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.