Is Rape Ever Funny?

12th July 2012

Did you read this article on Jezebel, How to Make a Rape Joke, by Lindy West? It touches on the controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh making a rape joke from stage and online reaction to his comment.

“If people don’t want to be offended, they shouldn’t go to comedy clubs? Maybe. But if you don’t want people to react to your jokes, you shouldn’t get on stage and tell your jokes to people.”

“And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer.”

I should say that Daniel Tosh makes me laugh, and he seems to be a decent person from what I’ve seen of his work, though of course I’ve never had the guy over for dinner. Still, West’s overall points are so well argued. She articulates the case for what it means to respect the horror of rape without avoiding the topic altogether. Really well done.

I especially enjoyed the examples of appropriate ways for comedians to approach the topic of rape. Is rape ever funny? No. Can comedy be an appropriate forum for commentary on “the absurd and horrific sense of entitlement that accompanies taking over someone else’s body like you’re hungry and it’s a delicious hoagie”? Absolutely.

What do you think?

Update: A few of you mentioned “A Woman Walks Into a Rape, uh Bar” by Harriet Jacobs, which is also thoughtful and well written. Some excerpts:

“Let me tell you a thing you might not know: the inability to hear rape “jokes” without flashbacks, Hulk rage, and “air quotes” is one of the enduring parting gifts of a rapist.”

“For those of you who wonder why rape victims get all super sensitive about rape jokes ‘n shit, well, this is why. Before you’re raped, rape jokes might be uncomfortable, or they might be funny, or they might be any given thing. But after you’re raped, they are a trigger. They make you remember what was done to you.”

25 thoughts on “Is Rape Ever Funny?

  1. shana

    i worked rape crisis for a few years and take rape/rape culture very seriously. i used to be of the mind that rape could never be funny. i have to say, the jezebel article definitely shifted my thinking. A LOT.

    tosh, however… he’s just not very funny. he’s often hateful towards women and there’s just no excuse for that.

  2. Margaret Tyson

    Rape is never funny. But “gallows humor” about it is OK, I think. (See Wanda Sykes’s brilliant riff on the usefulness of a detachable p***y, for instance).

    What people are getting rightfully upset about is that Tosh basically threatened this woman (who had heckled him about a rape joke) with rape. “Wouldn’t it be funny if five guys raped her right now?” or something like that. THAT. Is not funny.

  3. Jen

    I think it can be funny with one non-negotiable condition: that the comedian is, without a doubt, 100% unequivocally on the side of the victim. (Male or female victims. Let’s not forget the masses of boys and men who are hurt too.)

    If there is any hint or sense that the joke-teller stands with or even remotely near the rapist, then no. No, no, no. NO. NEVER.

    (Whew. Sorry. Feeling a little adamant about this topic.)

    Yes. I have zero problem with comedians making jokes intended to humiliate rapists, and I do put that in the category of a rape joke. Derision and open cultural disgust for the act of rape is a powerful force for social change. -M

  4. shana

    oh dang. i meant to say rape jokes. OF COURSE RAPE is never funny. its the jokes that i have rethought. and yes, it needs to be clear that the comedian is not making a punch line of the victim.

  5. Heather


    Thanks for passing along this article, I’ve read a lot about this topic but this articulates the arguments so incredibly well. Re-victimizing the victims or essentially threatening a women is NOT funny. Hopefully Tosh can take into account his recent education and redirect future jokes. We all say things rashly that we later wish we could take back, I just hope that he feels at least a little of it because he does seem to be pushing the envelope on some other topics as well.

    PS Please keep the good stuff coming! I truly enjoy your blog!

  6. Kim

    I differ from many of my friends because I believe that we do not have the right to “not be offended” by the opinion of another person. Express your opinion, i.e. joke, and if I am offended… big deal. I know it sounds callous, but our country was built on The Constitution. I’m pretty sure it does not spell out the “right to not be offended”. I am appalled at rape statistics and know as a public health provider that it happens far too often. However, freedom of speech does not include the right to not offend another person. If you cannot embrace a joke or comment, than maybe you can embrace that you live in a country that allows you the freedom to express your opinion whether it is for the purpose of progressing your career or just a statement. Just my thoughts. We do not have an obligation to be politically correct.

