English: A Sennheiser Microphone

English: A Sennheiser Microphone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are not a comedian, you may not have heard about a debate swirling like a tsunami of controversy all over the internet.  Is it ever OK to tell a rape joke?  Is it acceptable if the subject of the joke is the rape victim?

This whole thing started about a year ago at Laugh Factory during a set by Daniel Tosh.  A heckler responded to several rape jokes in a row by shouting at that stage, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny.”

Tosh snapped back with, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got gang raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now?  Wouldn’t it be funny if a bunch of guys just raped her?.”

One thing every comedian should remember: nowadays most of the audience have some type of recording device in their hands and can share any joke or interaction with the world.  Comedy sets intended only for a small live audience can now go viral. This is not going to change anytime soon.  I am not a fan of things being taken out of context, or sets being uploaded to youtube without a comedian’s permission, but that is the world we live in.  In this case, Tosh’s interaction spread to the internet.  He eventually apologized saying his words were taken out of context.  Lindy West at Jezebel.com wrote the following article regarding the incident, How to Make a Rape Joke

To directly quote West:

In case this isn’t perfectly clear yet: You can say whatever you want.  You can say whatever you want. You can say whatever you want. You can say whatever you want.  You can say whatever you want.

In fact several times in her article she writes to the effect of, “You (comedians) can say whatever you want.”

West also goes on to show 4 clips of comedians telling rape jokes she thinks actually work – in each case the victim is not the subject of the joke.

Then this May, West wrote the another article about the topic, An Open Letter to White Male Comedians,

Jokes” about rape and gendered violence are treated like an inevitability instead of a choice; like they’re beyond questioning; like they’re somehow equally sacred alongside women’s actual humanity and physical sanctity. When women complain,however civilly, they’re met with condescension, dismissal, and the tacit (or, often, explicit) message that this is not yours, you are not welcome here. It’s fucked up, you guys. And I’m saying that as a friend with the best intentions.”
 
“Please. You are not being silenced. There is no “thought police.” Your freedom of speech is firmly intact. You are a member of the single most powerful political bloc on earth. Your voices and your perspectives saturate nearly all media. You are fine. We are just having a conversation about your art, and your art is what you care about the most, right? Right?”

Recently West participated in a live debate with comedian Jim Norton about the subject of rape in comedy.  Here is the link: Totally Biased: Extended Talk with Jim Norton and Lindy West

West said a lot of things in the debate but never once called for censorship.  The reaction on the internet was the following.

  • She received threatening emails and tweets
  • Many attacked her personally including her weight and appearance
  • Many comments were sexually threatening

Here is a link to West actually reading some of the threats out loud.

If Comedy Has No Lady Problem, Why am I getting so many Rape Threats?

It all seems like a circular argument.  If comedians want freedom of expression, they have to remember it’s not just a one way street.  Audience members can complain, heckle, boo, walk out, or blog about a joke they found offensive.  Everyone has a right to their opinion.  It is not if holding a microphone makes anyone immune to criticism.  Anyone who works as a stand-up comedian knows an audience will shout out whatever they want during anyone’s set.  The behavior is rude, but it has been around as long as stand-up has existed.  If anything our current navel-gazing lifestyle of Facebook, twitter and blogs has made things worse.

The men threatening West with rape and other sexual violence are actually giving her fuel for her side of the argument.  It is difficult to claim that rape jokes are not endorsing rape, and then turn around and use rape language to physically threaten and intimidate another person.  For all their cries of censorship they are basically trying to silence their critic through bullying tactics and degrading language.  Speech does have power – powerful rhetoric has swayed entire nations to do all sorts of wonderful and horrible things.  Many have paid the ultimate price for exercising their right to free speech and speaking out against those who might harm them.

Comedians are just like anyone else with an opinion.  Politicians face repercussions when they say something that offends people, as do actors, musicians, authors, pundits, and anyone else who voices their opinion publicly.  Instead of trying to ridicule and intimidate the random critic, a comedian should instead listen to their audience.  If night after night they are getting groans, hecklers and boos after a joke – instead of patting themselves on the back and telling themselves they are an edgy genius.  Perhaps they should reconsider the joke.  After all a white comedian can walk into a black comedy club and do nothing but a set of racially charged material but they run the risk of getting booed off the stage.  Women also have every right to respond in kind to a joke they think is not funny or inappropriate.

If we want true free speech we have to take it all forms.  A comedian can make rape jokes, and a blogger can write a critique of those jokes.  A disagreement should not result in intimidation or physical threats.  If a person has to resort to commenting on someone’s appearance, or threatening their physical safety – they don’t know how to make a point, and they don’t know how to debate.  West was never threatening any comedian with physical assault, or rape.  She wasn’t even calling for censorship.  Even West’s opponent in the debate, Jim Norton, has condemned the threats towards West as disgusting.  If white male comedians wanted to prove that they aren’t misogynistic and immature they just accomplished the opposite.  Since I work in comedy I know that these men are the exception, not the rule, but their treatment of West, is making the everyone in comedy look bad.

For instance in my article about Adam Carolla: Adam Carolla So Women Aren’t Funny?. I never once made a nasty comment about him personally, and I certainly didn’t wish for him any physical harm.  I simply disagreed with his point of view, and tried to make my best argument using specific examples.  I don’t know him, he is probably a lovely human being and I assume he is an excellent father.  The debate was about ideas, not about tearing him apart.

If a comedian is really confident in their material they shouldn’t care about a random blogger.  Comedians are always going to have critics.  The best way to deal with our critics is to prove them wrong by getting laughs on stage.  So grab those microphones and go for it.  If you have rape jokes in your set, then make those rape jokes!  Just don’t freak out if someone in your audience or a blogger dares to criticize you for it.  Freedom of speech goes both ways – get used to it!

One comment on “Rape Jokes: The Freedom of Expression goes both ways

  1. scubalass

    You are one of my heroes, Juliet. I don’t always have time to respond to you, but your blog is intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, and courageous. Carry on, girlfriend! Love you!!!

    Ellen Sent from my iPhone

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