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When Is It OK to Tell Rape Jokes?

Are rape jokes the last taboo, or a line that should never be breached?

Photo Credit: aTROSSITY 22 at Flickr.


This past month, the rape culture's been under the magnifying glass—particularly in the context of "humor."  Jersey Shore's Vinny Guadagnino, generally considered the most sensitive, intelligent male cast member on the show "Jersey Shore," released a rap song with the line:  "actin' like I'm rapin' it/fuck her til she fakin it." The Twitter account of the condom manufacturer Durex posted a h orrific one-liner that had nothing to do with safe sex, and everything to do with forcible misogyny. And Facebook, after much pressure from groups both within and outside of its internet universe, finally banned rape-joke pages, some on the site for years, saying, "There is no place on Facebook for content that is hateful, threatening, or incites violence, and we encourage users to report pages, posts, or users who violate our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. 

The fact that people find these lines fun, or funny, is systematic of our society, where 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police precisely because of the perceived lack of seriousness toward rape (along with stigma and victim-blaming/shaming, among other reasons).

Jokes about rape are almost always vile. The rarest of humorists can ride the line of provocative and thought-provoking, but more often, rape jokes are coming from said victim-shamers, or those who seem to take the topic lightly, or confuse the issue as to what is actually rape. (If that sounds odd, take note that it took the FBI nearly a century to officially revise its own definition of rape as something that most people would recognize as such.)

Sexual violence activists concur that normalizing conversation and better education about rape prevention would actually increase the frequency of reporting. But the question is, in the right hands, can rape jokes actually help with this? Can they provoke and make people think, in the same way that, say, Richard Pryor’s jokes about race in America helped further the thinking on it?

The New York Times recently (sort of) asked this question, in a profile of several female comedians who seem to be pushing the bounds of good taste, and playing with the line between uncomfortably funny, and just plain wrong. Primarily focusing on vulgar nerd Sarah Silverman, the article traces several recent threads that seem to stem out from the spunky comedian’s willfully declasse style:

For a certain strain of stand-up, dating to Lenny Bruce, it’s essential to talk about what’s taboo. George Carlin famously argued that rape jokes could be funny. “Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd,” he offered as evidence. Ms. Silverman belongs to this tradition, under the guise of a shallow bigot. What she proved is that there are areas of aggressive, shocking comedy where women could go further than men. To put it another way, her humor would make Johnny Carson uncomfortable.

It’s no accident that her best-known jokes are about rape. Our culture sends mixed signals about this least funny of subjects. Facebook took down a page dedicated to ugly rape jokes last week after months of pressure, yet every night tourists guffaw at a repeated joke about raping babies as a cure for AIDS in “The Book of Mormon.” It’s startlingly rare to watch an evening of stand-up in New York without any mention of rape.

The piece is referring to one of Silverman’s jokes from her more formative years: “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.”

Clearly, beyond the joke’s rapier-like play on racial stereotypes and flip attitude, Silverman’s gunning for uncomfortable laughter—and the author of the Times piece admits that is exactly what he did. But then he reports from a more recent show:

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