Right off the bat, I want to be clear this is not an argument about whether rape can ever be referred to within the context of a joke. I’ve laughed at jokes that mention rape. Here’s a bit by Jim Jefferies, about Bill Cosby and how we think about rape in the context of public figures, that I think is well worth watching (CW: rape, which I hope was obvious). It’s especially impressive when it’s coming from a comedian with as much of a history of misogynist humor as Jefferies has. Or if you prefer something less male and more on the nose, recall that time Reductress devoted its entire website to dismantling rape culture with joke headlines.
No, this is about what to do when you run across a post on social media from someone saying “rape jokes aren’t funny.” More accurately, what not to do.
It’s important to understand the concept of boundaries in the online space. Believe it or not, Facebook and Twitter are not actually public forums. They are the curated online spaces of actual people most of the time. Even those fake profiles that end up spamming your page with sunglass ads have a real person behind them somewhere, I assume. The point is, although someone’s post may move into your timeline, that doesn’t mean it was actually addressed specifically to you and demands your rebuttal.
Say a person in your circle has just posted that rape jokes aren’t funny. Possibly that person added “ever,” or “if you think they are unfriend me.” Two things are at play here. The first is that the person feels strongly about rape and sexual assault; considering that something like 20 percent of women experience some form of rape or sexual assault in this country, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and assume he or she either has first-hand knowledge or knows someone who does. It’s common courtesy to tread carefully in that case.
The second is simpler. The person is saying, “I don’t want to hear any jokes about rape.” This seems like a very easy boundary to respect, and it’s troubling how many people feel the need to immediately storm that particular barrier in pursuit of some weird intellectual point. Is there anything more telling than a woman drawing a line in the sand regarding rape and a man demanding the right to step over it?
I was on a friend’s page recently, and she posted that rape jokes weren’t funny. Some Rando Mansir countered that he had a funny rape joke, and my friend grudgingly allowed him to go ahead. What followed was something about an Arab, a naked woman in distress, and attempted sex with a camel. So, yes, on top of being an unfunny rape joke, it was also turbo-racist.
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This seems to be a recurring theme among the people dedicated to the idea that, yes, rape jokes can be funny. The underlying message is that people who don’t like rape jokes are humorless, but the truth is that, except for a very talented few, most rape-joke apologists are simply gross and bad at comedy. They confuse outrage for being challenging, which it’s not. I can poop in the punch bowl at a high school prom, but that doesn’t make me G.G. Allin.
The future of free speech does not actually hang on whether a person can tell a rape joke wherever he wants. There is exactly zero chance that rape jokes, depictions of rape or discussion of rape will ever become illegal in America. And don’t bring up college safe spaces to me. That’s not censorship; that’s the right to walk away from something you don’t want to hear. You have the right to speak, but no one has the right to an audience.
To sum up, when someone posts “rape jokes aren’t funny,” that's not a challenge. A devil’s advocate is not needed, as if Hell were short on lawyers or something. That person is establishing a perimeter where he or she does not wish to have rape jokes spoken to them, and it is not anyone’s job to prove them wrong about comedy. Even if you feel they are 100 percent in error, they are actually allowed to be wrong within their personal space, and you owe it to people to respect their wishes in that space. It does not belong to you.
If you want to argue the point, head to your own space and extol the virtues of rape humor there. You can’t force someone to think something is funny when that person clearly doesn’t appreciate that type of joke. If you let someone’s expression of disgust slide without challenge, the First Amendment will still exist when you wake up tomorrow. Find a better hill to die on. At least if you want to stay friends with people.