When Is It OK to Tell Rape Jokes?

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 horrific 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:

“I need more rape jokes,” [Silverman] shouted nasally before letting her fans in on what she called a comedy secret, that such jokes are actually not so “edgy” after all. “Who’s going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims?” she asked. “They barely even report rape.” There were no groans this time.

This is the crux: the Times piece discusses the “frank sexuality” of post-Silverman comedians, such as Whitney Cummings (whose essentialist marriage jokes seem airlifted in from 1953) and Amy Schumer, who blends self-deprecation with social taboos.

One of the most classic, and effective, ways to get audiences to laugh is to find the sweet spot in between what makes them feel weird, and what they might actually, genuinely want to talk about. The Times cites Lenny Bruce, but the aforementioned Pryor is a better precedent, who relieved tension and stress by using his own struggles with racism as fodder for jokes. Sarah Silverman’s point about the lack of rape reporting may have deflated her own punchline, but it also illustrated why her jokes work: they play on a tension and fear that every woman has at some point in her life, whether she has been a victim of sexual assault or not. And by bringing that out into the open—particularly including the fact about reporting—for some, it could serve as a reclamation of the topic.

In 2008, feminist writer Megan Carpentier, then at Jezebel, wrote that she not only finds certain rape jokes funny, but employed humor on the night of a sexual assault: 

I spent a good part of the hours after my most recent assault alternating between hysterical crying and compulsive vomiting — and cracking jokes. I got tired really quickly of the quiet whispers and the looks of pity and the hushed voices and the overall funerary air in the room. And then, because the cops and the detective and my friend were all too scared to laugh, I told jokes... jokes that descended deeper into "inappropriate" territory because, if I could mock it, if I could laugh at it — and if I could make them laugh at the absurdity of trying to take a written statement from a drunk, hysterical, projectile-vomiting witness who was singing "Red, Red Wine" under her breath (when she could breathe) — then it wasn't actually The Worst Thing In The World.

As Carpentier pointed out, humor is a way to exert control over a situation—something Pryor used as well—and can work whether on the stage or amid a harrowing experience, as the one she details. As she notes, part of the power comes from making outsiders feel uncomfortable and awkward—particularly those with inherent power, like police officers—shifting the socially prescribed mood (in her case, that of sobriety and focus). Which utterly makes sense. Rape is about power, and whatever works to get it back. Not to infer that any comedians, male or female, making rape jokes have been sexually assaulted, but the essential power gleaned from making these sorts of wisecracks is similar.

Which is not to say that I think Sarah Silverman is the exact best person to execute it. She can be funny, but pushes the line so vehemently it can be difficult to know what she really believes. (See: “Joe Franklin raped me,” a joke within a joke.) You might say that’s precisely why it works. Yet the blogger Funny Feminist, who doesn't find most rape jokes humorous at all, sets forth some good boundaries for it all:

I hate jokes that imply that rape is totally funny, that make fun of victims, or try to imply that rape is totally not a big deal. I also don’t like jokes that use rape as a setup for a different joke because I believe they often implicitly condone or trivialize rape.

On the other hand, I tend to appreciate jokes that make fun of rapists or rape culture or acknowledge that rape is underreported and terrible. But even those can be incredibly triggering and upsetting to other survivors, and I’m not sure they’re always worth it.

This rubric doesn't preclude making rape jokes, but would take the empowerment potential of them to new levels. And as trashy primetime "comedies" like Cummings' dismal "2 Broke Girls" pick up the rape joke mantle, it could push truly funny woman comedians—like Silverman—to create better, smarter takes on the topic. And since the rape joke is embedded in our culture, for now, that can only be a good thing. 


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