  7. Meg T.

    amongst the comments on Jezebel was this bit that sums up my feelings on the topic really well:
    “rape jokes are unlike other offensive jokes, in that a joke about cancer doesn’t make cancer worse, but a joke about rape can in a very real way make rape culture worse”

    Agreed. -M

  8. Oakland Girl

    As a woman who was violently raped this year, I can see no time when rape is cause for humor and in watching the video here…I’m appalled that someone could make light of such a heinous act of evil.

    I am so sorry. I hope everyone here agrees with your assessment that rape is a heinous act of evil. I do. I cannot begin to imagine what you’ve been through. Again, I’m so sorry. -M

  9. Sheri Bheri

    I was thinking about this yesterday. I think that rape jokes can be funny in the same way that dead baby jokes can be funny. However, where this comedian (I hate to give him MORE attention) crossed ‘the line’ was when he made it personal to the heckler. There’s a big difference between a generic “dead baby” joke and saying “I wish YOUR baby was dead.” That’s just not funny anymore.

  10. KBCommando

    No. Never. Referring to something in the abstract doesn’t make it ok or funny. Not dead babies, not rape, not other acts of cruelty or harm. I can’t believe how many people have commented here saying that yes, it can be funny. Ask that to someone who has experienced it. How is a joke about something horrible doing anything other than condoning it and giving a “light” side to a dark act that obviously has none? Appalling.

  11. Kristen

    Lindy’s article is fantastic. It’s modest and thoughtful and really well argued. I am currently in sexual assault crisis intervention training and have been consistently reminded how prevalent rape culture is in this country. Lindy’s inclusion of examples of how rape “jokes” can be funny and intelligent was so smart. I admit I laughed at some examples (especially Ever’s.) Tosh’s “joke” was NOT FUNNY. It was a threat. I’m not sure if I’m more mad at him or at the a$$holes in the audience who laughed when he made a gang-rape joke. Idiots. I would have yelled at him (maybe throw something?) and walked the hell out of that club.

  12. Mrs. Kennedy

    Oh, boy, I don’t mean for that to sound like I condone rape jokes. But mock the hell out of rapists, if it helps you.

    Agreed. I and many of my friends process the most horrible things by laughing at them. For some people, it’s away to feel stronger in the face of powerlessness. -M

  13. Stephanie

    I completely agree. Rape itself is not funny. But comedy can be used around the topic of rape to bring attention to the social or political problems that surround rape. If comedy can be used as a platform to bring attention to these issues, then I don’t find anything wrong with it. It’s just not considered the usual medium. Really, I think that’s exactly what the article is saying. It isn’t the act of rape itself that comedians are making funny. And that’s the point.

    It isn’t like this comedian isn’t extremely well known. Anybody who is attending his show is sure to know the sort of topics that are going to be discussed and the tone that the show will have. If that sort of comedy is not your cup of tea, then it’s safe to say you probably won’t be in the audience. If you’ve ever been to a comedy show, hecklers usually get a fair share of crap thrown right back at them. That doesn’t make his reaction to the heckler appropriate, but I can’t say that I wouldn’t have expected a similar response.

    As a society, we tend not to talk about rape, because it is so horrific of course, but also perhaps because we’re not doing much about it. -M

  14. Stephanie

    That is a really impressive article, in that I agree with her for about 90% of it and I never thought I would. However I don’t think the Borat and Louis CK jokes are okay because as Margaret Tyson noted the second two are “gallows humor.” They are spoken from an unprivileged position, pointing out that which is absurd in its sheer horrificness. Borat and Louis CK speak from positions of power (and Sasha Baron Cohen has all sort of other problems wrapped up in that Borat character). I’m also with Meg T about the poor correlation between cancer and rape.

  15. Megan

    I love that Ever Mainard video and had linked to it before here sometime, somewhere. Being vulnerable is a universally scary feeling. The way we deal with it can be absurd and funny, and that’s the heart of the story she’s telling. Poking around and exploring vulnerability can be empowering.

