Rape jokes: it’s not that simple

By Matt Reuben

Trigger warnings apply for sexual assault and rape, discussion of statistics around how common rape culture and rape are, discussions of types of rape jokes told in comedy, discussion of a personal emotional experience following rape, and discussion of why rape jokes can be used.

Rape jokes are generally considered, within the organised left and/or feminist movement to be bad.
They’re not something decent people tell. They reinforce rape culture. Every time I hear this it kicks me internally because I’m a rape victim, and I tell rape jokes.
Rape culture is reinforced every time a group of men make a joke about raping some other man or woman. Rape culture is reinforced with victim blaming attitudes regarding what you wear, or where you were, or what you drank. Rape culture is reinforced every time women’s bodies are objectified.
I realise how damaging rape jokes are, even on a personal level, when unexpected. I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the imagery can be a severe trigger, it can leave me shaken and non-functional for days, or terrified to leave the house because almost everyone I know is a potential rapist and I have to keep myself as safe from them as possible.
When I watch television, or check Facebook, or hear friends making remarks like this, it can be petrifying, and I’ve read the statistics on the 35 per cent of college-age men who would commit rape under certain circumstances if they thought they could get away with it, or the 8.3 per cent who have. (Statistics from: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/VAW02/csascope.html)

Rape jokes when made by comedians often fit a certain format — one that plays into the idea of the victim and the rapist both being “other”, not being part of one’s circle. And even if they highlight the horror of rape in the joke it still fits the pattern of normalisation of rape, into something that people joke about, and hence something that’s okay to joke about, talk about, think about, and do.
This is why we have this narrative that rape jokes are entirely bad — because of the damage they can do to individuals, and because of the wider pattern that they play into. However, I’d argue that it’s really not that simple.
For me, rape jokes can also be a form of reclamation. When I sit with a friend and we swap rape jokes for the majority of a conversation, I’m sitting with the same person without whom I would have killed myself because I couldn’t handle being a rape victim.
I’m sitting with the same person who supported me near-daily through the police and judicial trauma that ensued. I’m sitting with someone who understands, almost as well as I do, exactly what I went through. Someone I feel stood alongside me for the duration of the process. And we joke about it, and we both know how much of being me my experience of rape stole, and we laugh. We’re laughing in the face of a horror that nearly destroyed me. We’re laughing in the face of rape and we’re reclaiming it.

Now, to some extent, it could be said that the foci of these jokes are different.
Typically the intent of a comedic joke, or one passed around a circle of friends, is to mock the victim and find them in some way deserving of the incident, which, of course, works with the majority of groups and people to desensitise them of this notion*, but even when I’m making them as a form of reclamation, it’s often a self-deprecating mockery of my own victimhood — I’m still mocking the victim, only that victim is myself and it’s me I’m looking for humour in.
For me to laugh about my experiences is a big part of moving from victim to survivor. I find it very difficult to recognise or express any emotion about having been raped whatsoever. I credit this partly to my own personality, and partly to the socialisation that tells me that as a man I shouldn’t show emotion, and partly to the fact that regardless of how incorrect this is, I feel like as a man and a rape victim I am emasculated.
For me, making jokes about rape, with people who understand this experience, is part of surviving. It’s also part of moving on — finding the humorous side in it, and sometimes we laugh because the humour we can find is so frail and thin as to be almost meaningless, but we laugh anyway, because then, for that second, I’m not cowering in terror of it.
The time and the place to do so is critical — doing them in a comedic act with an unknown audience is one thing, and risks triggering people and reinforcing damaging prevailing attitudes.
Doing so with one close friend who I know is okay with them as well, is obviously very different, but I do believe there is a grey area in between the two, and that whilst it’s difficult to delineate, the prevailing attitude on the left that rape jokes are always bad, always wrong, is at conflict with my own need to make jokes out of it to survive.
There needs to be a clearer differentiation between rape jokes made to continue the subjugation of women and of rape victims, and rape jokes made to survive, and I will continue to defend the latter.
* Thanks to Yasin for reading over the whole article, and for making that specific point to me.


About womensfightback17

Women’s Fightback is a socialist feminist paper and blog produced by members and supporters of the socialist group Workers' Liberty. Workers’ Liberty is a revolutionary socialist organisation fighting as part of the labour and student movements, and in campaigns, for a socialist alternative to capitalism, based on common ownership and democracy.

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