Is There Such a Thing As a "Good" Rape Joke?


There has been much ado about the rape joke and rape culture this week. The discussion about rape jokes and their contribution to rape culture began with the now infamous Daniel Tosh incident at the Laugh Factory.

Since that point there has been a firestorm of debate. There are seemingly two camps, those who believe that rape jokes contribute to rape culture and those who believe that freedom of speech protects their right to joke about whatever they want. 

It is far more complex than that. Some comedians argue that not being able to joke about terrible things would be taking away part of what comedy is meant to do — which is to draw attention to aspects of society that may be unwilling to investigate any other way. Then there are those who believe that jokes about rape are always uncalled for but again, that’s not the full story. Comedians Lindy West of Jezebel and Jim Norton debated the issue on Kamu Bell’s Totally Biased this past week. That’s when the internet exploded. 

Thousands of men commented on video of the debate which was uploaded to YouTube. What did they respond exactly, with you guessed it, threats of rape and other vitriolic disgusting statements about everything from West’s body to what they would like to see happen to her.

She responded on Jezebel with the post, “If comedy has no lady problem, why am I getting so many rape threats?” An excellent question indeed. Both Jim Norton and Kamu Bell have come out to express nothing but disdain and horror at what has been directed at West. The irony of a discussion about rape culture leading to threats of rape has been lost on absolutely no one. 

Is there such a thing as ‘the right rape joke?’ Who would get to decide that if there was? There are many questions that have come out of this debate. The mistake of many is to assume that this debate is about censorship. It is not. That is a mischaracterization many have sadly made as they attempt to process the actual forces at play here. Marianne of XOJane properly explains what Lindy West is addressing. The normalization of rape through the use of comedy. It is the content of the joke that is the problem. There are ways in which to joke about rape, successfully. 

Sarah Silverman has made many jokes about rape. What makes her jokes any different? She is not targeting the victim or making a rapist feel better about themselves. Instead, she targets rape culture itself. She makes us all feel uncomfortable about it, and through this we are forced to recognize that what she is saying is true. 

In the audio above Silverman takes the truth about the rape culture in which we find ourselves in and shows us just how terrible that is. She is actively attempting to dismantle this culture by calling it out loudly and aggressively. Humor writer Gina Barreca puts it this way:

“In delivering that line, Silverman didn't join them; she beat them. By confronting the authentically taboo subject — not that rape happens, but that rape victims are still too afraid, ashamed, or appalled to admit they've been criminally assaulted — she's using humor to slice, dice, and present for examination one of the culture's most deeply buried dirty secrets.”

What West and others are challenging comedians to do is to rise above, at the very least question their reason for making a rape joke. What purpose does it serve, who does the joke really benefit? Are you just making a rapist feel as if their actions are accepted by society?

Does the fact that everyone laughs make the rapist feel vindicated? These are the questions that we should look at. We shouldn’t be afraid of them, nor should we attempt to cop out of dealing with them by calling it “thought-policing” or “censorship.” Too often those words are thrown out there as a way to end discussion. That’s just too bad, because the discussion on rape culture is here and it isn’t going anywhere.