Defend Truth


The funny thing about rape jokes

Mandy de Waal is a writer who reports on technology, corruption, science, the media and whatever else she finds interesting. She loves small stories and human narratives, and dislikes persistent evangelists, bad poetry and the insane logic that currently passes for political rhetoric. Back in journalism after spending time in the corridors of corporate greed, de Waal has written for Mail & Guardian, Noseweek, City Press, Rapport, MoneyWeb, Brandchannel (New York) and a number of other good titles. She now writes for The Daily Maverick because it’s the smart thing to do.

Heard this one? A man walks up to a microphone and makes a rape joke. What happens next is riotous, and raises the question: ‘Can comic relief be found in sexual assault?’

I’m an equal opportunity rape survivor. I was once raped by a woman. And then by a man.


That’s the sound of a bad joke dying – how about another?

A stand-up called Daniel Tosh walks up to a microphone at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles and starts mouthing off about rape jokes. A woman in the audience doesn’t find his rape repertoire funny, and very soon interrupts his act.

“I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them (rape jokes) funny and never have. So I didn’t (sic) appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, ‘Actually, rape jokes are never funny’,” the anonymous woman wrote on a Tumblr blog.

What happened next was more predictable than it was comical. The Tumblr post went viral, Tosh tweeted an apology, said he was misquoted and stated: “the point i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them#deadbabies.

Tosh makes jokes about awful things all the time. That’s his shtick, because he’s a SHOCK! comic. The Comedy Central host and star of the eponymous YouTube-like viral show Tosh.0 and Tosh2.0 is jocularly jockish. He starts his show with a warning along the lines of: “Now if you’ve never seen me perform before, I am not good live. If I offend anybody tonight, I apologise. That’s not my intention. I am not going to guess where your personal line of decency is – I cross my own from time to time, that’s how I know I still have one.”

After that caveat, Tosh usually launches the  hate-locomotive head-first into bigotville, saving his big guns for Latinos, liberals, gays, lesbians and women. His standard fare includes “Even when I was a kid, my imaginary friend would play with the kid across the street. I’d be like, ‘Hey, so I guess I’ll see you later,’ and he’s, like, ‘Whatever, queer’. That’s a hate crime!” and “Being an ugly woman is like being a man. You’re gonna have to work. Yep.”

Watching Tosh is enough to make even an atheist wish to God that Bill Hicks would feature in the Second Coming, returning to head-butt every last shitty joke out of Tosh’s brains. Tosh is, in my opinion, like Hicks without the insight, the intelligence, the courage or the philosophy.  

Like Hicks, he is outrageous. But even from the grave, Hicks reminds us of an oppressive elite who want to keep people “stupid and apathetic”, while Tosh comes across as a mere product of those ruling classes. He’s the comedian who’s grown up feasting on US failings – that unholy trinity that Hicks listed as consumerism, superficiality and mediocrity.

Of course after Tosh’s rape gaffe his peers (like Dane Cook) rushed to his rescue with the intellectually challenging ‘don’t you fucken dare take away our fucken freedom of speech’ defence, as they faced off a sea of what I guess that kind of male comedian would call ‘feminazis’.

These feminists, unfortunately, fared little better in the debate by clutching barbed emotion close to their wounded bosoms and abandoning reason. The result? Statements that will no doubt advance the woman’s movement for centuries. Powerful intellectual epiphanies like Roxeane Gay’s article in Salon, for example, which I will get to later, or Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s profile of the late Patrice O’Neal for New York magazine. Here, LeBlanc wrote about how O’Neal was deliberate and merciless in testing boundaries and saying the unspeakable. She characterised his willingness to do this by saying, “The transformative power of the ugly truth was, for O’Neal, a form of grace.” Most comedians, she added, seem to be reaching for that form of grace, trying to talk about the complexity of these lives we lead in ways that can make us laugh and think and feel. 

“Holy shit, woman,” I thought. “What are you talking about? Comedy or Eat, Pray, Love?” 