  16. Megan

    Here’s a survivor’s take on this whole topic – it’s a long post but she paints a very detailed picture of what it’s like to be reminded of what, for a victim, is a very real and tangible experience. While so many of us can debate and explore out loud what is/isn’t ok to discuss or joke about, for someone who has experienced it, the mere mention can take them right back to the most violating act a woman can experience.

  17. Kate

    LOOOOVE lindy. She used to write for our alt weekly and oh how I miss her. (btw if you ever feel like pissing yourself laughing check out her review of Sex and the City 2:

    Back to Daniel Tosh… I read this article on the Huffington Post by Meghan O’Keefe and can understand the distinction she makes between rape jokes and laughing at the concept of rape itself: Same time, it’s not something I personally want to hear about it any comedian’s act.

  18. Hilary

    I have read, and was galvinized several months ago by the article Megan references, “A woman walks into a rape, uh, bar”. On a very personal level, it has always been very difficult for me to balance my hard-line Freedom of Speech, I-might-hate-what-you-say-but-will-die-defending-your-right-to-say-it political convictions and my private (yet also political) feelings about how using rape as a comedic trope, a stereotype, a cultural reference, is hurtful, isolating, alienating, infuriating, and ultimately destructive – for everyone.

    I’ve lurked here for a while. (Hello! I’m Hilary! You people are, like, totally awesome!) Suddenly, I feel the urge to come forward.

    The thing is, I’m a survivor of sexual assault. Twice. 14 years apart. Different perpetrators. I also have a wide and wonderful tribe of friends, some of whom have suffered and struggled similarly, and some of whom, you know, went to all-boys Catholic school and still in their late 20’s think rape is pretty much the most hilarious joke topic ever. Possibly tied with poop, but who’s keeping track, right?

    Like the speaker in the article mentioned above, I had seriously upsetting and somewhat harmful (self, others, all-of-us-together, la la la) internal (and external! And parenthetical!) reactions to the use of Rape as Comedy. My internal monologue practically matched the narrator.

    What really bothers me is this: what happened to me wasn’t funny. What happens to so many people my mind literally boggles EVERY TIME I am called to the hospital to be an advocate for a victim/patient/survivor/identity or descriptor of choice — it isn’t funny. It is sad and it seems hopeless and unstoppable and can do things like end families, end lives. And I’m sort of lost as to why anyone laughs? As a sometimes-teacher of teenagers, I totally get that laughter is one means we have available to combat fear and discomfort. So is blame. We prove we aren’t scared — we laugh at rape! Ha-hahahaha-ha ha. Ha. We prove we’re not vulnerable – we blame victims/accusers/video games/pornography/the media/poor jury selection/whatever. So people like Tosh wear their laughter like armor, wave big stupid Blameswords and I HATE it.

    Rape victims are 13 times more likely to commit suicide than non-crime victims. We are not really laughing, is the thing. The culture we live in is still one of silence, laughter, blame, and humiliation. Every time someone makes a joke of something horrific that happens to another human being (rape, suicide, murder, violence, child abuse, cancer, illness, tragedy, whatever) they make that person’s world smaller. If it happens enough, it can seem like every light in the world has gone out, and that person is left alone with little but their memories of what has happened.

    I haven’t worked out all my thoughts on this issue. But I think it is going to eventually sound something like, “This is not about rights. It’s about what is right, what is decent, and what is loving.”

    So now I tell my friends, “Please don’t make those jokes. They’re not funny because someone has hurt me. I know you care about me. Please don’t give me reasons to re-live what has happened to me. Please help me heal.”

    And you know what? The people worth keeping around do exactly that.

    Because of your thoughtful comment, I just read the piece you mention at the top of this post, and I agree that it’s galvanizing. But there’s a flaw in the construct of the discussion we’re having here.

    We all agree rape is inhuman. But getting everyone to agree that any possible mention of rape by a comedian is wrong, regardless of his or her background or experience, or what his or her commentary might be? That’s not so black and white. In fact, the possibilities are infinite. What they’re saying, how they’re saying it, who they are, whether they have been raped themselves, all these factors come into play.

