Can Rape Jokes Ever be Funny?

Sexist Faux Pas at a Beijing Bar

A woman takes the Beijing subway to work every day. One day her doctor tells her she is pregnant. “That’s impossible,” she says. “I’ve only been on the subway.”

When this joke was told to a friend and me at a party, the punch line hung in the air. The young man seemed to be trying to impress us with his… wit? charm? good looks? I said:

Rape jokes aren’t funny.”

His counter was not an apology, nor admittance that the joke was problematic, nor even a recognition that some people might be offended by it. He said, “It’s not a rape joke — it’s a sex joke.”

So began a long argument that did little but make me angry and him defensive. He refused to see that this wasn’t an appropriate subject to joke about, as he refused to believe he had made a joke about rape. He did not see himself as someone who would – or could – make a rape joke, and thus the actual issue, the real perpetrator and perpetuator of crimes against humanity – the femi-Nazi, as it were – was me.

How convenient that there were no other men present at our table when he sidled up to share his joke – that he didn’t run the risk of being called out by his own gender for being a creep. Had he imagined that only women would grant him a laugh? Was it painful to him that even a girl wouldn’t laugh at his joke?

Though he was seemingly oblivious to his actions, he was indeed using his gender to assert some level of dominance over we two young women. As though I had never heard such a joke before, he told me I simply did not understand the humour and began slowly to explain it in detailed language for the girl who didn’t “get” the joke.

As if to redirect his listener’s fury, he added that part of the humour lay in the stereotype that Asian men have small penises; this was the reason the woman had not noticed being penetrated and thus did not know who the baby’s father was.

While I wished to place the blame entirely on him – it would be much easier to do so as we left the party enraged, primarily due to him – I know it’s not entirely his fault.

Making friends among the lad culture in UK high schools and universities requires a flippant attitude toward both gender and sex. Many young men, like this one, feel they can be blasé about rape primarily because they do not believe themselves or their friends to be potential rapists, and imagine this fact is equally as clear to everyone else. Young women learn to laugh at jokes that undermine and humiliate them, in order to attract and compete for potential beaus.

“It’s just BANTER.”

I recently had a friend – an otherwise thoughtful, sensitive man – tell me that he felt rape was simply a sub-category of sex. He felt that “sex” as a label covered a whole range of practices that not everyone understood, approved of or agreed were acceptable behaviour. Rape, paedophilia, and sexual harassment would fall under this label. So do polyamory, naturism, and sadomasochistic relationships. It’s all “just sex”, and sometimes it happens without mutual consent. By his definition, it’s simply a matter of taste and preference; an echo of the Freudian model that rape is the result of individual sexual deviancy.

Yet the Freudian model does not account for the use of violent rape as a weapon. It is used as a part of the standard toolkit in the deployment of genocidal army tactics. Why? Because rape can have far longer-term effects than the duration of the crime.

Rape is commonly believed to be a demonstration of unequal power relations. Rape is not about sex, desire or sexual attraction, but about power: “Rape, properly understood, is more like an injury to the brain than a violent variation on sex. Rape, properly understood, is always aimed not just at the female sex organs but at the female brain.” [1] It seems pretty clear to me.

And yet ambiguity prevails. This party guest embraced the ambiguity and even felt empowered to impress it upon his audience. I wonder what that’s like, to see the ambiguity of involuntary sex as good party conversation material. Flirting material, nonetheless.

What is crystal clear to me was muddy and vague to him because he had never needed to see the threat of sexual violence from the same angle. The issue remains a zeitgeist because people – such as subscribers of British lad culture – are uncomfortable to dig in. They are socially rewarded for joking about rape rather than recognising rape for what it is.

“Only yes means yes.” 

Is it sexy to ask permission? If I ask, will she think me less of a man? What if she doesn’t actually say yes? Is she acting like she doesn’t want it to make me try harder? Am I in a position to say no?

How many people have felt confused or misled in that vital moment yet unable to ask their partner for clarification? People feel able to play around with ambiguity when it grants them a laugh to serve their ego, but humour fails to solve the issues left by vagaries and miscommunication.

Rape as a crime is defined by the FBI as follows: Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim. 

I do not believe that all rape jokes are inherently offensive. Humour can be a great source of healing; laughter is a tool that can aid recovery. Rape survivors may benefit significantly from joking about their experiences; humour allows the freedom to openly express what taboo prevents us airing. There is a degree of truth to every joke, as they say.

But with no previous rapport with his listeners, he had no idea how the joke might affect either of us. He was using ambiguity as a tool to reassert a traditional patriarchal power imbalance that falls along gender lines; his harmless anecdote about male sexual dominance was not funny because it was, however deep within its gift-wrapped box, a threat.

In the words of Naomi Wolf: “If your goal is to break a woman psychologically, it is efficient to do violence to her vagina.” [2] Short of committing the physical act itself, a sly joke among strangers may serve to slicken the way.

[1] Naomi Wolf, Vagina: A New Biography, 121.
[2] Ibid.

Originally published in September 2015

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