of society (they are sexist).” No. See what I said in the second paragraph. Or, do you think I’m pro-dead baby when I laugh at a dead baby joke?

    Get your facts straight before you go claim to be speaking in the name of science.

    1. > It is completely possible, and extremely likely, to genuinely
      > laugh at an offensive joke without either being prejudice or
      > being so simpleminded that you take the joke as a fact because
      > other people are laughing.

      Or, to put it another way, “OMG I LAUGH AT RAPE JOKES ALL THE TIME BUT I AM A GOOD PERSON SO YOUR ARGUMENT MUST BE WRONG!!!11!!1elevendy!11!”

      > Or, do you think I’m pro-dead baby when I laugh at a dead baby joke?

      Well, that right there does a preeeeetty good job of undermining your ‘I’m REALLY not simpleminded, REEEEALLY!’ argument.

  18. There’s a rape joke in this very article: “So, does hearing rape jokes lead people to rape? Well, that is difficult to assess, as it would require scientists to allow people to get raped (which is relatively unethical… depending on your predisposed attitudes towards rape).” See that? That’s a rape joke. That’s using humor rhetorically to do the OPPOSITE of what sexist humor is supposed to do, but it’s still a rape joke.

  19. You know what would be a lot better at preventing rape than limiting rape jokes? Good parenting and education. I think it’s fine for comedians to say stuff that’s funny about sexism, as long as it’s funny. I like to laugh at that stuff. I’m also asian, and I laugh at asian jokes as well. I don’t limit my humor to groups that I don’t belong to. I just appreciate a good joke. That doesn’t mean I would rape anyone. I would never rape a girl, not because I haven’t heard rape jokes, but because I was raised in a good christian household and was educated very well about this, and I have two sisters that have really made me a lot more compassionate towards women. Also, I recognize that jokes are jokes, and at least for me, hearing and telling them have no effect on how I live my life. If parents would address issues such as rape and sexism with their children, and advances were made to educate kids much more thoroughly, then that would be far more effective at preventing rape than curtailing the telling of rape jokes on television. A few people (all female bloggers, coincidence?) were pretty angry at the choice of Seth MacFarlane’s jokes during his hosting of the Oscars because of their sexist undertones. I completely disagree with all of these people because I thought Seth MacFarlane was really funny during the show. If you really want to erase sexism or racism, change it at the lower levels of society (at the family level, rather than the large community of television watchers), because ultimately, people get most of their social choices and behaviors (examples: Religion and political views) from their parents, not the media.

    1. “You know what would be a lot better at preventing rape than limiting rape jokes? Good parenting and education.”

      Finally, some common sense.

      As a psychologist who provided therapy to rape victims and convicted rapists for over 11 years, I can say from experience listening to my patients’ that humor, if ever a factor in the normalization or acts of actual rape, is hardly a significant one.

  20. “A scientific case against rape jokes”
    I can’t find any links to citation?
    Just sayin’, maybe I missed some maybe there are none.

  21. I think there can be more to those categories of audience. I experience varying levels of those categories and feel there can be a fourth one being “Hey that’s not true, but I can see why would think/say that so it’s funny”.

    Also the studies cited about ppl laughing at rape jokes, the participants were already sexist, so it essentially is a study that says “Huh… turns out sexist people like sexist humor” saying that it causes them to be sexist is slightly misleading.

    Granted how is people taking a joke seriously suppose to be the fault of the comedian? It’s almost similar to certain types of victim blaming(IE men can’t control themselves around a scantily dressed women). If we can expect a comedian to clean up his act to now affect people’s mind why can’t some women cover up to not turn guys on to the extent of raping them?

    Mind you I find the latter appalling, people are capable of practicing self control around a scanty women, just like how people should exercise common sense when hearing jokes and realize they are JOKES, not facts, just like when we expect people not to rape other just because they are easy to take advantage of.

  22. Ernest Hemingway said that it’s not hard being a writer.
    All you do is sit down next to a typewriter and bleed.
    I presume that outstanding writing must be
    a bit like that and I will certainly return to this blog, since
    it has a lot of outstanding writing, and it is
    obvious the writer “bled” for it.

