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Anatomy of a Successful Rape Joke | The Nation

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Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti

Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.

Anatomy of a Successful Rape Joke

Believe it or not, jokes about rape can be funny. (Yes, even feminists think so.) But Daniel Tosh’s hotly debated “joke” aimed at a female heckler was far from humorous—in fact, it was a perfect example of how not to joke about rape.

Tosh has come under fire this week after a woman blogged about her experience seeing Tosh at a comedy club. According to her, Tosh was talking about how rape jokes were always “hilarious.” She called out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

Her post has since gone viral, prompting Tosh to write a tepid apology on his Twitter account:

all the out of context misquotes aside, i’d like to sincerely apologize j.mp/PJ8bNs

— daniel tosh (@danieltosh) July 10, 2012

In the meantime, hordes of fans and other comedians have come to his defense, some in the most violently misogynist way possible.

Elissa Bassist at The Daily Beast gets to the heart of why what Tosh said wasn’t funny—in fact, why it wasn’t a joke at all.

Tosh says he was joking. Comedians make rape jokes every day, so why is this one getting so much attention? Because Tosh was more than “just kidding.” He was angry. His “joke” was reactive to the so-called heckler who called him out in front of an audience. He used humor to cut her down, to remind her of own vulnerability, to emphasize who was in control. The “joke” ignited a backlash because it was not a joke; it was vastly different from other jokes about rape.

Jokes about rape that work—those that subvert rather than terrify—do exist. Sarah Silverman has one about being raped by a doctor: “…so bittersweet for a Jewish girl,” she says. And Wanda Sykes has an amazing routine (you can watch the video at the bottom of this post) about having a “detachable pussy.” 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our pussies were detachable? Just think about it. You get home from work, it’s getting a little dark outside, and you’re like, ‘I’d like to go for a jog…but it’s getting too dark, oh! I’ll just leave it at home!’… [There’s] just so much freedom—you could do anything. You could go visit a professional ball player’s hotel room at two in the morning. Sex? My pussy’s not even in the building!

George Carlin actually explained quite well why jokes about rape can be funny:

Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. See, hey why do you think they call him “Porky,” eh? I know what you’re going to say. “Elmer was asking for it. Elmer was coming on to Porky. Porky couldn’t help himself, he got a hard-on, he got horny, he lost control, he went out of his mind.” A lot of men talk like that. A lot of men think that way. They think it’s the woman’s fault. They like to blame the rape on the woman. Say, “she had it coming, she was wearing a short skirt.” These guys think women ought to go to prison for being cock teasers. Don’t seem fair to me.

These jokes point out absurdity, they shed light on what’s wrong with rape—what they don’t do is threaten. And that’s what Tosh did. Just because it was uttered by a comedian doesn’t make it any less of a verbal assault.

Indeed, that’s exactly how this woman felt:

[H]aving to basically flee while Tosh was enthusing about how hilarious it would be if I was gang-raped in that small, claustrophic [sic] room was pretty viscerally terrifying and threatening all the same, even if the actual scenario was unlikely to take place. The suggestion of it is violent enough and was meant to put me in my place.

Those supporting Tosh are outraged that anyone would dare tell a comedian how to be funny. (There’s also been a lot of “if you can’t take the heat” sentiment aimed at this woman, given that she heckled Tosh.) Many of his defenders insist that his joke—and other jokes about rape—are simply edgy and controversial, which is what a comedian is supposed to be.

But here’s the thing: threatening women with rape, making light of rape, and suggesting that women who speak up be raped is not edgy or controversial. It’s the norm. This is what women deal with every day. Maintaining the status quo around violence against women isn’t exactly revolutionary. 

It’s also telling that the vast majority of people defending Tosh’s comments are men—and that they’re being incredibly sexist in their responses to boot. I’d ask these guys why it is they’re so virulently fighting for the right to tell rape jokes. Why is it so important to them that Tosh be able to “joke” about a woman who loudly criticized him being gang raped? (Video blogger Jay Smooth asked a similar question about Gwyneth Paltrow’s using the “n-word.”)

If you are this attached to jokes about raping women—if they mean this much to you—it’s time to look inward and think about why that is.

Because at the end of the day, the misogynist fervor behind the defense of Tosh doesn’t isn’t an impassioned debate over free speech or the nature of humor. It’s men who feel entitled to say whatever they want—no matter how violent—to women, and who are angry to have that long standing privilege challenged. I guess they don’t find that funny. Well, neither do I.

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