How Humor Intersects with Rape Culture

Sexual assault is an epidemic, and its roots are wide and far-reaching. We find them in media, in social interactions, and around our own dinner tables. One of the most difficult aspects of rape culture to combat is the way we talk about sexual assault. The words we use, the jokes we make, the way we assume intent, and how we trivialize harmful attitudes enable rape culture. Humor is an especially pervasive tool that is weaponized against survivors and belittles the horrible reality of sexual assault.

When rape jokes appear on television or are uttered by comedians – even if the intention is to lighten a mood – they only contribute to the trauma and misunderstanding that survivors have to deal with already. Insinuations that survivors, usually women, “can’t take a joke” are harmful and unacceptable. Rape jokes are never funny, and sexist forms of humor that belittle women and women’s choices – especially in sexual situations (for example, the “that’s what she said” joke) – contribute to the foundation of rape culture. The only remedy is for people to make it clear that such jokes are harmful and wholly unjustifiable.


Is it really “Just a Joke?”

Language is a foundational part of the pyramid of rape culture. It forms the way we think about important issues and the vocabulary we use to express harmful or positive ideas. When rape jokes are an accepted part of language, they excuse and minimize the horrific reality of sexual assault. When someone makes a joke about sexual assault, statistically, a survivor of sexual assault is highly likely to hear it. When they do, it only serves to convey that rape is not considered a serious issue in society. When we laugh at rape, we push survivors further into the shadows and delay justice from being served.

Another important notion about using rape as a humorous device is that it is almost always wielded in jokes by the very people who benefit from rape culture. There are cases of survivors using humor as a mechanism to combat and dismantle rape culture, but their efforts are ignored. Instead of ridiculing and tearing down the culture that makes rape permissible, comedians and others ridicule those whose lives have been irreparably damaged by rape. Clearly there is a productive way to engage with rape culture with humor, and a way that perpetuates it.


Responding to Rape Jokes

If someone you know or encounter makes a rape joke, the appropriate response, if it is safe for you to do so, is to confront them and explain why such jokes are unacceptable. The term “rape” has found its way into online cultures and is wielded as a way to exercise power over others in a group, or a way to express that someone has been bested or overpowered in social activities, and so on. When we try to take the concept of rape and put it into different contexts, we are opening the door for more people to believe that sexual assault is not an awful reality for many, but a simple joke or innocuous phrase with no repercussions.

We all have a responsibility to show that the words we use matter, and those who joke about sexual violence need to be held accountable for the way they contribute to rape culture. As a prime example of this, the comedian Louis C.K., who has made many rape jokes over the course of his career, was accused of sexual misconduct in late 2017. Confronting rape jokes is an act of dismantling rape culture, since people who make rape jokes are likely to be people who don’t understand consent and have unhealthy ideas about power and violence. Changing ideas is essential to changing culture.

At the Survivors Justice Center, we are committed to providing resources and free legal services to victims of sexual violence. We fight to give power back to survivors and give them the justice they deserve. You can help us develop resources and support survivors with a small donation here.


How Sexual Predators Use Grooming Techniques to Prey on Victims’ Trust

The sheer magnitude of disgraced doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse rocked USA Gymnastics and grabbed headlines all over the world.  Over the course of two decades, Nassar routinely sexually abused hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of young women under the guise of necessary medical treatment. And it all happened under the noses of parents, coaches, and higher ups at the organization.

Twenty years. Hundreds of lives affected. Dreams shattered.

As Nassar and various USAG higher-ups continue to face criminal charges, one question continues to linger on: Just how did he get away with it for so long?

Nassar did what so many predators do: He discovered his victims’ vulnerabilities, gained their trust, and then began abusing them. Nassar used grooming techniques on his victims and their families by pretending to be an advocate for the athletes, buying presents for children and their parents from his Olympic travels, and painting himself as someone the gymnasts could trust. When survivors of his abuse eventually spoke up, Nassar had already tricked those in the position to stop him into believing he was a good guy and a concerned doctor. And the cycle continued for decades.

Sexual predators like Nassar use grooming to camouflage themselves as a true friend to victims and their families and ultimately use that relationship to buy victims’ compliance – and their silence.


Anyone Can Be Groomed

While the conversation about grooming is often centered on children, the reality is that anyone can fall prey predatory behavior. Grooming has more to do with insecurities, culture, and exploiting trust than with age.

In addition to those being abused, sexual predators work hard to gain the trust of families to quell any suspicions about inappropriate behavior and reduce the likelihood that a victim would be believed if they told. By befriending parents, predators build up enough social capital that adults couldn’t fathom that someone they know, like, and trust could possibly hurt their child.  In Nassar’s case, his first known victim was the daughter of his closest friends – and when she told her parents about the abuse, they believed Nassar’s denials.


