When is a Rape Joke not a Rape Joke?

Given the enormous amount of revelations regarding sexual misconduct that have come to light over the past two months (wow, has it really been only 60 days since the New York Times published their bombshell Weinstein piece?), it’s unrealistic to expect there to be no comedy relating to the horrific events that are being exposed at a rapid fire pace. Humans just aren’t designed to be grim and sacrosanct all the time. The discovery that reality is not what we expected it to be is the very essence of humor. A joke is hard to pin down, but a good portion of them fall under the definition of a story or insight that is unexpected, but in retrospect is obvious. That is these scandals in a nutshell — no one saw them coming, but in retrospect we don’t understand how we didn’t, even if we couldn’t guess the exact players.

The horribleness and the commonality of it merge in to a place where we can’t quite reconcile reality, and humor is used as an aid in processing. Unfortunately, it can be very easy when outsiders become too focused on their own processing of the event and in doing so place the players of the actual story in boxes. The central and most important figure story in any account of sexual misconduct is the victim. It is her agency and independence was that attacked and it is her agency and independence that should seek to be restored. As hard as it is for us to look at the face of the perpetrator because he disgusts us, it can be even harder to look square in the face of the victim. Why? Maybe because as society we let her down, maybe because she reminds us of our own pain, or maybe just because our minds are desperately trying to avoid grappling with the notion that we live in a world where these things occur and sometimes there is no real justice.

Attempt #1: Use imaginary victims

People’s minds flee from the worst aspects of great tragedy. They will not accept the full level of fear and despair that occurs, because it is simply to difficult to process. So at times we engage in a type of subtle rhetorical pretend, where we talk about an actual perpetrator but the victims become hypothetical — not real. Rather than talk about Debbie Gibson and Leigh Corfman, we talk about “a bus of high school cheerleaders.” Our intention in this is not to disparage or marginalize real victims, it is intended as a way to be sure we aren’t being insensitive to real victims while being able to mock and attack the perpetrator.

But there is no crime without a victim and intended or not, removing the real victims from the discussion nullifies the purpose of the complaint in the first place. The problem with exchanging a real victim with a hypothetical one is that we then feel free to speak glibly about the hypothetical victim (“if my daughter ever got raped, I hope it’d be by a real artist”). But no one is fooled. It is as thin a euphamism as saying frak for fuck. What makes the story important is that the victims were real, and to speak about victims as imaginary and therefore impervious to insensitivity is an attempt at look like we are protecting victims when really we are telling them they are not an important part of their own story.

And so the trick of the hypothetical victim doesn’t work if you aren’t treating the euphamized hypothetical victim with the same respect you would treat an actual victim.

Attempt #2: chalk it up to gallows humor

Sometimes if you don’t laugh, you are going to cry, yes? This is very true. But we need to ask if that is actual a sensitive response for a bystander. To be sure, we all want to cut the tension with a joke. A joke can act as an escape hatch to keep ourselves from getting too wound up in the serious reality of a situation. Gallows humor is the way a condemned man makes sure he doesn’t hyperventilate before he can be strangled. But we need to appropriately place ourselves in the crowd. Are we the man on the gallows, or we are the crowd watching the execution?

If you’re about to die, to make a joke or offer some perspective can be a brave and creative act. For instance, Mercutio saying “look for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” But if a spectator had made that exact same joke, is it still brave and poignant? No, it’s cruel and petty. To return to the gallows, that’s not to say the crowd might not courageously make an oratorical jab at the executioner. It is certainly possible to use wit to shoot arrows that hit a specific target. But claiming for yourself the same broad leeway as a victim in the name of “working through the pain” is to say that that the story is about you. A message board is a strange place, because it is like a crowd that is looking at the gallows, but you have no idea if there are people currently being hanged listening in.

This should be our continual perspective, and its something especially men don’t get — if you are in a room with 6 women, one of them has been raped. If you are in a room with 30 men, one of them has been raped. It’s not hypothetical to them, it’s not merely an observation. They are standing there on the gallows. And if you are in the crowd below, recognize clearly that those women and men will hear your “gallows humor” and think about if that pressure valve of humor you are releasing is going to promote a sense of sensitivity and respect for them.

