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Rape Joking Our Way to Social Change?

Background: Barstool Sports is a site whose commentary has always included such charming features as “Rate the Latest Sex Scandal Teacher”. Barstool has been hosting blacklight parties at various venues nationally, which they’ve christened “Blackout Parties”.

Upon criticism, David Portnoy, the site’s creator and chief author, who runs the site out of his basement, opined

Just to make friends with the feminists I'd like to reiterate that we don't condone rape of any kind at our Blackout Parties in mid January. However if a a chick passes out that's a grey area though.

(NB: Portnoy is doing his readers a serious legal disservice. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, sexual activity with someone who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol is rape. So, I suppose the first baby step would be to at least make factually correct rape jokes?)

In response, a group of students and activists have been gathering at events like that hosted by Barstool at the Boston House of Blues to protest the rape-supportive sentiment that frequently finds a home on Barstool and similar websites. It’s also worth noting that, in response, the management and staff of the House of Blues, the Boston Police Department, and the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission Enforcement Division has made a particular effort to ensure that these are safe events for attendees. 

In an opinion piece in the February 12th Boston Globe, Joanna Weiss speculated as to whether Portnoy was, in fact, visionary for his use of rape jokes to combat people who are serious about making rape jokes. (I believe this is the sort of rhetorical device Audre Lorde had in mind when she said, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.”)

Let me say, by way of a little explanation, I am the funniest person that most people who know me, personally know. This is not a piece about whether I, or anyone else who’s ever said, “Hey! Rape jokes! Knock it off!”, has a sense of humor, understands the literary definition of satire, or is familiar with or enjoys any of the more notable mid- to late-20th century boundary-pushing comedians.

I say that because typically, the first response to “Hey! Rape jokes! Knock it off!” is an argument about whether they are “funny” or whether the person objecting to them is too sensitive. So, yes, humor is subjective, it’s culturally specific, it’s a product of our time, we can use it as a lens, and it’s good for establishing in-group/out-group identity. I don’t need to expand on this further, just rent The Aristocrats.

In her piece, Weiss cites the humor of Chris Rock and says

“If Chris Rock makes a subversive, knowing joke about race, and some racist finds it funny for the wrong reason, who’s to blame?”

Except that what Weiss misses here is that this is precisely the reason Rock’s contemporary and one of comedy’s greatest satirists, Dave Chappelle, walked away from his phenomenally successful show. As he said in two interviews, one on Oprah and one on Inside the Actors Studio, he could discern the difference between people laughing with jokes about race, and people laughing at jokes about race, and there were several incidents where his audiences had shifted to laughing at those jokes, which made Chappelle profoundly uncomfortable.

Which leads us to the second most common response to, “Hey! Rape jokes! Knock it off”: “Well, I’m not raping anyone, so what difference does it make if I make rape jokes?” and the corollary, “So, if I make a rape joke, it’s going to cause somebody to go out and rape someone?”

Let’s work through this cause/effect argument to talk about the role of rape jokes. Jokes, like alcohol, are not magical spells that cause people whose behavior has never been inappropriate nor who have any inclination toward being abusive or inappropriate to become so. But here are some things we know about risk factors for sexual violence perpetration: many men who offend have

  • coercive sexual fantasies
  • a preference for impersonal sex
  • hypermasculinity traits (that is, valuing the exaggeration of stereotypically “male” behavior)
  • a tendency to wrongly interpret neutral attention from women as a sign of sexual interest and negative responses from women as aggressive or hostile
  • relationships with sexually aggressive peers who support these ideas
  • communities with a general tolerance for sexual violence
  • communities with weak community sanctions against people who perpetrate sexual violence

We also know that individuals who sexually offend are both very good evaluators of their social group and the environment around them, and look for cues from those social groups and environments for reinforcement and validation of their thought errors and boundary-crossing behavior.

So, an individual who has many risk factors around sexual aggression might crack a rape joke and go, “AmIright?” Now what do the others around that person do? Do they laugh, and add their own? Does someone flag their behavior as inappropriate and ask them not to do that anymore? Environments matter.

Think back to your middle school cafeteria: how did you figure out what clothes to wear, what music to listen to, what shows to watch? You watched other people who mattered to you and what they did. Whether you wanted to be a part of the larger culture or countercultural, it still mattered what other people did and said, and how they behaved.

That’s why it’s not enough to throw up your hands and say, “Well, I’m not raping people, so what difference does it make if I make rape jokes!” If you’re not saying outright that sexually abusive behavior is not OK in your circle, well,’re not saying it.

Come, do some inferring with me.

All of us know someone who is a survivor of sexual violence. According to the latest data from the CDC almost 2/3 of women (62.9%) and almost 1/4 of men (23.6%) have experienced some type of sexual violence in their lifetime.

The majority of survivors are sexually abused or assaulted by someone they know. This is true across all age groups and demographics, but is especially true of children, adolescents, and folks in a college setting (and elders and folks with disabilities, but for the sake of this piece, I’m not certain they are the target market of either Barstool Sports or blacklight parties.)

Thus, it is more likely than not that we also know someone who has been sexually abusive or inappropriate.

In talking about why it’s unacceptable for people around me to make rape jokes, I used to say, “Well, even though I know that none of my friends would hurt anyone, I don’t know who’s listening to our conversation and how they’re using that to gauge what’s acceptable.”

I stopped saying the first part, though, about my friends, not because I have concerns about their behavior at this time, but because I was guilty of exactly what Joanna Weiss, David Portnoy, and anyone else who makes or is an apologist for rape jokes is guilty of : abdicating my responsibility for creating a safe, fun environment by thinking, “This is the awesome table in the middle school cafeteria of life! Everybody here is just like me and really gets it! Those sexually aggressive folks are someplace else!” If we are going to accept the reality of the data and the truth of others’ lived experience, then we can’t keep waiting for someone else to do something about their friends and family with problem behaviors. We are the someone else. Those are our friends and family.

Somehow, what has really become twisted in all this, is that communities who celebrate jokes built on violence, lack of safety, and the pain and degradation of others have been allowed to claim the mantle of “fun”, while communities who say, “We love having fun, socializing, dancing, interacting with other people, and yes, sex...and also rape isn’t funny or cool! You are welcome here, but check that rape garbage at the door” are, at best, characterized as the wet blanket. 

No. No more of that. I, you, our communities, this city, have no need of a cleverer rape joke. I’m taking “fun” back. That is the social change we need to see here.

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Posted by Meg

Meg formerly served BARCC as its coordinator of Community Education and Outreach. Prior to that, she was involved with various aspects of sexual violence prevention, education, and response at Northeastern University and Williams College. Her work focuses on mobilizing communities to prevent sexual violence.

1 Comment

  1. well said, meg! the only thing that could have made the message of this blog post any clearer is if you could figure out a way to sing it to me!
    oh wait, I've got that here... enjoy :)

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