“Rape jokes are never funny,” someone once told me, as if to disagree with that statement was to guarantee myself a sure-fire ticket straight to the deepest circle of hell.
“But what if—I said. “What if—”
“Doesn’t matter. If it’s a joke about rape, it isn’t funny.”
It occurred to me at that point that we weren’t actually having a conversation; we weren’t having an argument. She was repeating some kind of mantra. For her it was a commandment of absolute truth; one that when violated (pun seriously not intended) instantly identified the enemy. At the time I backed down, which I think was wise because I didn’t know exactly why I disagreed with her, why her absolutism was surely full of holes. I think now, though, four or five years later, that I’ve figured out why she’s wrong—at least in part—and why there are rape jokes that can be funny, why there are certain jokes about race and violence and other taboo issues that make us laugh—and why laughing at them isn’t wrong, that it’s actually the best thing we can do.
Have you ever laughed in church or temple or an assembly hall or a funeral home? I have in two of those places (the funeral home was one of them), both times to the point of tears. Have you ever cracked wise at a horrifying news story, made light of another’s suffering? I definitely have. Why? Is it because I’m an asshole? Yes. I certainly am, but that’s not the main reason why. In reality, I was laughing because I was so thoroughly uncomfortable. Uncomfortable to my very core. So I laughed. I laughed and I felt better. I felt better, and eventually I understood.
The problem I have with moral-highroaders repeating ad nauseum that rape jokes are never funny is that in doing so, they are fundamentally shutting down what could be a valuable conversation about serious issues. We all know (hopefully) that rape is wrong, that it is illegal, and that it is horrifying and disgusting. But what we fail to realize, I think, is that rape (and racism and drugs and disease and death and abuse) is real—for those of us who have not been affected by rape, we tend to think of it in the abstract. It is an injustice that exists to others, but not necessarily in our own lives. Because of that, I suppose I understand the urge behind saying “rape jokes are never funny” because doing so takes the critical first step in recognizing its reality within our culture. Typically, we don’t joke about the suffering of others. It’s rude and it’s hurtful. I think, though, that when we refuse to joke about suffering at all, we only make it more of a taboo. When we don’t joke about serious problems, we only distance ourselves from them even more.
I eventually realized that when I was laughing at that funeral, I obviously wasn’t laughing the loss of a loved one. Laughing allowed me to approach a serious thing with more ease. It allowed me to confront it, if from an angle. In order to talk about things seriously, we have to be comfortable with talking about them at all. That’s where comedy comes in, and that’s why comedy can be so insightful and effective. Like meeting and shaking hands with your gynecologist before your first pap smear, comedy allows us to get acquainted with what makes us uncomfortable.
I’m not here to talk about the right way to make a rape joke; this article does an excellent job in explaining how to do so, and it’s very funny. I’m also not here to tell you that all rape jokes are okay, because there are certainly jokes about rape that are offensive, thoughtless, and terrifying. What I’m trying to say is that next time you hear a joke that walks the fine line of edgy and offensive, and you feel offended, ask yourself why you feel offended. Ask yourself how the joke operates: what is its context? Are irony or parody at work? What it its tone?
Recently, Trevor Noah, the South African comedian slated to take over for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, was accused of making racist and sexist comments on Twitter a few years ago. I’ve read them, and they certainly walk that aforementioned fine line. It’s hard for me to tell with what tone they were intended, because they’re certainly nasty if you read them without sense of irony. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but Twitter makes assessing tone and intention difficult. He seems like an intelligent person who would make better decisions, but even intelligent people live in the bubbles of their own realities—take it from Patton Oswalt. Sometimes it’s hard to know if someone is ignorant, bigoted, or purposefully but ironically caustic.
When we come across an instance like this, or like the Daniel Tosh Rape Joke Debacle of 2012, our first instinct is to say “Shut it down. That offends me. That offends everyone who is morally praiseworthy. Your career is over.” When we are offended, we attack. The comedian who said the offensive thing (whether it was intended to be ironic or if it was presented more crudely, as was the case with Daniel Tosh—I’m certainly not defending him) is instantly villainized, which doesn’t seem unfair because what they’ve said sounds pretty villainous. But what if, instead of getting all in an uproar, what if instead of effectively censoring the voices that say thoughtless and hurtful things, we used it as an opportunity to make change, to talk with each other? What if instead of crushing a person because of the ignorant thing they said, we instead use it to understand why we were uncomfortable and how we can be better as individuals and as a society?
When that person told me that “Rape jokes are never funny” she was responding to a comment I made about a particular street on campus being “kind of rape-y” at night. In my defense, it was definitely a shadier area—literally and figuratively. She was offended by the joke, and that’s okay. She was allowed to be, but I still think it wasn’t the most constructive reaction for her to have had. My comment was about how I felt unsafe on a particular stretch of pavement after dark. I didn’t victimize anyone, nor was I trying to make light of rape. Instead of asking me why I thought it felt “rape-y,” it as as if the mere slightly-cavalier use of the word “rape” made it an offensive conversation. I used “kind of rape-y” instead of “an area that makes me feel like sexual assault is a higher probability” because humor takes the edge off the reality that in walking alone at night, I am always taking a risk. Maybe, instead of jumping straight to being offended, we should take a couple of breaths and talk about it. Joke back, or don’t. Sometimes the army of outrage against something can be just as counterproductive as the thing we become outraged against.