TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of rape/ sexual assault.
In my last post, I explained that the way a person dresses doesn’t indicate anyone’s right to touch them, and why this notion is so instrumental in contributing to rape culture. As the second post in my series about rape culture, I wanted to explore the concept of rape jokes.
A rape joke is any kind of joke that expects the audience to laugh because a person is being raped, chased, harassed, or otherwise violated. Now, it seems fairly simple to expect that no one would find jokes like this funny. We see rape as a repulsive thing, so why would anyone laugh at it? As it turns out, the answer is a little more complicated than whether or not we find rape abominable.
If you tell a joke that explicitly names rape, like “I hope someone rapes you,” most people will likely look at you in disgust and walk away. However, you’ll find lots of jokes circulating that trivialize the idea of rape, as in “it’s not rape if you yell ‘surprise!’” In addition to laughing at the theoretical person still actually being raped in the joke, this comment does three important things: first, it solidifies the concept that rape can be anything but rape if there are enough excuses involved. This isn’t funny when you consider the fact that rape victims are constantly disenfranchised based on what they wore, how they acted, how intoxicated they were, or even how well they knew their attacker. If you are ever going to make a statement that starts with “it’s not rape if…” consider all of the rape victims in real life who are told that their rape isn’t real because of a trivial factor as ridiculous as their attacker yelling ‘surprise.’
Secondly, rape jokes immediately alienate any rape survivors who are within earshot. Just because your friends haven’t shared their stories with you doesn’t mean that they don’t have stories. Consider whether you would want to tell a joke to a friend if you knew he or she had been assaulted. Statistically speaking, if there are several women within earshot, the chances are that at least one of them has been sexually assaulted. You making a rape joke in front of them not only opens the possibility of giving them a painful or traumatic flashback, but it also keeps them from feeling safe or comfortable around you, because you have demonstrated a lack of sympathy for them as a victim, and even worse, sympathy for their attacker instead.
And this brings me to the third repercussion of rape jokes: the normalization of rape. By making light of violating someone in this way, you are implicitly condoning rape or harassment. This does not mean that you are a rapist. It doesn’t even mean that most people will think you are a rapist. It does, however, mean that anyone who is a rapist will hear you joke and see you as an ally. Many rapists don’t actually see themselves as such, but think that their behavior is normal or acceptable. And when you tell jokes where a person’s right to be left alone is taken away, you are indicating to everyone around you that you condone rape as a behavior, even if you don’t do it yourself. This allows perpetrators of rape and sexual assault to think that they are not alone, and that everyone thinks it is acceptable to rape and abuse others.
One of the best ways I’ve found to address rape jokes is by asking what about the joke is funny. Making the teller explain that they are asking you to laugh at rape or harassment will often make them question their own motivation for telling the joke, so that you don’t have to.
What other strategies have you used to deal with people who tell rape jokes? Let me know!