Monday, October 12, 2009

Rape Jokes, Part 2 -- aka Women Are Not Always Right

Here's something that's been bugging me lately: people's responses to being asked to not make rape jokes.

Rape Jokes, Part 2: What To Do When Someone Thinks They Made A Funny
aka Women Are Not Always Right

Fugitivus has a brilliant post on this here. First, let's take a look at some of the options of the listener when someone else makes a rape joke (edited version of original post):

  1. Say Nothing. Hope the conversation does not continue extolling the virtues of rape, making saying nothing harder. Hate yourself for saying nothing...Have minor flashbacks of what was done to you... Stop enjoying the day. Stop enjoying the company of your friend. Make a mental note to withdraw from others before they can casually, “jokingly” remind you of your rape. Feel bad...Feel angry...Feel alone and angry. Assume bitterly that you will feel this way forever.
  2. Be Edgy! Jump in with some even MORE offensive humor! Run with the rape joke! Make it even more rape-y!...Settle in with the smug knowledge that you are not like those other broken, damaged, traumatized victims. Withdraw from “those” kinds of victims, who might try and drag you down into their hysteria with them. Throw them to the goddamn wolves. Throw your flashbacks to the goddamn wolves. Toast to rape!
  3. Initiate a Very Serious Conversation, out of nowhere, like. Tell your friend that joke was not funny. Tell him rape is never funny. Keep talking after his face has pinched up in resentment and disgust, because you are RUINING his day and his BEER and his FUNNY. You know you are actually ruining his sense of himself as a good and decent person, but you cannot communicate that to him, because he is smug and disengaged, and you are shaking and stuttering and trying to explain the experience of women to a man who has grown up among women, known women, loved women, and somehow doesn’t know this already, which means he doesn’t want to know, doesn’t care. Feel vulnerable. Feel angry that you feel vulnerable. Consider stopping mid-sentence, getting up, and walking away. Promise yourself that after this you will never speak to this friend again. Immediately break the promise, because you know if you don’t, he will tell everybody that you stopped being friends because you are Andrea Dworkin all of a sudden.
  4. Initiate A Very Serious Conversation Version II: Follow version one, except also disclose to your friend (who thinks rape is funny and exciting) that you have been raped. Be surprised, all over again, that this does not immediately change his perspective, the way it changed yours. Realize that to him, rape is conceptual, even when it has really happened, even when it is real. Wonder if he has raped, without knowing it, because it was just a concept. Realize you now wonder this about every man. Are you Andrea Dworkin? Do you have any right to ruin this lovely summer day by dumping your rape on everybody? Did he? After this, will he now tell everybody that you FREAKED OUT just because you were apparently “RAPED” and you can’t GET OVER IT when it was just a JOKE, SERiously? Will everybody know you have been raped? Will everybody think you are a humorless rape-bot from now on? Feel like shit afterwards. Be reminded that you cannot trust anybody, now. Because you were raped. Because you are Andrea Dworkin. Because you didn’t prosecute. The reasons don’t matter anymore; the result is the same. You are Angry About Being Raped, which just compounds the stain of Being Raped. Add in Unable To Take a Joke, and you are officially Female.
  5. Find Some Other Way. Can’t count on this one; sometimes an alternative pops into your head, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you manage to say “Rape is funny!” and laugh away in such a sarcastic, biting voice that it communicates everything you wanted to say, and you all move on. Or you do what I did, which was threaten to break my beer bottle on the railing and stab my friend in the fucking neck with it if he didn’t shut his fucking maw. Ha ha! I said. A joke! Not really, man. Ha! Am I kidding? Am I? Fun-nay. The simmering rage remains, the distrust, the wondering if you should speak to this person ever again, the flashbacks. But the day moves forward rather than grinding to a screeching halt.

Yeah. So. In the year and a half following my more overt and openly-acknowledged rape, I have been around several people who have made rape jokes. At first, I was so often shocked that I didn't say anything-- I did option #1, where I sat in silence and fought through my panic and depression and unwanted thoughts and memories and feelings on my own. However, I've started to realize that there's no reason why I can't point out their comments and call them out-- I can damn well tell them that they are being hurtful and I can request that they stop. So I've started doing that.