    But rape jokes so infrequently advance victim’s rights, and so often do the opposite, that overall it may not be worth triggering victims’ memories of being raped to make the point “rape bad.” I mean, no shit. That said, the fact that so many rape jokes are about reinforcing the culture of rape belies the idea that we don’t need to fight the good fight in every forum available.

    Ultimately, I agree with what you say here, “It’s about what is right, what is decent, and what is loving.” And by that standard, it’s much easier for individuals to judge whether what they’re about to say supports or further traumatizes assault victims. -M

  19. Hilary

    Oh wow, that was so long. I’m embarrassed and sorry, guys. :S

    Bweh? Not at all. It’s kind of a complex subject to sum up in a paragraph. -M

  20. Carole

    @Hilary – your comment was thoughtful & beautifully written. Please don’t be embarrassed.

    I don’t think I can articulate how I feel about this, so I’ll just say I stopped watching DT when I began cringing more than laughing – around a year or so ago. Mocking the, um, unfortunate isn’t my type of humor.

  21. Miss B

    I know very little about the comedian in question and I’ve never (and won’t ever, based on the little I do know) watched his show, but the things I do know about him…make me wonder how anyone thinks he is overall a “decent guy”. Having seen his bit about how men should sneak up on women and touch their stomachs — without the consent of the women being touched, and in a way that makes it clear they are doing it to shame them about having any belly fat — well, that’s enough to write him off entirely. Not only that, but he encouraged men to do this, film it, and post the resulting film online. So not only should men touch women, in a way meant to humiliate them, without their consent…but they should also make sure the general public can see it. So basically, while I think that laughing about horrible things can take away their power in certain situations, if the framing is right and the person is obviously on the right side of the argument…a man who advocates for non-consensual physical contact and public shaming (he actually says something like “Don’t be fooled, they really love it even though they pretend they don’t” or something — which is disturbingly similar to some rapists arguments “She really wanted it, I could tell” &c.) is not a person who is on the right side of the argument (and, in my opinion, is in no way a “decent guy”). I suspect a great deal of the public outrage in this situation is not necessarily because so many people believe that rape is not a topic that can ever be used in a gallows-humour/non-private therapy session/whatever else setting, but because it was being used as an implicit threat — he was basically telling this woman that she should shut up and behave because hey, she was in a crowd of people who thought he was funny and who could all easily gang up and rape her, just some unknown non-famous woman who was annoying him, ha ha ha — by a person who has made it pretty clear in the past that he has basically no respect for women or their autonomy, period.

  22. AnthroK8

    I thought this was also a nice response to the issue:

    I think the argument that Daniel Tosh might not have the skill, sensitivity, or insight to make this topic funny is a good one. If he wants to make jokes about rape, go ahead. If he wants people to respond to them positively, maybe he needs to work on being a better comedian.

    For me, that would mean he would have to put victims first in his humor.

    Tosh can say whatever he likes. But I am not obliged, thankfully, to think famous and without a filter= funny.

  23. TLR

    Making a dismissive joke out of something serious is also a weapon, just like threatening rape is a weapon. The fact that this comedian’s response to heckling about his act’s rape joke was to combine both is inexcusable.

    Rape jokes are never funny to me. The statistics are too scary, especially if you’re a woman of color, to put aside in the name of trying to enjoy comedy. I pass as white, so I think: “One in five in general, or one in four for being mixed?” One of my friends is Tongva. She knows, for her, it’s more like ONE IN THREE. And she is that one, and so was her sister, and so was their grandmother. Some of my friends are that one, or were almost that one, or have people they love be that one. I have not been assaulted, nor come close to it, but that “one in x” feels huge to me, big and threatening and real.

    I would like to believe you (and others), Maggie, that it is possible (and has been successfully delivered by a thoughtful comedian in front of a mixed audience) to make a joke about rape in which the survivor is not demeaned but 100% supported, in which rape culture is criticized with biting commentary and skillful humor. I have not heard these acts, though I have heard plenty of rape jokes.

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