Why rape jokes are never acceptable

By Ellen Finch

Last year, I wrote a blog post about rape jokes. It was a response to the most recent of many jokes my housemate had made over the year. At the time, it received some positive comments, and it seemed like people were relieved to see something written to try and address the issue. Unfortunately, though, the post hadn’t reached the person I wanted it to in the way I’d hoped. My friend spoke to my housemate the day after the post, and he was confounded by it. He didn’t see what the issue was, and anyway, he said, “it’s not like anyone in the house has been raped.”

There was the issue. He’d made an assumption about the environment in which he was making the jokes, based on no proof except the fact that no one had disclosed an experience of sexual violence to him personally.

It was clear that the arguments in my blog post hadn’t hit home. I linked to an article that described the effects of rape jokes on potential rapists, which has gained more and more relevance in the wake of studies like the one in Violence and Gender in 2014. With a significant proportion of people admitting that they would force someone into having sex, as long as the term ‘rape’ wasn’t used, it’s clear that jokes trivialising sexual violence could have an effect on more people than we might initially expect. After all, contrary to popular belief, rapists are not distinguished from ‘ordinary’ men by long black coats and an evil-looking disposition. Indeed, they are ordinary men. They are fathers, sons, brothers, friends and housemates. They are potentially people in the vicinity when you tell a rape joke. And by telling that joke – which trivialises and mocks the very act of violating a person’s basic human right – you are telling people that rape isn’t a serious subject, and that people can get entertainment out of it. In this sense, rape jokes – and jokes about all aspects of sexual violence – validate the thoughts of potential rapists, and can even empower them.

This argument doesn’t even begin to take into account the effect of these jokes on survivors of sexual violence. With a 2010 NUS report showing that 1 in 7 female students are subject to serious sexual or physical assault, and a 2015 report by The Telegraph asserting that 1 in 3 have endured sexual assault or unwanted advances, it seems obvious that jokes about sexual violence are deeply inappropriate on campus. One cannot make the assumption that no one in the vicinity has suffered sexual assault in some form with these statistics in mind. To that end, it seems obvious that making a joke that can have a profound effect on someone who hears it is morally wrong.

At this point, I can hear the cries of protest. “Jokes are meant to offend,” they’ll say. “You’re just being too PC! If jokes weren’t offensive, they wouldn’t be funny!”

I can think of lots of jokes that are funny without being offensive. The one about coral being stressed about current affairs is one of them. But without getting into the philosophy of joke-making, there’s an obvious reason not to make rape jokes. They are not just offensive, but they are potentially triggering for survivors who hear them. They demean those who have suffered sexual violence and trivialise their experience. They reinforce the rape culture that dominates university campuses around the UK. They are rooted in an aggressive and violent culture that normalises rape, diminishing the responsibility of rapists and the need to tackle such behaviour. It has been shown in studies that ‘dark humour’ is used by law enforcement officers to desensitise themselves to the scenes they witness as part of their job. This desensitising effect is the same in the case of rape jokes, but the agenda is very different. Rape jokes are not used to help people cope with emotionally taxing work, after all. Rather, they help to increase insensitivity to survivors and their families, thus contributing to the endless cycle of victim-blaming that pervades on and off campus.

If you’re not convinced by the arguments above, at least consider what making rape jokes means for you. Offensive jokes are often seen to represent the attitudes of the person making them towards the subject, even if that isn’t true. So while you don’t condone rape, what other people are hearing is that you do, and not just that: you find it funny. So if not for the survivors who might be triggered by them, or the potential perpetrators who may be empowered, don’t tell rape jokes for the sake of your own reputation. Think about what you’re promoting.

If you’re interested in reading further, more coherent articles about the effect of rape jokes, the links below are interesting:

https://rajsivaraman.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/a-scientific-case-against-rape-jokes/

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1018868913615

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beyond-heroes-and-villains/201409/visit-the-rape-room-who-sees-humor-in-sexual-assault

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