Revolution #276, July 29, 2012

Are Rape Jokes Ever Funny?

This is a slightly edited version of an article which first appeared on

For a week now, the web has been abuzz with controversy over a fucked up joke that comedian Daniel Tosh made at a stand-up comedy show. From what has been reported, he was on stage talking about rape jokes when a woman from the audience shouted out, "Rape jokes are never funny." At this point, Daniel Tosh replied, "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by, like five guys right now?"

No, Daniel Tosh, that would not be funny. Rape is a horrific, degrading, invasive and scarring act of violence. It is one of the most widespread and most destructive forms of violence against women.

Further, your joke about rape wasn't funny either. Not to people who care about the half of humanity who are born female.

It is very positive that a lot of people on the web and within the comedic community have argued this. One of my favorite responses is one where comedian Curtis Luciani paints a picture of a society where women cut off men's dicks and then asks the reader to imagine how fucked up it would be to then have a female make jokes about that on stage.

However, in the main, the terms of this controversy has been twisted. Instead of viewing this as a question of misogynist (woman-hating) jokes, many are treating this as a question of whether stand-up comedy should be censored or whether comedy should push the limits. Here is how the New YorkTimes put it: "Make no mistake: The reason there are so many rape jokes is that they work. As Mr. Tosh now knows, telling them carries a potential price, but so does changing the unfiltered, anything-for-a-laugh ethos of comedy clubs." (July 17, 2012)

No, the question isn't whether comedy should be free to push the limits and to offend people or whether things should be censored in order to "protect the audience from offense." Insisting that no one ever be offended would make for a very stultifying and sterile atmosphere and a very boring comedic realm! One of the great things about good comedy is the way it can make you look anew at things that you have long accepted—including many things which should be thrown in the dustpan of history. Think of George Carlin skewering belief in god or Richard Pryor's many routines that drew into sharp relief many of the daily abuses and degradations suffered by Black people, including constant police brutality.

The question which actually has to be focused up—and which is being obscured by the way the New York Times and many others are responding to this—is what is the content of the joke and, in broad strokes, who and what is an "offensive" joke offending? Is it offending those who are comfortable with the status quo of constant wars, social alienation, mass incarceration, the hunting down of immigrants and epidemic violence against women? Or, is it offending the victims of these crimes and those who understand how much damage they do?

When it comes specifically to rape, is the joke ridiculing and skewering the way that this culture has normalized violence and degradation against women or is the joke belittling women and reinforcing this violence and degradation? That could be very refreshing and potentially very funny. Or is the joke making light of the crime of rape and belittling and further blaming or shaming its victims?

I also reject the way that people are almost universally calling this woman who challenged Daniel Tosh a "heckler." Here's how defines heckle:

"to harass (a public speaker, performer, etc.) with impertinent questions, gibes, or the like; badger."

This woman was not harassing Daniel Tosh; she didn't insult him or say anything about his character. And her comments were not impertinent. She was acting with conscience and a lot of courage. In response, a noted comedian used his platform and skills to conjure up the specter of her being violently attacked and violated by five men before a whole public audience.

Where is the outcry about what this kind of humor does to stifle women who might otherwise dare to challenge a culture of misogyny? Where is the outcry about how the millions and millions and millions of women who are raped are sent the message in hundreds of ways—including through a "joke" like Mr. Tosh's—that it's "not that big a deal" and they should just "get over it"?

To return to a claim made by the New York Times, the reason why jokes that belittle or celebrate rape "work" (to those who find them funny) is because we live in a society with a big elephant in the room when it comes to rape and the oppression of women. On the one hand, there are real and oppressive power relations in which women are routinely violated, killed, beaten, demeaned, and degraded. On the other hand, we are told every day that women have "won their equality" and openly misogynist views are not acceptable in "polite company." In other words, there is a profound contradiction between the declared "equality of women" and the reality of grotesque and pervasive subjugation and degradation.

But, whether you find it funny to laugh about rape depends on your view of how this contradiction should be resolved. Should we abandon the idea that women should be equal and descend openly into the hatred of women? If you think this, you will find rape jokes very, very funny—particularly because you know how much they stab right at an open wound in the lives of women. Or, should we expose the hideous and oppressive conditions women are still locked in and fight to bring about real and full liberation? In this case, you will not find these jokes funny because you understand that men will never view women as fully human and women will never fully be able to lift their heads as long as misogyny is a cornerstone of the culture.

I will leave you with a short excerpt from a lengthy and incredibly deep and wide-ranging interview with Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party. A. Brooks (a younger generation revolutionary who conducted the interview) asked Bob Avakian about keeping his sense of humor through many decades in the revolutionary struggle. In his answer, BA not only points out what is wrong with the kind of humor I have been criticizing, but he also points to the need and tremendous basis for a far more liberating, uplifting and humor-filled culture as part of the fight to make revolution and emancipate humanity:

"If you're really going for the emancipation of all humanity, there is—look, life is full of things that are humorous. Now, different people think different things are funny, depending on their outlook. You know, someone will tell a racist joke, and you say, 'Hey, that's fucked up,' and they reply, 'It's just a joke.' No, it's not funny. It's not funny, because we understand the harm that does, and we understand the way in which that helps to reinforce centuries of brutal oppression. The same thing with sexist jokes. The same thing with jokes that degrade gay people. And so on. They're harmful. They reinforce oppression. So different groups of people think different things are funny, or not funny, depending on their outlook and their aspirations—what kind of world, to put it simply, they want to see and they're striving for. But, in any case, certainly those of us who are striving for a world free of exploitation and oppression and antagonistic conflicts among the mass of humanity should be able to—and should naturally, in a certain sense—find lots to laugh about, and lots to give expression to in humor and in other forms of lively culture, even while we're deadly serious."


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