Grooming Builds Over Time

Grooming is a slow process that grows over time, with abusers first building up a friendship before engaging in sexual misconduct.

Sex offenders first work to gain trust by gathering information and then using it to encourage their victim to let their guard down. Nassar would use food to groom gymnasts. As the team doctor, he was aware of the strict diets to which the gymnasts were forced to adhere. He used the one thing they couldn’t have – candy – to show them he was “one of the good guys,” an adult they could trust not to tattle on them for breaking the rules.

Once this initial trust is established, predators will then test boundaries using seemingly everyday behaviors layered with inappropriate undertones: tasteless jokes, a lingering touch on the arm, sharing secrets about their own lives. As the behavior continues, things slowly start to escalate until eventually, the methodical grooming process desensitizes victims to a point that they may not even realize it when those behaviors cross a line into sexual abuse.


Blurred Lines

Sexual offenders use the grooming process to intentionally blur the lines around inappropriate and “normal” behavior. The end result of these blurred lines is that victims may instinctively feel like something isn’t right, but their relationship to the person hurting them may cause them to question their intuition or even make excuses for the behavior.

At its core, grooming is a means for predators to protect themselves by weaponizing trust and preying on false senses of security. Victims are left questioning their own thoughts and feeling powerless to stop someone their own family may trust. But, by educating children, parents, schools, and law enforcement on how predators use grooming to exploit their victims, we can change the conversation around sexual abuse.

At the Survivors Justice Center, we fight to give power back to survivors and help them get the justice they deserve.


When Men Are Victims of Sexual Assault

Every 98 seconds, a person in America is sexually assaulted. And when we discuss the sexual assault epidemic in this country, the conversation centers often on the stories of female survivors. While it is true that the majority of sexual assault survivors are women, that by no means exempts men from experiencing sexual violence.

According to The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), one in 71 men will be raped in their lives, and one in six men will experience some form of sexual violence. While the numbers for women are double this or more, there is no acceptable sexual assault statistic. Until all of these numbers are zero, we cannot stop fighting for survivors, no matter their gender.

The victimization of men is one critically overlooked or minimized point in this conversation on sexual assault, and the numbers for these cases are often higher than commonly believed. Rape culture manifests in different ways for different genders, and we who advocate for survivors must never prioritize justice for one group over justice for all.


Examining the Gender Divide

Though in this conversation on sexual assault, the fear of false accusations against men is widely asserted, men are actually more likely to be raped than falsely accused of rape. As stated by the NSVRC, one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. And while sexual assault is severely under-reported in general, men report their attacks even less than women.

An important distinction to make in this discussion, especially when rape culture is concerned, is that while the majority of assaults are committed by men, men are also victimized, and the harmful culture that has developed from this is just as detrimental to the well-being of men as to women. Rape culture teaches men to wield sexual violence as power, and this has devastating effects on our understanding of masculinity and autonomy. “Being a man” is often conflated with being violent or predatory, and so when men are victimized, it damages their sense of masculinity or self.

The discussion of masculinity and its ties to predatory behavior needs to be brought into the conversation of femininity and its ties to victimhood. Masculinity does not predicate sexual violence, and femininity does not predicate being a victim of sexual violence, but both of these concepts are inextricably tangled in rape culture.


The Experience of Male Victims

Harmful gender stereotypes have a hand in every side of the discussion on sexual assault. Girls and boys are raised and socialized to view sexual encounters differently, and those socializations follow them throughout their lives. Analysis has shown that 46% of male survivors have reported female perpetrators, 89% of boys in juvenile facilities were abused by female staff members, and 79% of self-reported gay male victims were attacked by members of the same sex. Clearly, the discussion of victimization by gender needs to shift its focus.

While the discourse for female victims has become very clear, male victims don’t share the same focus. The notion that “real men” could fight off a sexual attack and the proliferation of jokes about rape in prison are just a few examples that add to the trivialization of male rape victims’ experiences. The thought that men can’t be raped at all is still rampant, and to combat it we must change the way we discuss predatory behaviors and power dynamics between the genders.

A male sexual assault survivor is no less traumatized by their attack than a female survivor, and their assault is by no means less deserving of justice. By masking the victimization of men, socializing them to associate sexual situations with power, and mocking their trauma, our society has only worsened the problem.

A broader discussion on various gender dynamics and how they function in rape culture is sorely needed in this country. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people also experience a different side of this issue, and treating their experiences as outliers is also counterproductive.

At Survivors Justice Center, we understand that sexual violence has no gender, and we work with survivors of all genders to hold their perpetrators accountable and start the healing process.