Attempt #3: make the rapist the butt of the joke.

This is the advice that everyone gives, and it’s not bad advice, as long as it is tempered by the pitfall we’ve already discussed in the first section: overfocusing on the perp threatens to erase the victim out of her own story. After all, the difference between socially aware humor and socially repugnant humor is whether you are punching up or down. And for better or for worse, comedians are some of the most powerful punchers we have in modern society. I don’t want them to stop punching rapists. But there’s another reason why, even though I think it is a good policy, that it needs to be done with some caution. Jokes about rapists, especially when made by men, too often fall into uninformed stereotypes about what it means to be a man and the motivations for rape.

In Linda West’s 2012 article “How to Make A Rape Joke” , she lists 4 examples of “good” rape jokes. Unfortunately, 3 are from male comedians and her rationales have not aged well.  Briefly, Cohen/Borat’s mention of rape as a “hobby” works for her because it is really a joke about how westerners see foreigners. John Mulaney’s joke is that he could never be a rapist because he’s so little he’s more likely to be a kidnap victim. Specifically, it’s silly for women to be afraid of him. On the surface, that’s making fun of him. On a secondary level, it’s a very unhealthy take on what a rapist looks like AND what a male victim looks like. It’s calling women silly for being cautious around non-buff men and it’s implying that there is a deficit in your own manliness if you are a male victim. So while he intended the joke to be self-deprecating, it really deprecates everyone except rapists, who are implied to be the best specimens of masculinity.

But the example that has aged the worst is Louis CK. West’s example of CK’s “good rape joke is “you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” Her explanation for why this is a good joke instead of a bad one is, in retrospect, ridiculously circular: we know he doesn’t mean it because he’s a good guy and we know he’s a good guy because when he says things like this, he doesn’t mean it.   (This wasn’t the only time that Louis CK was forgiven for anti-feminist statements and it is important to still bring him up despite his recent dethroning because for a long time he was a model for a lot of young left-leaning males regarding what was and was not ok to say).

In reality, the joke implies that rapists rape because they are simply not good enough at convincing women to have sex with them. It makes rape about the sexual act rather than about power and autonomy. It heavily implies that if “they let you,” (notice the objectification, sex is not something you do together, it is something a man does to a woman), there’s nothing wrong no matter how the “letting” was accomplished.

As a final example, let me bring up CK’s pedophile joke from SNL. CK presents pedophiles as being such obvious losers, that only incredibly clueless children were capable of being in their clutches. In his mind, the pedophile is the butt of the joke. But in making sexual offenders clueless, bumbling idiots instead of measured and manipulative, he casts the victims as people that should’ve known better if they had a little common sense.

The fact of the matter is that when painting an abuser, it is very hard not to splatter some of that paint on to the victim. The victim is the conduit by which we know of the abuser and whose experience is the most important. An expertly shot arrow from the crowd into the heart of the executioner can be a real victory. But a lazily shot arrow can unintentionally make things worse, and those who have nothing to lose should think twice before raising their bow in the presence of those who have already suffered enough.  Even if your target is the rapist, are you treating victims with respect?

For some other views, here’s a NYTimes video asking women comics how they deal with and craft rape jokes.

And here’s Patton Oswalt’s take on it back from the Tosh “5 guys” incident.

And just because I find rape disgusting, and have never had that impulse, doesn’t mean I can make a leap into the minds of women and dismiss how they feel day to day, moment to moment, in ways both blatant and subtle, from other men, and the way the media represents the world they live in, and from what they hear in songs, see in movies, and witness onstage in a comedy club.


There is a collective consciousness that can detect the presence (and approach) of something good or bad, in society or the world, before any hard “evidence” exists. It’s happening now with the concept of “rape culture.” Which, by the way, isn’t a concept. It’s a reality. I’m just not the one who’s going to bring it into focus.


So, that’s me.  I’d like to know what you guys think.  Am I full of it?  Oversensitive?  What criteria do you use to craft and direct what you say?  Humor is too powerful to not give thought about how best to employ it.