Why Are Men Still Joking About Rape?

If there was ever any question about why women's voices should be mandatory at the top levels of decision making in any field, last week's episode of the F/X drama "Rescue Me" provides an answer that is as unambiguous as it is revolutionary.

In an episode that aired early last week, the show's main character, Tommy Gavin (played by series co-creator Denis Leary), rewards his estranged wife's perceived insubordination (that is, talking back) with what, in the eyes of these writers and producers, is understood to be a reasonable male response to acts of female insubordination: He rapes her.

And, they would have you believe, she enjoyed it.

That we should still be debating, at this place in history, the idea that women either deserve or enjoy being physically attacked and sexually subjugated beggars the imagination. But it is indeed where we are, as events like this -- and others, such as the decision of the dean of students at the University of Nairobi to open a recent talk with a joke about rape -- make clear.

So let us be clear in return: Rape is not a joke, nor is it mere fodder for the entertainment media's use. Rape is, in every case, a violation of law, international and domestic; the forceful sexual assault of other human beings without their consent carries criminal penalties because we as a society believe that the right to bodily integrity is more than just a catch phrase. Moreover, as our decades of work on behalf of women have taught us us, women do not, by any measure, "enjoy" being sexually assaulted. Sexual assault crimes are motivated by the need to control, humiliate and harm -- and those are precisely the effects these crimes visit upon their victims when they are enacted.

According to current estimates, a woman or girl is sexually assaulted every two minutes in this country. One in three girls will be abused before reaching age 18. Yet 80 percent of all rapes are never reported to the police. The incontrovertible fact is that women already feel disempowered to tell their truths around sexual violence, and by creating a fictional world in which Tommy Gavin can leave the scene of his crime with a grin on his face and without accountability required of him by his community of firefighters, the creators of Rescue Me have, in their own way, done violence to women once again.

If we are shocked by the inability of the show's creators to produce anything approaching a realistic view of the effect of rape on women and communities, it might help to remember that of the eleven executives in charge of production (from writers to directors to producers) listed on the show's website, just one -- one -- is a woman. And in the executive suites at the networks -- where the real decisions get made about what makes it onto the air and what doesn't -- a similar lack of female perspective is often at play.

Depictions of women like the one FX saw fit to air should certainly anger us, but they should also remind us of why it is so important that women's voices, opinions and knowledge not be excluded from the playing field. Because when they are, as is clearly the case here, it becomes all too easy to perpetuate myths about the female experience that have little to do with the realities of women's lives.

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