Some of them apologize for being idiots afterward, and while the apology doesn't stop the flashbacks or unfreeze me from my tense, dissociated state, it at least helps. But. BUT! On to the exciting part-- the people who get all defensive and start attacking me for requesting that they stop! I love these people. </sarcasm>

One day, I was walking back from dinner with a friend who has a habit of making off-color jokes because he likes to make people laugh. Of course, we got on to the topic of rape jokes, and of course, we reached the house before we finished and so the discussion continued on in the chapter room, where several other people were sitting. Keep in mind that everyone involved here knows that I was raped. They have seen me cry, and panic, and write livejournal posts about how f*cked up my life was in the months directly following it when I couldn't put my life back together. They know. So guess what some of their responses are?

Some reactions from people I used to consider my friends after I requested that they not make rape jokes, especially not directed at me (because it's happened! don't you love how sensitive people can be?):
  • "My high school friends and I made this joke [specifically, "It's not rape if you yell surprise!"] all the time. I think it's funny, and I'm still going to say it if I want to."
  • Shrug. Look bored and faintly amused at this silly girl who has been raped who thought it would be reasonable to ask you to not make rape jokes because they HURT.
  • "It's so selfish of you to expect the world to revolve around you."
  • "What, would you stop making a joke just because it bothers someone?"

To the last one-- yes! In fact, I would! If someone came up to me and politely asked me not to make x kind of joke because it hurt or offended them in some way, I would apologize and do my best to not do so, at the very least not in their presence. And if I slipped up, I would apologize. I would not get defensive and snippy or superciliously dismissive of their request. Because that's just plain rude and ignorant.

I still think about that conversation, and it infuriates me. And you know what? It wasn't even like those comments were made by ignorant, misogynistic men. They were made by women, women I know who claim to be feminists. Women who sneer outright at the possibility that a rape-culture exists, women who make the problem worse. Most of my male friends were supportive, sensitive, and caring to me during the aftermath of my own experience. Not so with many of my female friends.

Needless to say, they are no longer my friends. I found their reactions to be exceedingly repulsive and contemptible-- and I would have felt that way even if it had not been me who had been hurt by their comments, if it had been someone else whose feelings and polite request were so carelessly dismissed and trodden upon. These comments are steeped in undeserved privilege and refusal to acknowledge other people's experiences and feelings. And that makes me angry.

So I guess what I wanted to say in this post was that rape/sexual assault advocates and feminists often seem tied to man-hating and blaming male privilege and male culture, but men are not always the problem. The reason I had such a hard time healing from my own assault was the women in my life who minimized the trauma I lived through and made me feel like shit when I still thought they were my friends.

So, please, if you hear someone make a comment like that, stand up to them, even if the speaker of the comment is female. Being female doesn't automatically provide "get out of jail free" cards for hurtful, ignorant remarks. Call them out on it. And if they try to use their gender as a defense, tell them that's bullshit, because that's what it is.


  1. Making rape jokes is never okay. It just makes people think that hey, if jokes can be made about rape, it must not be that serious, right? Or, at least, that's my point of view on it.

    Is your frat school affiliated? 'Cause if so, I'd try reporting them. To who, I don't know. But if you're living with them, that's your house too, and you deserve to feel safe and happy in your home, and them not caring enough to not trigger you is unacceptable. I can understand not wanting to do that though, because I myself have a hard time doing things I think would cause conflict, and so therefore can understand people not wanting to do stuff like that, but....I think it's worth a try, if it gets to be too much for you. They could do sensitivity training, or whatever, with everyone in the house, so those people are signaled out.

    Good luck to you in your struggles!

  2. Ah, damn. I've seen it. I see it. I call people out on it. Hell, I've yelled at Pythagoras about it and his response? "It's funny BECAUSE it's offensive!" Oh, right! HA HA HA SO FUCKING FUNNY I ALMOST FORGOT MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY WHO HAVE GONE THROUGH IT.



    Because being reminded of tragic events and having them trivilaized to your face is HI-FUCKING-LARIOUS.