But let’s not be too hasty to move on. Let’s hear a little more Gay: “Rape humor is designed to remind women that they are still not quite equal. Just as their bodies and reproductive freedom are open to legislation and public discourse, so are their other issues. When women respond negatively to misogynistic or rape humor they are ‘sensitive’ and branded as feminist a word that has, as of late, become a catch-all term for, ‘woman who does not tolerate bullshit’.” (Clearly Ms Gay tolerates a lot more bullshit than she should.)

Then there’s Elissa Bassist from The Daily Beast, who weighed in with: “But would it be funny if this girl got gang raped right this moment, like right now right now? That’s not a joke. It’s an invitation. It’s a celebration of a violent crime, which is itself another violation. It’s not a way to cope. It’s a “this is something we can do and then laugh about it, no big deal.” When you reiterate these half-truths (there are girls in the world getting raped by like five guys right now), they authenticate themselves, as if by magic. To promote the insidious—‘rape is hilarious’—is to join the crime at its own filthy level.”

But that’s not really a logical argument. Ms Bassist, I thought, have you ever heard of the Latin phrase audi alteram partem? It means ‘hear the other side’. Just because Ms Anonymous is a woman and positions herself as the injured party doesn’t mean her version of events is true or accurate. Just because Tosh is an obvious (and in my book somewhat unsophisticated) comic, doesn’t mean he’s the guilty party. And a rape joke is no more an incitement to rape, than a joke about race is an incitement to racism. How many suicide bombers have exploded in the name of Achmed the Dead Terrorist?

The problem with these kinds of emo-feministas is that, in my opinion, they argue like Republicans. Moral absolutists to the core, you’re either with them or against them. If you don’t join the lynch mob to intellectually castrate Tosh, you’re a rape apologist. But the worst part about these emo-types is that they too easily abandon logic and reason for the empty virtue of an emotional rant.

But back to Tosh, who isn’t the first comedian to tell a rape joke, and certainly isn’t the best. Sarah Silverman, who’s currently trying to seduce casino magnate Sheldon Adelson into scissoring her for $100 million – instead of giving that cash to Mitt Romney so he can defeat Obama – knows one. It goes like this: “I was raped by a doctor… which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl”.

George Carlin, too, has taken on rape, and managed not to get lynched. “I believe you can joke about anything, it all depends on what the exaggeration is. Every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion – I’ll give you an example,” says Carlin, in a sketch where he sets out to prove that rape jokes can be funny. “Some guy broke into a house, stole a lot of things, and while he was in there he raped an 81 year old woman. And I’m thinking to myself… WHY? What the fuck kind of social life does this guy have?”

Carlin’s joke works because he himself is intelligent, the rape joke is part of a longer social commentary that explores the inner dialogue of misogynists, and because Carlin kills it.  He’s self-deprecating and he makes sexual aggressors the butt of his jokes, which induces empathy. Carlin (in part) gets context and the power relationships between men and women, which makes his rape joke less offensive than others.

Moral absolutism is easy in the face of something as complex as rape humour. But it’s fucken dangerous. Moral absolutism leads us into the steadfast land of fear and shame because as humans we can’t tolerate the discomfort of ambiguity. Because we’re too lazy or too stupid or too ignorant to want to sweat morality, so we want it sliced and diced and served to us like a TV dinner. 

The whole point of smart rape jokes is that they create a sense of confusion and tension within people. This kind of humour, when cleverly done, creates a cognitive dissonance that can enable us to rethink our preconceptions about morality, because being absolutely morally ‘right’ is too often a self-serving delusion. Why should rape jokes have a special dispensation? Why should they be treated any differently?

As I said, I’m an equal opportunity rape survivor. As a young girl, I was sexually abused by a woman. As a young woman, I was sexually abused by a man. It has taught me that monstrosity has no fixed address. It is not always man. It is not always woman. And it doesn’t always live where you think it might. DM

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