  23. Well…what’s serious to you maybe a joke to me… So how one accesses and switches from the serious side of the brain to the humour side is very different from person to person and is very subjective!….this article stands on some shaky grounds!….

    the article says in short rape jokes increases rape rt? But who does the rape?-the rapists! So according to this article at least some of the rapists must have heard rape jokes in their life and AS A RESULT OF THAT must have raped!!! Now there is no evidence for this! If other people (non raping men lets say)have heard jokes and are not raping, then there is no increase in rape and therefore no need for such an article! Which means that raping men (rapists) must have heard raping jokes, got ‘normalized’ and HENCE took to raping! So you are actually saying you have statistics on rapists who have listened to rape jokes vs who haven’t! In other words rapist-rape joke statistics. Can you please cite this work? Or forward the link? I am really very interested in reading such an article. It would be actually fantastic if you could!

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  25. Good post! One thing though: making fun of “dumb”, “chubby” cousins isn’t harmless either. Chubby people face too much hostility already.

  26. Society as a whole has been letting down the victims of rape for far too long. It’s not just in comedy either. Look at music! Songs about rape are not intended to be funny or humorous but seem to be accepted as much as jokes about rape. Listen to “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke….that is clearly a song about date rape and it’s in the top 5 pop songs!! It’s just disgusting.
    Good article, though.

    1. I hate to disagree, but comments like yours is what cheapens and makes a mockery of rape. You say the song blurred lines is “clearly a song about date rape.” No it isn’t. I just checked the lyrics. It’s clearly about a guy what wants to get with the girl. I see no where is is forcing or she refusing. I do see game playing but game playing is not rape. When you call every interaction between men and women rape, you blur the lines and make the word rape meaningless. Let’s reserve it for what is it “unwillful carnal knowledge ” (according to the FBI). Teasing a girl saying “I know you want it” and asking for other favors is not the same thing.

      1. Leon, I thought I’d chime in because I had a similar attitude towards “Blurred Lines” I liked the song and didn’t understand how “I know you want it” was evidence of date rape, and all those who said so were misconstruing Rob Thicke’s intentions.
        BUT. I then took some time to analyze it in hopes of understanding the outcry, and there are a couple things that caught my eye.

        1. The way he says “It’s in your nature” strikes me as similar to the sexist justifications people make about women being more emotional, being obsessed with clothes and basically whenever a guy says “WOMEN! amirite?” In this case though, he’s saying that it’s in her nature to be a “Bad Girl” but that she’s repressing it-YET HE can bring it out of her. That’s not an unheard of view, but when he connects his ability to “liberate” her with the idea that doing so will make her want to sleep with him, it comes across as really sleezy. There is no real hint (Since it’s sung from the guys point of view) that the woman in question wants them, other then HIS belief that ALL women secretly want to be Bad Girls. What if she doesn’t? He’s essentially saying “You should sleep with me because I KNOW you better then you know yourself” He even makes it clear that if she doesn’t, she’ll be “blurring the lines” between Good Girl and Bad Girl, making it impossible for HIM to know if she’s interested, which he “hates” Doesn’t that sound just a bit of a rude way to think of male and female relations?

        2. When he says “You the hottest bitch in the place!” He means it as a compliment, except he’s using it as part of his seduction and so he isn’t really concerned about whether she appreciates it or not. It’s a catcall, a way of showing his interest, but in a way that many women find insulting, and it’s not hard to imagine that if one of the girls told him this (or more likely called him an asshole) he would respond by complaining once again about the “blurred lines” that make it “impossible” to tell whether a girl is into him or not. Even though it was his decision to “compliment” her.

        3. Finally, the whole “I know you want it” may seem benign, but it’s really evidence of an attitude which sadly enough many men hold as truth. Specifically, the phrase expresses a disinterest in what the other person may be saying in favor of what the speaker wants, and tries to persuade them that they know what’s best for them. Robin Thicke uses this to justify his seduction, to make himself seem like the “reasonable” party who just wants to help that girl break away from her “other man” who OBVIOUSLY doesn’t know what he he knows. Even though she may in fact be perfectly content with that relationship.

        The most troubling thing about Blurred Lines, is, like Brenda said; that it’s being played on the radio where kids are still developing concepts about love and sex, and this may make them feel like this sort of seduction is the correct way to approach relationships. But because it never mentions the possibility of the woman wanting to chose on her own (More dangerously, it demonizes the idea that she should want to be both Good Girl and Bad Girl) it creates the sense that men are justified in pursuing women regardless of the woman’s feelings. This is what we know as objectification, when we cease to see others as people and instead look at them only as means to our own ends, completely forgetting they have the right to refuse us.

