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Are Rape Jokes Ever Funny?

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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 I can gather, he was apparently talking about rape jokes in his routine and a woman from the audience shouted out, "Rape jokes are never funny." To which he 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 and degrading and invasive and scarring act of violence against women. It is one of the most wide-spread and most destructive forms of violence against women.

Further, your joke about five men raping her wasn't funny either. Not to people who truly care about the well-being and lives of the half of humanity who is born female.

Fortunately, a lot of people on the web and within the comedic community have argued this. One of my favorite responses is this one:

However, in the main, this controversy is being twisted into a question of whether stand-up comedy should be censored or free to push the limits. Here is how the NYTimes put it today:

" 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."

No, the question isn't whether comedy should be free to push the limits and to offend people or whether things should be censored or curtailed in order to "protect the audience from offense." That 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 but which should be cast off. 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 Times and much of the comedic world is 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?

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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?

In the specific case of Daniel Tosh being challenged by a woman in the audience who said that, "Rape jokes are never funny," many good comedians who have a sense of the trauma and terror inflicted upon millions and millions of women who have experienced rape and the way that the fear of rape stalks every woman throughout her entire life could have found any number of humorous ways to respond that directed their spear of ridicule against the culture of misogyny rather than the woman with the courage to speak up against it. That actually might have been funny.

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

" 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.

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Why is there no 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 what happens to the millions and millions and millions of women who have been raped and who will be raped who are sent the message hundreds of times a day -- including through a "joke" like Mr. Tosh's -- that its "not that big a deal" and they should just "get over it"?

To return to a claim made by the NYTimes, the reason why jokes which belittle or celebrate rape "work" (to those who find them funny) is because there actually are real and oppressive power relations in which women are routinely violated, killed, beaten, demeaned, and degraded and this is in contradiction to the thin veil of "equality for women" which has supposedly been won. There IS a contradiction here, 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 a very sensitive spot for 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. BA answers, in part:

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Sunsara Taylor is a writer for Revolution Newspaper and sits on the Advisory Board of The World Can't Wait.

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Gawd, I had no idea that anyone would be so crude ... by Jill Herendeen on Wednesday, Jul 18, 2012 at 11:57:57 AM
Jill, I think you will find that a woman can bring... by John Haigh on Thursday, Jul 19, 2012 at 9:27:20 AM
The one exception seems to be prison rape.The nigh... by Douglas Aerie on Thursday, Jul 19, 2012 at 7:05:55 AM
Despite the question mark in the title, how did I ... by John Haigh on Thursday, Jul 19, 2012 at 8:15:57 AM
Ad hominem comments really don't move an argument ... by John Haigh on Thursday, Jul 19, 2012 at 1:14:19 PM
... Lorena Bobbit had run across the stage and cut... by Meryl Ann Butler on Thursday, Jul 19, 2012 at 10:25:32 AM