  3. I wonder if some of them do it as part of a defense mechanism, where they've tried to build an attitude for themselves that they hope/believe/want will make them less vulnerable - if they get raped, they'll be less badly affected than they saw happen to you - and as part of that attitude, they need to treat it less seriously than you.

  4. @cos: Yes, that's quite possible. I'll try to work that into my view of them, but it's still hard for me to like being around them because the only thing I know for sure is what they said to me-- their motivations are unclear and wholly unexpressed to me, so all I can do is speculate. Even if it's true, I'm not sure I consider that a legit excuse, though.

  5. I have a "rape joke" joke. I used to participate in telling rape jokes, including as part the very crowd Sayrina's discussing. I was a worse person then. I wish I had taken the time to understand that earlier so that I might have hurt fewer people.
    Get it?

    @cos but becoming more general as I continue to write (I don't intend to attack you with some of the sarcasm/frustration below):
    I think that's one of the concepts explicitly within the idea of rape culture: look under "blaming the victim". I can see the point of your example "hey it wouldn't be such a big deal if I get raped", but I'd focus more on the first bit, "an attitude [...] that they hope/believe/want will make them less vulnerable". Obviously the ACTUAL PROBLEM was that the victim just failed to protect herself*, hence my friends and I are safe because we're not so stupid as to allow a person rape any of us. Let's socially isolate actual survivors in totally clear conscience!
    *or far less often, "himself".

    But even the phrase "we're not so stupid as to allow a person to rape any of us" attributes far too much agency to the perpetrator, most pressingly by even admitting that if my friends or I were raped, there would necessarily exist a rapist. Let's rephrase it as "we're not so stupid as to let ourselves get raped", placing the onus right back on the victims. NOW we're cooking with rape culture.

    tl;dr: I completely agree that "self defense mechanism" is an illegitimate excuse.

  6. @ultione: For what it's worth, you and the other members of the Crush group were really very considerate about the whole thing. I mean, I used to tell rape jokes too (I tried to work through my guilt about that in my previous post on rape jokes).

    But these are current members of our frat who didn't stop after it happened and continued to defend their right to tell them-- not just around me, but telling these jokes to me, at me. Granted, I haven't heard any very recently, but I've also made a point of not being around these people and pointedly ignoring them if I have to be in their presence.

  7. Shiz, sorry, with my rape joke "joke" I did not mean to communicate any kind of judging of anyone besides 1) myself and 2) the people you're talking about who are assbutts when it comes to this topic. It was essentially my version of option #5 in the veneer of #2, stated as if I were part of the conversation with the actual rape joke(s) and responses. I included it because I've been thinking about that kind of thing a lot over the past couple weeks; your previous post on the subject (here for easy access) is a better telling than my (pithy?) comments here, especially as you actually describe how you have been working through the issues.

    I'd love to talk more house gossip and happenings regarding it being a safe space and such, but should probably take it off-list, to IM or real life or something.

  8. I think reasoning is probably too much to expect from people like those you're describing, but the anti-rape-joke argument that came to my mind while reading you post was this: would you tell a Polish joke around Polish people? No. Why? Not because Poles are stupid, or too sensitive, or whatever, but because it's offensive. Period, it's offensive. If that's not a good enough example, would you tell a n***** joke? Ever? You would damn well at least shut your mouth "in mixed company," even if you were a shitty enough person to make such jokes in private.

    Humor often lies on the line of acceptability (the it's funny because it's offensive, argument), and what happens with rape jokes is a disconnect over which side of the line they fall on. That line is the reality of the problem. It's only because our society is so negligent in its handling of rape that such things can exist and not be frowned upon as much as a n***** joke would be.

    Sorry to ramble, but your post got me thinking. Your blog is excellent- I'm really proud of you for taking this thing on so strongly and vocally. That takes a lot of strength (strength I personally haven't had), and really does help to make the world a less shame-filled place for survivors.

  9. @ Anonymous: I agree with your conclusion about how the line and society's handling of rape is the problem. Stopping rape jokes and trivial uses of the word rape to mean something else is only fixing the symptoms of a larger problem, unfortunately. :(

    And thank you-- I'm glad to hear that you think my blog is going in the right direction. I do hope it makes a difference for survivors, somehow.