        Even for adults, this song just sends the wrong message. We understand why it’s wrong to completely objectify women, but Thicke ignores this and makes it seem like he’s on the right side, and perfectly “justified” with ” hating the girls who blur the lines i.e won’t sleep with him. There are people like this, who complain about women not giving them the time of day and how this makes them “bitches (Odd how it’s both a compliment AND an insult, depending on whether she sleeps with him or not) and having a song with this attitude seems to say to them “You’re right! Women can’t make up their minds, I HATE that they aren’t interested in me even though I KNOW I can help “liberate” them.”
        Just try to imagine a girl saying that about a guy and you’ll see how much it objectifies the other party.
        You say the song isn’t about date rape, and that is partially true because we don’t see her resisting, but we also see that Thicke is “expecting” her to go along with him, because he knows she “wants it”. What this song is really about is consent, an area that he believes is “blurred” because women give mixed messages, even though there’s nothing blurred about a woman being insulted when he tells her she “wants it”.

        Not every interaction can be linked to assault of course, but when you let a guy like Thicke “spit game” like this and call it normal, it shows a lack of respect that I think is inexcusable in society.
        That’s what i gleaned from the song, hope you’ll comment back and tell me what you think.

  27. hmmm i dunno. I think its a way to talk about rape. To vent stuff. To get anger out. It is funny because it is outrageous. I really really don’t think people will rape because a comedian said so. People rape because they have mental problems.

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  29. brilliant, brilliant article! Thank you so much for writing it, it’s cleared up some issues that have been bothering me for years! It was a real eye opener, keep up the fab work.

  30. if “Rape culture” really exists..its the men that should be afraid because they are the ones who are sidelined in favor of female rape victims because apparantly they’re more important..

    If we can make jokes about violence&death then why can’t be joke about rape?

    “Jokes delivered by a comedian are perceived to reflect the views of the comedian”
    Oh so if i joke about someone getting hit by a train that mean i’m a violent individual?

  31. A few choice quotes from the studies you’ve cited (anything not included is due to my inability to circumvent the pay wall):

    The role of context in the interpretation of sexist humor:
    ‘One hundred eighteen women and 84 men were prompted to imagine themselves in a comedy club, office or neutral setting and then asked to rate both sexist and neutral jokes in terms of offensiveness.’

    Absolutely laughable conditions. There is no way to control the limitations on each participants imaginations. Also, with the discrepancy in anonymity (no-body would know you as a member of a comedy club audience, therefore no repercussions; but it’s safe to assume that the ‘office’ setting would give participants more reason to police their reaction to humour). Way too many variables here.

    Exposure to Sexist Humor and Rape Proclivity: The Moderator Effect of Aversiveness Ratings:
    ‘However, exposure to sexist humor affects rape proclivity only when aversiveness shown to this type of humor is low.’

    SO, sexists like sexist humour. Nothing more, nothing ground-breaking here.

    The Enjoyment of Sexist Humor, Rape Attitudes, and Relationship Aggression in College Students:
    ‘Results showed that the enjoyment of sexist humor was positively correlated with rape-related attitudes and beliefs’

    But no evidence of causation…

    Effects of Sexist Humor on Tolerance of Sexist Events:
    ‘The results of three experiments supported the hypothesis that exposure to sexist humor increases tolerance of sex discrimination among people high in hostile sexism.’

    Those who are already sexists, get more comfortable and outspoken if you share a sexist joke. No surprise here.

    On top of this:

    And of course, your own article:
    ‘Although there is no smoking gun that shows that rape jokes lead to rape, there is a wealth of evidence that indicates that predispositions towards rape are enhanced by hearing rape jokes (or jokes that normalize rape).’

    Not only do you admit that there is NO EVIDENCE that rape humour has a causal effect on rape/ sexual assault/ opinions of rape, but none of your sources provide evidence that ‘aggressive’ humour causes any change in those not predisposed to ‘aggressive’ behaviour/ opinions.

    In short, all you’ve done is prove that sexists like sexist humour, and that it may possibly serve to bolster their sexism. No proof anywhere that ‘aggressive’ humour causes a long-term effect, let alone a negative one.

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